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Telling Outpouring by City Artists After Terrorist Attacks

Immediately after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Americans responded with an outpouring of art. Much of it was impromptu and transitory, driven by an impulse to eulogize the murdered, the missing, and the heroic.

This was understandable, because in times of crisis people often turn to art to explain the incomprehensible, assuage inconsolable grief, and affirm confidence in the ultimate triumph of sanity and goodness.

This 9/11 art, much of it photographic, resonated at the time because the events were still fresh in collective memory. However, as months passed and the trade-center site was cleared, the impulse to reflect on this catastrophe through art became less common.

This was to be expected, because the full magnitude of 9/11, particularly the complex political and doctrinal agenda behind the attacks, can't readily be summarized or explained in single static images. It's a rare artist who can reduce unimaginable horror and destruction to images the mind can grasp and digest.

Over the last four years, artists have been relatively quiet on the subject. A few years ago, a sculpture made from twisted and scorched steel beams salvaged from the World Trade Center was displayed in Philadelphia's 30th Street Station. It was less a sculpture than a sanctified relic, like a fragment of the true cross meant to inspire piety and remembrance.

The most inspired piece of 9/11 art was the twin beams of intense light projected into the sky from ground zero in the spring of 2002. "Tribute in Light" was a contemporary variation on the eternal flames that flicker at hallowed grave sites. Especially for the most profound tragedies, the simplest memorials remain the most poignant and resistant to misinterpretation.

Television and photography dominated the visual documentation of 9/11, which is both natural and appropriate. It was a real-time event best recorded by time-sensitive media. Amateurs and professionals made thousands of photographs, many of which were exhibited at an impromptu gallery in Lower Manhattan in the fall of 2001.

Now, one of the pioneers of large-scale color photography, Joel Meyerowitz, has produced a massive book ("Aftermath: World Trade Center Archive," Phaidon, $75) that documents the clearing of the mass of rubble from ground zero. Many of his crisp view-camera images are strikingly detailed; some are surreal in the way sections of the ruined towers suggest the magnificence of the whole.

Yet, even with 400 photographs made over nine months, Meyerowitz isn't able to capture the magnitude of the destruction or the outrageousness of the act that created it. Perhaps only the last sequence of images, showing a huge hole, suggests the improbable dimensions of the calamity.

New York artist Todd Stone photographed the actual attack on 9/11 from his studio window a few blocks north of the trade center. In 2002, he translated his photos into large watercolors, which are on view at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa., through Nov. 5. Stone created this suite of 15 images as a memorial to the victims. Yet, in translating photos into watercolor paintings he has inevitably romanticized the event. Awe and terror have been replaced by sanitized aestheticism.

An exhibition that opens at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Friday suggests that much of the most authentic and effective art about 9/11 has been created spontaneously by ordinary Americans.

The show comprises 100 color photographs by Jonathan Hyman of Bethel, N.Y. Over five years, Hyman photographed about 15,000 spontaneous commemorations of 9/11 that he came across in his travels, mainly outdoor murals painted on buildings, but also other types of displays and even personal tattoos.

Hyman describes these memorials as "a unique and wide-ranging expression of a new kind of American folk art, a public conversation about the attacks of 9/11." After the attacks, "there was an incredible outpouring of vernacular expression, of grief, sorrow, anger and hope," he said. He regards this intersection of private emotion and public testimony as "a rare moment in American history."

I suspect that Hyman is right, that this largely anonymous folk art will turn out to be the most meaningful form of catharsis to result from America's second Pearl Harbor.