With ten years passed since 9/11, the memorial I painted and installed for the Alger company, who had offices in the North Tower and lost 35 people that day, has been featured in a few news articles about the company (see previous posts). I feel a mix of pride and humility when I think about 35 Candles – it is only paint and wood in the face of that horrible day, but it is my own small contribution to honoring the memory of all those who were lost on 9/11, and those lost in the years since, because of their selfless work at the site.
I was approached by a couple friends involved with Alger in the late summer of 2002, and they wondered if I’d be interested in helping with some kind of memorial project for the company. It was a formidable proposition, less than a year after the terrible day. The company was rebuilding, and had moved to new offices a little further uptown. They were unsure what they wanted, but they had felt it was time to do something in memory of their lost colleagues. Feelings of New Yorkers everywhere were still very very raw as we approached the first anniversary of the attack, and we, understandably, weren’t given a lot of direction, but were told that they didn’t want anything too “in your face” or literal about the day.
I worked with an old friend in the initial stages, and we decided that a grid of small paintings made sense, alluding in the classic Modernist way to the grid of Manhattan streets and New York School painting. There would be 35 panels, one for each life lost from Alger. Following that, I came up with a few ideas and sketches to show Alger. One idea was a grid of different blue paintings, as an allusion to the brilliant, clear blue sky of that morning, which has always been a potent memory of that day for me. Another idea was a different bird on each panel, which was inspired by the beautiful little goldfinch painted by the Dutch painter Carel Fabritius in the Seventeenth Century. A third idea was a small still life of a single flower for each panel, which was inspired by the last paintings of Manet. I also prepared a sketch of candles, since it is such a traditional image of memorials, but I did not expect Alger to pick that one. I thought perhaps it would be too much an image of mourning for them, too literal an image to use in their offices, with perhaps connotations that would be too intense. There had been candles burning all over the city at makeshift memorials on the streets.
But Alger did want the candle idea. I took some Polaroids of candles in my studio, and worked from them to do a half dozen or so oil sketches on paper to further develop an idea that I did not expect them to like, and after that I was given the green light to begin work. From the beginning I had to think about materials and installation. I had to work out those basic issues beforehand – I chose wood panels for their durability and stability, and I prepared the surfaces myself, sanding, sizing with an acrylic emulsion, and priming with a white acrylic emulsion ground. I took many more photographs and chose the 35 I would work from. I looked at Chardin, Richter, de la Tour, Vermeer, Caravaggio, Morandi, Velazquez, and others, looking at artists with strong visual connections to the subject or great spiritual power.
It was daunting to begin work. This was my chance to respond to the horrors of 9/11 and of course I felt a great responsibility to do the work justice. So, I started to paint. Time was an issue so I could not waste it by thinking too much; I just needed to work. So I didn't think about mucking it up--I simply resolved to make each panel as beautiful as I possibly could.
Fortunately, I was in a good place in my artistic development when this job came along. I had worked through many different kinds of painting, spent several years in the nineties working at traditional observational painting through still life and landscape and some portraiture. In the early nineties I’d spent two and a half years as a guard at the Met, looking at great art from all cultures and times. In the late nineties I’d moved to a studio with no natural light and as a response to that, I’d begun, tentatively at first, to use photographic sources as models (as I still do today), which was both a sea change in my practice and a complete reconfiguration of my ideas and commitments about the nature and value of painting. It had been, for lack of a better phrase, a crisis of faith in my work. But by 2002, I had, in short, developed some pretty good chops in a range of techniques and with a solid understanding of my craft.
The work went well. Better than I’d hoped. I saw it taking shape, panel by panel, and I believed in my heart that it was good. I started each panel, then worked on them all together, rearranging them on the grid as they would hang at Alger, working all over as if it were one painting. Somewhere along the line, I thought of changing from a 7x5 grid to a 6x6 grid that would leave one section empty as a sign of loss and incompleteness.
It took two days to install in the Alger offices, a weekend in early February of 2003. It took a lot of measuring to align the paintings, and each is hung solidly with two drywall screws. Also, the wall is painted grey on the area directly behind the panels, to soften the light. From start to finish, the work was conceived, executed and installed in what I think was a pretty quick time frame, but no short cuts were taken, and I am both proud of and humbled by this work.
It is, and always will be, very hard to think about 9/11 and the immediate months that followed. I thought about writing about that here as well, but I don’t think I want to do that just yet. The immense sorrow comes back unbidden all on its own, with the slightest of triggers, and the most unexpected times. I do remember the work I was doing at the time of the attacks, photobased paintings taken from snapshots of pedestrians as I looked down from my second floor studio window in DUMBO, and when I finally came back to my studio, the stench still strong at my studio on Jay Street, a block from the water, my work on the walls looked alien to me, and I wondered about those blurred, faceless people in my paintings and photos, wondered which ones were still alive, and of those, who were mourning loved ones.
I hate when people say don’t forget. We won’t forget. I love New York.