Curators Alex Fialho and Melissa Levin on rediscovering Michael Richards’ work

Jan. 31, 2019, 12:45 a.m.

“Michael Richards: Winged” opened at the Stanford Art Gallery on January 22. The exhibition explores the life and work of artist Michael Richards, who was born in Brooklyn in 1963 and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. Richards achieved renown in the New York art world during the 1990s. His work focused on questions of identity and assimilation, made extensive use of allusion and featured aviation imagery. In 2001, Richards participated in an artist-in-residence program called World Views, sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and based in the World Trade Center. Tragically, Richards was in his studio on the 92nd floor of Tower One on September 11 and passed away in the attacks that day.

“Michael Richards: Winged” is the first exhibit of Richards’ work in California and was made possible with the support of the Department of Art & Art History, Office of the President, Office of the Vice President for the Arts, Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, the Denning Family, V. Joy Simmons, MD, Institute for Diversity in the Arts and Stanford Live. Managing editor Amir Abou-Jaoude talked with curators Alex Fialho and Melissa Levin about the genesis of the show, the particulars of Richards’ artistic practice and the continued relevance of his work.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Alex, you are a Stanford alumnus. Could you talk a little bit about your life after graduation? How did your experiences at Stanford affect your work on this project?

Alex Fialho (AF): I graduated from Stanford in 2011 with an Art History degree, moved to New York City the week afterwards and have been working there ever since. “Michael Richards: Winged” is one of the most significant projects I’ve worked on since graduating. It’s exciting to travel the exhibition to campus and to consider the ways that we can engage Stanford and the Bay Area with Michael Richards’ art and legacy. The academic community at Stanford was really important to me in my formative years. I wrote my honors thesis on the art of Glenn Ligon, a contemporary artist who makes political and poetic work. That feels relevant to Richards’ practice. And I actually published my first art review ever in 2010 about an exhibition at the Stanford Art Gallery, so it’s really meaningful to be back in the space with “Michael Richards: Winged.” I’ve also been involved with the Stanford Arts Advisory Council for over five years, and in that context I’ve come to know Roberta Denning, former chair of the council, and Professors Harry Elam and Michele Elam. We all became excited about the possibility of traveling the exhibition to Stanford after touring it together at LMCC’s exhibition space at Governors Island in 2016. This feels like the culmination of a multiyear project with an immense amount of support. It’s exciting that it’s finally here.

Melissa Levin (ML): I was an Art and Art History major at Barnard College. My academic context was highly influential on my worldview and professional life. I worked at an organization called Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC) for 12 years, and I oversaw all the artist residencies and public programming there. Michael’s story had always been connected to LMCC. He was participating in LMCC’s World Views artist residency program, which took place in the World Trade Center starting in 1997. He was in his studio on the 92nd floor of Tower One that morning [on September 11, 2001] and tragically passed away. Even though we had some familiarity with Michael and his legacy, no one had really done a deep and detailed dive into his life and work in the intervening period. In early 2016 when we embarked on the project, it was that connection through LMCC and some other threads that we knew about Michael, which prompted us to go further into the work and see what we could find.

TSD: Why do you find Richards’ work so compelling?

ML & AF: First and foremost, the work is incredibly visually powerful. Considering Michael as an artist, thinking about his facility with sculpture and drawing is an enormous initial interest. As we looked into his artistic practice, the more we learned about him and the many references he brought into his work, the more interested we became. Richards makes references that range from Greek mythology to Judeo-Christian traditions to African and African-American folktales to hip-hop and the politics of the 1990s.

Of course, there’s also the really intense relationship of Michael’s interest in aviation and flight and the way he tragically passed away on September 11. For a lot of people, that piques their interest in his practice. Yet when we started the project, the 9/11 narrative was really the dominant narrative around Michael’s work. Very little of the work was actually available to view or read about online. Most of the discussion about his artistic practice centered on his best-known artwork “Tar Baby vs. Saint Sebastian,” so that became a way in for us. From there, we became increasingly engaged with the broad range of Michael’s art and the ways that he’s thinking through aviation and flight and escape in the context of systemic and ongoing oppression, particularly in the context of diasporic Black communities. We also became interested in including Michael’s own voice in the exhibition. We found artist statements and interviews with him discussing these themes powerfully and poignantly, which became a central way for us to understand Michael’s practice and perspective. Bringing all of this into the exhibition felt important, and extensive quotes are included in the wall labels, and Michael’s artist statement is displayed.

We ended up talking a lot about poetics and politics, which is language that certainly comes through and is communicated by many of the works.

TSD: Could you talk more about “Tar Baby vs. Saint Sebastian”? As you’re saying, that piece seems to encapsulate many of the themes found throughout his oeuvre.

