There has always been art here. The Cantor Fitzgerald Co. on the 105th floor was once even designated by the Guinness Book of World Records as the “world’s highest museum,” a reference to its muscular collection of Rodin sculptures. One of these, now cruelly battered, is still on display, though now it belongs to the 9/11 Memorial Museum directly beneath Ground Zero. The Twin Towers and the Fitzgerald offices they once housed are gone, but there’s still art here. Understandably, by the time visitors exit the Memorial’s historical exhibition galleries, most seem too emotionally spent to pay it much notice. After September 11, there was a global outpouring of sympathy and solidarity; much of this took the form of art, and there’s something profoundly moving in these unpretentious works of art which sought to tangibly respond to the incomprehensible events of that morning.
Jan Ramirez, the Memorial’s Chief Curator and Vice President of Collections, was kind enough to discuss the collection with me, explaining that the Memorial’s holdings include tribute art and aftermath art. Tribute art, she explains, is novice art sent from all over the world, varying in media and quality, but all created by people wishing to honor those lost. There are around 600 such works in the collection. Aftermath art, of which the Memorial holds around 150 works, is art made by professional artists. The difference between the two isn’t really medium or even skill, but rather what they were intended for: tribute art, it seems, is more of an expression of solidarity, while aftermath art is more for contemplation and mental processing.
The art is widely varied in media, reflecting the many different ways people were affected by September 11. On view is Isabelle Collin Dufresne’s palindromic IXXI, a sculptural memorial of the date in Roman numerals, subtly evoking the repetition of images so characteristic of Andy Warhol, with whom she once worked. Visitors also encounter a cast bronze model for Bill Barrett’s LEXEME VII. The sculpture reads both as a stylized rendering of the smoking Twin Towers and, simultaneously, as an open book standing on end. The final version was carved in marble from the same quarry used by Michelangelo, and was recently installed on the campus of Purdue University. Barrett, whose studio was (and still is) ten blocks from Ground Zero, produced many public sculptures in his LEXEME series.
There’s also selection from the 9/11 Quilts Memorial, a collaborative international effort begun by Dr. Drunell Levinson, who used the famous AIDS quilt as a template. Tom Lane’s porcelain Memorial Urn sits alongside part of the Waterford crystal ball that dropped in New York City on New Year’s Eve, 2001; names of victims are inscribed on both. Puerto Rican born Milton Roso-Ortiz created a light-box diptych depicting The Tree of Life and The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, each image created with debris from the Towers.
But for now, the vast majority of the art is not yet on view (though the Memorial will soon be adding significant exhibition space). Among these is Lin Evola’s Renaissance Peace Angel, which was installed in front of Nino’s Restaurant on Canal Street shortly after the attack. Nino’s served complimentary meals to rescue and recovery workers, acquiring the nickname “America’s kitchen.” Evola’s sculpture stood on a massive concrete base upon which recovery workers recorded their names, expressions of thanks, and prayers. The sculpture was gifted to the Memorial in 2013. Lin Evola’s Peace Angels Project, which makes large-scale Renaissance-inspired sculptures from metal sourced from objects as diverse as decommissioned handguns to decommissioned nuclear missiles, is still ongoing.
There’s something inviting and reassuring about the small-scale and unpretentious art that we encounter along the labyrinthine exhibition space beneath the footprints of the Towers. After being confronted with so much horrific imagery of contorted, smoldering industrial I-beams, encountering the modest display of hand-made tribute art feels like resurfacing for air after being submerged underwater. The 9/11 Memorial tastefully translates the incomprehensibly vast events of that day to the human scale, and that’s precisely what these works of art do, about a thousand feet below the point of impact.
The 9/11 Memorial website features an artist’s registry https://www.911memorial.org/registry) which continues to welcome submissions.