Art in Heaven

Michael Richards

"May he rest in peace," were the ominous words in the subject line of the e-mail North Miami art gallery owner Genaro Ambrosino sent on September 17. The "he" referred to Michael Richards, Ambrosino's friend and one of the artists he represented. Only a week before, Richards had been sculpting away into the wee hours in his studio in the sky on the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center. The space had been his reward for five months as a recipient of a World Views fellowship from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. The next day, Tuesday, September 11, the artist was one of thousands missing in the rubble of two architectural icons. The e-mail on September 17 extinguished all hope. A few days later the victims list finally read, "Richards, Michael, 38, sculptor, WTC, confirmed dead." As a tribute to Richards, the Miami Art Museum is displaying his sculpture Winged (1999). Last fall Richards's work had been included in the group show "Passages: Contemporary Art in Transition," which originated at The Studio Museum in Harlem and traveled to MAM. His art, which often addressed the contradictions of being black in America, is rife with elements of flight, soaring, escape -- namely from the material world of everyday cruelness we repeatedly perpetrate against each other. One particularly striking and eerie piece is Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian (1999), an homage to the black Tuskeegee airmen of World War II, whose heroism in battle eventually led to the integration of the United States Air Force. A gilded pilot in full flight garb stands tall and proud as his upper body is pierced by several model airplanes.

Some of Richards's friends in Miami reminisce about him:

"He was just wonderful. His work was exciting, his concepts were exciting. He knew he had the capability of being a major name, and he worked toward that. I found him an extremely nice person to be around and very, very brilliant. His legacy is primarily the people he touched rather than the work, because not that much of the work got out there." -- Richard Shack, collector, curator, and arts patron

Winged (1999) by artist Michael Richards, on display at the Miami Art Museum
Winged (1999) by artist Michael Richards, on display at the Miami Art Museum

"He was so creative and non-judgmental, very cool with everyone, very generous with himself. And funny, so funny! Just the kind of person that you want to be around. He's definitely missed, and he won't be forgotten." -- Annie Wharton, artist

"We'd hang out, go to openings together. He was very kind, brilliant in terms of his art, very focused, very thoughtful about the kind of work he did, and very directed in terms of creating it. It was a real pleasure to be around him and talk to him about art and throw ideas around. It was nice. It's a huge loss to the community because he had such a strong presence as a person. There was a wisdom about him that I think is really sad not to have."-- Nina Ferre, artist

"All the people that met him will remember how selfless and how fair he was to himself, to other people, and to the world in general. The legacy of Michael to me is that he made me become a better person. Everyone would agree that he was such a gentle soul. That's what people will remember of him." -- Genaro Ambrosino, gallery owner

 
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