ML & AF: “Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian,” from 1999, is certainly his best-known sculpture, and it is a really incredible work of art. It brings together a lot of themes, concepts, materials and imagery that Michael was invested in, including the Tuskegee Airmen, who were the first African-American pilots in the U.S. military, the story of Saint Sebastian, a martyred Christian saint who is depicted often throughout history, and also the narrative of Tar Baby, which comes from the Brer Rabbit folktales. The Tar Baby story is actually derived from African and African-American folklore and retold by the author Joel Chandler Harris through a character named Uncle Remus. It’s an incredibly charged story. These three narratives come together in “Tar Baby vs. Saint Sebastian,” which formally is a sculpture cast from Michael’s whole body. The figure in the sculpture is wearing a Tuskegee Airman uniform, cast out of resin fiberglass and painted gold to mimic bronze or gold sculpture. His torso is pierced by 18 toy airplanes. His eyes are closed, and his hands are gently by his sides. The sculpture is on a stand, so he appears to be levitating when you look at him. It was a beacon in many ways for us throughout this process, but it’s been really incredible to better understand Michael’s broader body of work, and expand both our and the public’s knowledge of the rest of the sculptural and drawing work and Michael’s artistic practice. For example, we learned that he often sculpted his own body, whether in full or in parts, casting his head or his arms. Airplanes play a role throughout the work. They appear in “Airfall #1” and “Escape Plan 76.” The Tuskegee Airmen reappear in different works like “Are You Down” and “The Great Black Airmen,” which features helmets covered in hair and which is also in the exhibition.

TSD: Richards certainly has a unique artistic practice and uses unconventional materials. What were some of the challenges you faced in showcasing this diverse but previously neglected body of work?

ML & AF: We are immensely grateful to Dawn Dale, Michael’s cousin. She stored the material for over 15 years. Until we came in 2016 to start the conversation with her about an exhibition, the works were packed away in boxes. We started that process by going to her home and opening the boxes in January 2016 and just starting to understand what still existed from Michael’s body of work to potentially be shown in an exhibition. Then, we started to speak to a lot of people who knew him in his lifetime — curators, artists, friends — who provided invaluable perspective about Michael’s particular stakes and communities in New York City and beyond. That pointed us to places like the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Bronx Museum of the Arts, where Michael had residencies and was supported in his lifetime as an artist. Some of our research in those places revealed slide archives of images of his work that we used to reconstruct the sculptures that are in the show. Michael created complex sculptural work, so we often found works in multiple pieces. The curatorial process was like putting together a puzzle, and of course, without having Michael physically there to guide us, we just had to figure out how the parts fit together. On top of that, at certain points it took different types of expertise, whether that was expert carpenters, art handlers, conservators or electricians, who figured out how certain elements functioned. Specifically, we worked with conservator Eugene Milroy, who did a fantastic job of restoring a lot of the sculptures. We worked with incredible art handling and installation teams, led by Grayson Cox who has really been helpful in reconstituting these sculptures that had not been shown for almost two decades.

TSD: You’ve done a brilliant job of reconstituting Richards’ oeuvre. You mentioned that this is the first time his work has been shown in California. Why is it important for Californians, and particularly people within the Stanford community, to engage with Richards’ work now?

ML & AF: It’s exciting to be thinking about the work in an academic context like Stanford because of the really layered references in Michael’s work. The interdisciplinary aspects of a place like Stanford and the academic brilliance of campus can bring new understanding to Michael’s art.

Considerations of “a society which denies blackness even as it affirms,” to quote Michael’s artist statement, are important to the ways in which Michael was processing his experience as an immigrant in America and as a black man in the United States. These issues are still, of course, pressing and urgent in our contemporary moment. Michael’s work addresses racism head on with works about police brutality — specifically the beating of Rodney King and the LA riots of 1992 — as well as blackface performance, fallen monuments, histories and the contemporary ramifications of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the Middle Passage. Michael engages all of this and more in his practice as he’s contending with these histories and legacies in his body of work.

In particular, he explores these issues via his own body. In his practice and in his artist statements, he says he uses his body as a surrogate for conveying this experience. When we see imagery of a face, it’s his face. If there’s a hand, it’s his fingers.

Michael is a really skilled and exciting artist, who has been underrepresented and under-known in Art History. We’ve been excited to be a part of this return to his art, to think about the lessons that we can learn from the body of work.

In the context of Stanford, we are especially looking forward to gathering scholars, artists, students and the public together on Friday, February 8, for “Flight, Diaspora, Identity and Afterlife: A Symposium on the Art of Michael Richards.” Nine Stanford professors — Harry Elam, Michele Elam, Alexander Nemerov, Richard Meyer, Marci Kwon, Jennifer Brody, Jonathan Calm, Jakeya Caruthers and Rose Salseda — are speaking from departments including the Art and Art History Department, Modern Thought and Literature, Theater and Performance Studies, the Program for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, African and African-American Studies and more. This is a testament to the ways that Michael’s work opened out to a broad audience and a wide range of interests. More pointedly, he deals with pressing concerns around racial inequity and social injustice, and that makes it an essential body of work to be thinking about in this moment, artistically and also in the bigger picture — culturally and historically.

For more information about the February 8 symposium, see here. This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Contact Amir Abou-Jaoude at amir2 ‘at’

Login or create an account