Over the past couple of days, Blogger Tyler Green has had a series of posts about art produced after 9/11 that tried to come to grips with the event. Interesting idea. Let me throw in one candidate not mentioned by him so far, especially because it’s very effectiveness caused it so many problems. Five years ago Eric Fischl showed a sculpture called Tumbling Woman for less than a week in the underground arcade of Rockefeller Center. (Jerry Speyer, the chairman of the board of trustees of the Museum of Modern Art, is one of the two founding partners of Tishman Speyer, the real estate holding company that owns the Center, so for years now contemporary art has been a regular part of the public program there.) It was supposed to be there longer, but a few complaints from the public and a nasty and opportunistic column in Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post led to its being removed on the grounds that it was too disturbing.
Was it? Or was it just disturbing enough? Plainly, it was meant to suggest a figure falling through the air, like one of the many people who jumped to their death that day. Fischl said repeatedly, as if it needed saying at all, that he meant the work as a tribute to the thousands who suffered and died. As a work of art, it was in some ways a conventional figure, a bronze that even seemed to refer deliberately by its pose to the Aristide Maillol’s The River, a statue from the early 1940s that reclines voluptuously just a few blocks away in MoMa’s sculpture garden.
The difference of course is that Maillol’s woman is a symbol of contentment. She luxuriates in the sun. Fischl’s woman simply plummets. She’s a figure of anguish, and she’s upside down, a posture that our body tries instantly, and uncomfortably, to connect to. An inverted human figure is universally understood in our very nerve endings as a sign of something wrong. That’s one reason they’re so rare in art, and when you do find them it’s likely to be in a work like Rodin’s Gates of Hell, where one of the damned tumbles backward and out from the door.
By itself, Fischl’s statue would never be an adequate monument to 9/11, but it was never intended as that. It was intended as an attempt to capture one important aspect of the day, which was human suffering, and it did that in a representational, irony-free visual language that a broad public could understand and respond to. If it made some people uncomfortable, it was supposed to do that too. Pain is something art can speak to, but sometimes it has to do it in the language of pain.