As “Are You Down?” (on view through January 7, 2024) makes clear, Michael Richards, who died in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, was an artist ahead of his time. He focused his practice on Black identity and social injustice, often using casts of his own body to invest the work with personal and political meaning.
Richards’s early installations, represented in this small retrospective by photographs and videos, consider the vulnerable status of the Black male body. Same Old Song and Dance (1992), originally installed in two adjacent windows outside the Grey Art Gallery at New York University, recalls lynching, minstrelsy, and blackface. In one window, four dangling Michael Jackson-like bodies turn beneath a half-raised red velvet curtain; 12 disembodied heads spin in the opposite direction in the second space. Still startling some 30 years later, this installation introduced the leitmotif of Richards’s work—theatricality accompanied by an intimation of the spectacle of racial violence.
A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo (1994), Richards’s response to the beating of Rodney King, juxtaposes four busts, their faces masked by photo-transfer images of policemen, with a slowly turning fifth bust, set between the others and bearing an image of King’s swollen face on its forehead (all of the busts were cast from Richards’s head). Climbing Jacob’s Ladder (He Lost His Head) (1994) brings together texts, casts of disembodied feet and heads, and the title reference to the biblical Jacob’s Ladder to offer a dialogue on faith and failure, earthbound struggle and the desire for success.
Richards’s later sculptures focus on flight and aviation, combining malleable materials with references to historical figures, saints, folklore, and song to explore themes of ascension and transformation, freedom and escape, entanglement and descent. In Escape Plan 76 (Brer Plane in the Brier Patch) (1996), airplanes fashioned from wax, resin, and rubber wrapped in barbed wire and displayed on the floor seem forlorn, lost, or abandoned. Air Fall 1 (His Eye Is on the Sparrow, and I Know He’s Watching Me) (1997) involves an even more dramatic presentation as 50 small planes made from hair, latex, and wax plummet from a hair cloud toward a spiral mirror that reflects the nosedive back upwards, linking destruction and despair with hope and faith. The title, taken from a hymn by Civilla Martin, makes the implication clear.
Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian (1999), one of Richards’s most direct pieces, alludes to the Tuskegee airmen, who, despite their service as the first African American pilots in the U.S. military, faced racism and discrimination, and to the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment in which Black men were tracked but not treated for the disease. Casting himself as a Tuskegee pilot assailed by Mustang fighter planes, Richards conflates the early Christian martyr Saint Sebastian, who although pierced with arrows did not die, with the tar and turpentine baby from Uncle Remus stories to create a powerful articulation of the contested state of the Black male body. In Free F’All (1997), Richards’s airman, covered with nails like a Congolese nkisi nkondi power figure, stands on a high plinth as if about to take a leap, and in Are You Down? (2000), three identical pilots (again casts of the artist) seated on the ground invite us to “get down” with them, continuing Richards’s exploration of loss and the desire for transcendence. Seeing Richards’s many prescient sculptures, which continue to inspire many years after his death, one wonders what his response might have been to these Black Lives Matter times.