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By Andrea Peyser
September 9, 2016
Fifteen years after 9/11, is the world ready to embrace “Tumbling Woman,” a sculpture once deemed too violent, too raw, too emotionally disturbing for public display?
Now is the time to find out.
The artwork, as its name suggests, is a rendering of a larger-than-life naked woman falling, upside down, from the flaming World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 — arms flailing, face contorted — at the instant her head slams, finally and fatally, into the pavement.
Without warning, the piece was plunked in the center of one of New York City’s best-traveled walkways — the underground concourse at Rockefeller Center, right in front of the ice-skating rink — on the first anniversary of 9/11. Many still-grieving New Yorkers and tourists were horrified.
“I saw 70 people fall from the tower,” a Rock Center security guard told me at the time. “Fall from almost 100 stories! To see a statue of people falling to the ground — it’s nothing to be happy about.”
The sculpture, created in bronze by 1980s art-world darling Eric Fischl, 68, is not based on anything he observed firsthand — Fischl was on Long Island watching the terror attacks unfold on TV, he has said, “like everyone else.”
After my column about the sculpture was published in The Post — opening line: “Is this art? Or assault?” — the artwork was quickly draped in a cloth and hidden behind a curtain by Rock Center workers, then returned to the artist. Fischl issued a statement that read, in part, “The sculpture was not meant to hurt anybody.”
Since its ignominious banishment in September 2002, “Tumbling Woman” has lived in a state of limbo in a courtyard at Fischl’s home and art studio in the Hamptons. It’s turned into a kind of cultural Rorschach test. Some people (like me) see exploitation of tragedy exuding from every inch of it. Others who’ve encountered it in photographs or in the bronze see a thing of beauty: a woman choosing the way she dies.
Now, the sculpture is ready for its close-up.
“Tumbling Woman” is included in “Rendering the Unthinkable: Artists Respond to 9/11,” the first temporary art exhibit at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, set to open to the public on Monday.
“I think we’re ready for it,” Paula Berry, who serves on the venue’s board of directors, told me. In 2002, “we were just not ready. Emotions were extremely raw back then,” said Berry, whose husband of 10 years, David Berry, 43, was murdered on 9/11. She said she wanted to make sure the exhibit was tasteful before joining colleagues in giving it unanimous approval. To her, it was.
Using contemporary art to help people cope with epic brutality is a departure for a public institution dedicated to grief. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, displays just a handful of artworks in and around its artifact-heavy permanent collection, none of them depicting graphic images. When it opened in 2014, the 9/11 space contained just two commissioned artworks, also not upsetting.
That’s certain to change. “Rendering the Unthinkable” is the inaugural show in the 9/11 Memorial & Museum’s special exhibitions gallery.
Fischl did not respond to my requests for comment. But the treatment of his creation clearly has pained him. He said in an interview with the late writer David Rakoff that he regretted allowing “Tumbling Woman” to be dismissed so easily.
“I’m sorry I didn’t raise a stink over it,” he said. “I hate this idea that there are some people who have a right to express their suffering and others who don’t, that there are those in this hierarchy of pain who own it more than you do.”
Last year, he announced in The East Hampton Press and The Southampton Press that “Tumbling Woman” was returning to Manhattan. An art collector donated one of six copies in existence to the Whitney Museum of American Art. But it has not been publicly displayed, a Whitney spokeswoman told me. This piece is on loan to the 9/11 exhibit.
I think at long last the sculpture has found an appropriate viewing place. Let those seeking to experience 9/11 accept or reject it.
The pain of 9/11 isn’t owned by any individual. Not by Eric Fischl. Not by me.
It belongs to us all.