Published June 8, 2003 in South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Five months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the exhibition “True Colors: Meditations on the American Spirit” opened at the Meridian International Center in Washington, D.C. Offering an artistic response to the tragic events of that day, the show traveled to New York and then embarked upon a round-the-world tour, in keeping with the Meridian Center’s mission to promote cultural exchange and understanding. The exhibition was scheduled to go to Egypt after stops in Turkey, but the war in Iraq led to a postponement. It is fortunate for us that rather than being warehoused in the interim, “True Colors” has been diverted to the Armory Art Center in West Palm Beach through Aug. 2.
Like the nation it is intended to represent, “True Colors” is remarkable for its diversity, presenting a wide range of artistic styles and manners of execution, from the most cutting-edge techniques to the most traditional. Paintings, drawings, collages, prints and photographs are featured, as are both abstract and representational works. The 68 artists were drawn from across the United States and represent a broad spectrum of racial and ethnic groups. Only a few of the names — Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Red Grooms, Faith Ringgold and Jamie Wyeth — are widely known.
A number of the participants live in Lower Manhattan in New York and witnessed the horrific occurrences of Sept. 11 firsthand; others watched their television screens at home. All felt the need to respond in their art. For some, it meant the creation of new work; for others, older pieces assumed new relevance.
About half of the works address 9-11 directly. Among these is Marilyn Cohen’s captivating diptych Quilt of Sorrows. Inspired by the black-and-white “Portraits of Grief” featured in The New York Times each morning after the attack, she produced a patchwork grid of 60 luminous and colorful smiling faces constructed from watercolor-dyed torn papers. The papers build the victims’ portraits in layers in a manner recalling topographical maps, making the face of each father, wife, daughter and policeman tactile and tangible, enhancing the individual’s presence and seeming to declare, “Remember me.”
A modestly scaled work monumental in its power is Christy Hengst’s painting September 11th, Self Portrait #6, in which the Santa Fe artist presents three silhouettes of a human figure in tones of soot and ash. The figure’s arms, hanging limp and open at her sides, aptly express the helplessness and shock we all felt on that terrible day. Georgia-based artist Alan Campbell’s Reflections From Athens, a small, realistic painting of a candlelight vigil by a leafy park, has a moving simplicity and sweetness. In Red Grooms’ cartoon-like painting on paper Study for the Shield, clean-up crew workers and other figures at Ground Zero are enclosed within the form of a policeman’s golden shield.
The rest of the works in the exhibition, as is indicated by its subtitle, celebrate the American way of life, and representations of American icons take center stage. Carol Anthony offers a lovingly executed homage to the cheeseburger. Ralph Fasanella presents an intricate and lively panorama of a baseball game. In photographs, David Levinthal and Kendall Nelson embrace the romantic figure of the cowboy. Jack Kotz and Warren Dennis evoke the comfort and joy of the picnic, while Faith Ringgold focuses her attention upon the garden party. In other pieces, the bald eagle, the Oval Office, Uncle Sam and Abraham Lincoln are seen, although no symbol is as recurrent as that of the American flag.
In the weeks and months following 9-11, the flag was ubiquitous, hung in the window of every home and flying from every car. Three works in the exhibition show their “true colors” in particularly interesting ways.
Helen Zughaib, an artist born in Lebanon who now lives in Washington, D.C., presented Prayer Rug for America, a gouache and ink rug design in red, white and blue in which the form of a mosque is surrounded by American flags. (An endearing pair of little slippers appears at the lower right.) Her work is a call for peace and understanding between the people of the Arab world and those of the United States.
Vietnam-born artist Quang Ho, who now lives in Denver, produced In Memoriam, a lushly rendered, large-scale painting of a small American flag set in a glass jar. The red, pink and magenta background evokes devastation and loss, against which the flag stands as an emblem of courage and enduring values.
Finally, there is Texas-born Robert Rauschenberg’s print Unity, from 2000, a stark but striking image in which our nation’s stars and stripes are joined with a shiny new shovel as a symbol of the need to rebuild, and of the indomitable American spirit.