Re-Imagining New York
EXHIBITION OF NINE LANDSCAPE PAINTERS WHO LOST THEIR STUDIOS IN THE WORLD TRADE CENTER
August 13 - September 29, 2002
Vanessa Lawrence, a landscape artist from Scotland, painted sunrises. She was near the elevator on the 91st floor of the World Trade Center's North Tower the morning the plane hit. Forty-five minutes later she emerged at street level, having made her way down a dark stairwell.
Lawrence and eight other painters of landscape shared an expansive studio in the northeast corner of the building, courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's Studioscape Residency Program. For three months, their easels were to stand guard at the east and north windows as the artists struggled with one of the most daunting cityscapes on earth.
Megan Craig, who was in the lobby on her way up, would later describe her relationship with those windows:
The view from the World Trade Center offered an ethical sightline onto New York City, a sightline the city needed to have. Those vertical, narrow windows widened one's perception of the city and one's place in it, enforcing an exchange of the deafening jumble of sound and light for an encompassing and nearly silent experience of the city as a working whole. . . . One could not descend unchanged onto the packed streets of lower Manhattan-one emerged at least newly aware of the stretches of clover-shaped housing projects outlining the boroughs, of the tops of the buildings, and the extent to which their inner workings perched on the rooftops in jumbles of piping and metal boxes. Seeing so much of the city's insides on the outside, one was struck by the extent to which Manhattan exists inside out, its heart on its sleeve.
Nancy Friese, a Rhode Island artist, commuted on weekends to her studio within the larger studio, huddled like all the rest, up against the windows. She grew up in another landscape, the boundless landscape of sky that is North Dakota. Laurel Reuter, Director of the North Dakota Museum of Art, had made a studio visit only a month before September 11, the day the Towers died. Deeply etched in Reuter's memory was the sense of absolute silence above such a vast and teeming city.
Watching the Towers go down from a hotel in Romania, Reuter worried about Friese, her friend. Days later, an e-mail made it through. Friese was accounted for; the paintings were all gone. Friese wrote, I feel so numb, having worked so hard . . . over twenty paintings completed. It is more than a disaster, it is unfathomable. And I feel so small, mourning my paintings, missing my brushes when others lost everything.
Struck by the universality of disaster, Reuter was reminded of the flood that devastated her own community, Grand Forks, North Dakota, in 1997. She had seen the same guilt felt by those who didn't lose everything. She also remembered that those who continued working moved through the experience with greater peace, albeit accompanied by similar loss and exhaustion. Her friend needed to go back to painting. Thus the idea of the exhibition was born, an exhibition as much about survival, and memory and loss, as about painting. Friese agreed to curate the show.
That exhibition opens at the North Dakota Museum of Art on August 13. This contemporary art museum sits on the eastern edge of the Northern Great Plains, another vast and seemingly silent landscape peopled by apparent emptiness instead of the endless buildings and bustling waterways of the New York landscape. Painters of the Plains have always struggled to capture more than the bare outlines of its physical existence just as the artists at their 91st floor windows battled to transform architectural structures into larger contexts. Megan Craig, a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy in the New School for Social Research and one of the painters, concludes:
The great irony is that the Twin Towers, symbols of architectural hubris, American wealth and prowess, afforded so many windows onto the modest situated-ness of New York City in a landscape larger than itself - so many windows onto New York's dependence on the water and land surrounding it, windows onto the city's impotence to nature: wind, rain, and sun; windows onto New York's stacked, concrete jungle held up by bridges crossing over like lifelines into New Jersey and Queens. You had to go inside to look out, and in a city so involved with itself and so defiantly self-sufficient, the view from the Twin Towers offered an entirely public and humbling reminder that even New York City recedes into the earth. The city is a small world, yes, but only in the context of all that outreaches and surrounds it.
The painters, more than making paintings, were forced to confront what it is to know a city. And then, what it is to relocate that prior knowledge, tempered by everything that happened after the original paintings disappeared into 9/11. Only an occasional sketch made its way home with an artist to become the basis for new paintings.
Peter Ruta, the oldest of the painters, felt the historical challenge. According to the artist,
When it came to painting the view from the 91st floor, I felt I was on my own - without artistic company, antecedents, or traditions. Who else in the 20th century (now shading into the 21st) had painted the city whole? The only artist I could think of who even tried was Oskar Kokoschka in the 1920s, with his panoramic views of London, Amsterdam and Dresden.
The city from above had been photographed and filmed (King Kong) and videoed (Andy Warhol's eight hour long unblinking stare at the Empire State Building) but painting, by the 1940s - the era of the skyscraper - had turned inward with surrealism and abstract expressionism. I had to start from scratch.
Nancy Friese, like San Francisco's Wayne Theibaud before her, chose to step back into the room and to frame fragments of the city within the Trade Center's window casements. These slices of cityscape are crowned with billowing, shifting, life-filled clouds befitting the granddaughter of a famous Plains weatherman, the legacy of a child raised in homes where dinner table conversations were dominated by the weather.
Sjoerd Doting, an artist from Holland, humanized the vast city of New York with less turbulent skies and meandering waterways, reminiscent of the Dutch cityscapes of earlier times. He completed four major paintings over the course of his months in his Tower studio. Since 9/11, he painstakingly recreated those paintings, one of which will be finished in time for the exhibition.
Stan Friedman, for decades a painter of Manhattan cityscapes, found that seeing familiar places from a new, aerial point-of-view was a both a gift and a challenge, especially at night when the city became "a universe of moving and stationary stars, nebulae of differently lit neighborhoods and shimmering river reflections." Friedman lost eight paintings, saving only two night scenes, carried home a few days before. On the morning of September 11, the artist slept in, to be awakened by his frantic wife shortly after the first plane hit. Once he reassured her, he went to his 25th floor apartment window and, as the Towers went down, he began to draw, capturing the collapse of the Seven World Trade building. Then for the next four months he couldn't paint at all.
Karin Batten had taken her son to nearby I.S.89, his school near the Trade Center, and then returned to her home in the West Village to vote. When the sirens began, she ran to find her son. She found the little boy clustered with his friends. They had seen a plane fly by and hit the first tower and then people started jumping from windows everywhere. As a group "we turned around and Tower One - where all my work, my supplies, everything was - was coming down."
Batten was in shock for six weeks but by November forced herself to go back to painting. Using photographs and drawing from her memory, she began to reclaim her paintings.
Like so many artists in New York, nearly all of the painters in Re-Imagining New York support their artistic lives with other careers. Nedra Newby is a public school art teacher and Ellen Korbonski, a film maker and a painter who was born and raised in California, works as a book designer. To win a studio on the 91st floor of Tower One was akin to winning the lottery. What artist could afford such space?
And what a space. Re-Imagining New York is the synthesis of the struggle first to transform into art one of the most formidable landscapes on earth, and then to remember, re-imagine, and reclaim that view which no longer exists.
Exhibition is underwritten by:
Xcel Energy who demonstrates their commitment to our community through charitable contributions and volunteer time.
With additional funding from:
Programming is supported in part by a grant from the City of Grand Forks through the North Valley Arts Council.