Michael Richards’s Musings on Black Masculinity

At the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, the late artist, who died tragically during 9/11, is remembered for his trenchant works that reflect on the transcendence and vulnerability of the Black male body

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BY Jackson Davidow in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 04 AUG 21

On view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, ‘Michael Richards: Are You Down?’ is the first museum retrospective of the artist’s vivid sculptures, drawings and installation works. A Black man of Jamaican and Costa Rican descent, Richards was born in Brooklyn in 1963, grew up in Jamaica and came of age as an artist amid explosive debates on identity politics and representation in the New York art world of the 1990s – a period in which practitioners of colour in the West were finally being afforded the mainstream critical attention they so greatly merited.

This pointed survey of Richards’s oeuvre enables viewers to trace themes, materials, forms and motifs from work to work, starting with photographic and video documentation of his early installations, such as Same Old Song and Dance (1992), a jarring piece displayed in the windows of the Grey Art Gallery at New York University that scrutinizes lynching, blackface and minstrelsy. But his meticulously rendered sculptures have pride of place here, giving form to the accumulating tumult of the 1990s. A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo (1994), for example, features five, bust-like heads of Black men, embellished with provocative labels and photographic images of white officers. This was Richards’s response to the police brutality against Rodney King that had rocked the US two years earlier. Never straightforward, his sculptures are packed with eclectic references, including Christian iconography, African folklore, Greco-Roman art, minimalism, surrealism and Jamaican pop music. Many sculptures on display depict scenes of flight and aviation, encouraging audiences to reflect on both the transcendence and vulnerability of the Black male body in the face of racial violence.

The Great Black Airmen (Tuskegee) 1996 wood, resin, plexiglass, tar, feathers, paper, bonded bronze Base: 45 x 41 x 45 inches, Torso: 12 x 40 x 56 inches Installation image Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate
Michael Richards, The Great Black Airmen (Tuskegee),1996, installation view. Courtesy: the Michael Richards Estate 

Richards’s focused-yet-capacious conceptual practice was attentive to the complexities of race, identity and history. The Great Black Airmen (Tuskegee) (1996), for instance, is a toppled bronze monument, its torso broken away from the elevated base, which itself rests upon a mirrored cube reminiscent of a Donald Judd sculpture. Resembling a weathered ruin from antiquity, the winged figure lies supine on the gallery floor, head and limbs missing. Yet, the figure’s penis is conspicuous, possibly semi-erect – an aberration from the Greco-Roman male nude sculptures it evokes.

According to the exhibition literature, Richards believed that the work represented a ‘double-edged sword’ because public monuments, though built to commemorate important individuals and events, often fossilize into banal cultural artifacts with little contemporary significance. But the artist adds a further layer of tension by embossing the word ‘Tuskegee’ on the work’s pedestal – a reference to the city in Alabama loaded with contested histories. On the one hand, Tuskegee refers to the celebrated African American pilots and airmen who nobly served their country during World War II. On the other, it calls to mind the horrifying and racist Tuskegee syphilis experiment, in which US government health agencies tracked the natural course of syphilis by observing Black men suffering from the sexually transmitted disease, while also lying to them about providing proper treatment. The statue’s pronounced penis gestures at the sexualization of Black masculinity in scientific research and in society. The Great Black Airmen (Tuskegee) insists on the entanglement, rather than the incommensurability, of these fraught histories, while also interpolating the viewer, whose feet are reflected in the cube, into their manifold legacies.

A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo 1994 Resin, marble dust, wood, motor, photo transfer Five elements, dimensions variable; each element ~1 ft square, ~5-6 ft high; full install ~9-10 feet wide, ~4 feet deep Courtesy of The Michael Richards Estate
Michael Richards, A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo, 1994, installation view. Courtesy: the Michael Richards Estate; photography: Daniel Bock

While working in his studio at the World Trade Centre, provided by an artist residency from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Richards tragically died aged 38 on 11 September 2001. This loss – addressed in poignant reflections by colleagues and friends, as well as in an insightful introductory video – inevitably haunts the exhibition, but it does not overshadow Richards’s artworks, which retain their distinct power and complexity.

Michael Richards: Are You Down? is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, until 10 October. 

Main Image: Michael Richards: Are You Down?’, 2021, exhibition view, Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami. Courtesy: the Michael Richards Estate and the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami

Jackson Davidow is a postdoctoral fellow in the ‘Translating Race’ Lab at the Center for the Humanities at Tufts University, Massachusetts, USA. He is writing a book about global AIDS cultural activism.

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