Randy Ford Author- Revised WORLD TRADE CENTER ARTWORKS DESTROYED
9/11 and Hurricane Katrina Debris Works Destroyed (violations of federal law) and Artist Neil Bernstein Run Down With a Truck (a crime)
Note:: “Around midnight on October 27, 1990 — the last minutes of the 101st Congress — Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts amended a bill designed to create 85 new federal judgeships. The House approved the amendment, and so did Kennedy’s exhausted fellow senators. President Bush promptly signed the bill, eager as he was for the judgeships. In this way the Visual Artists Rights Act also became the law of the land. For most of U.S. history, artists and other citizens have been protected under copyright law against those who would make improper commercial use of their creations. Kennedy’s amendment goes considerably further. Adopting the French legal concept of droit moral or moral right, the law gives painters and sculptors a weapon against modification of a work that might hurt their reputations. Certain artists can now prevent ‘any intentional or grossly negligent destruction’ of a work of ‘recognized stature.’”- Sean Rowe 1998
Now let me start Artist Neil Bernstein’s story where it got really dangerous for him. This was back in 2008, and for those who don’t know it the US/Mexican border is not always the safest place in the world. Thousands of people have died trying to cross this border while trying to get into the United States. I live in the border-city of Tucson. That’s where I met Neil. Since I’ve met him I’ve found it hard to detach myself from him, not that I would want to. So I write this piece less as a storyteller than a person looking for clues as to why anyone or any artist would put his or her reputation on the line (and as it turned out risk his or her life) by building and rebuilding (in several hostile places) a huge art piece six times, each time after it was destroyed and ultimately have it taken down without his or her permission. I have to say and think only Neil would and for that I am thankful. I think we all should be.
Let me digress and relate something personal before I allow Neil in his own words set the scene. As a writer I could never afford to think of words as precious. Then one day I made the mistake of telling a poet what I thought about words … that I thought they weren’t precious, and her response was blunt. She said, “Oh, but words can get you killed.” Anger over Neil’s art almost got him killed.
Neil Bernstein in 2008
“I felt great about the exhibition in Tucson (an exhibition of his 9/11, Katrina, and Borderland works). I felt however that it wasn’t enough, when just 40 miles south of there hundreds of people were still dying. I prayed and meditated for a week and, on the seventh eve, saw a vision of “The Golden Gates Bridge Over Troubled Borders” – a huge golden bridge made of pipe and filled with water, inspired by “Christo’s Gates” in Central Park. I put together a crew, found a parcel of private land along one of the main migrant trails near the border and began construction.
“The GREEN VALLEY NEWS did a wonderful article about the bridge project, and the following day it was destroyed by vandals. Then after the destruction caught the attention of the television news, the battle began.
“During the building of the second bridge, at 5 a.m. a man who said that he was from an anti-immigration group known worldwide for violence and radical activism approached me. The second bridge was only up for a couple of days before it too was destroyed. … we conceded then (after the property owner was frightened) and rebuilt the bridge in Tombstone, the home-base of the anti-immigration group. During the reconstruction (the third time), I was held at gunpoint by a man who said ‘We don’t want any New York Jews around here helping the illegals. You better get the hell out of Dodge!’ That night they completely destroyed the bridge for a fourth time, this time shattering all of the piping, to the point where it was unusable and stole my fathers Veterans flag of the United States. Telemondo and several other Spanish-speaking television news teams covered the event and aired it throughout Mexico and South America.”
Artist Neil Bernstein thinks big, really big. It seems to be a compulsion…and he’s a risk-taker and a standout, which makes him an easy target. Neil is also more complex than most people realize. It is easy for a critic to either hate him or love him. His art is bold and controversial, and he uses debris from tragedies and human blood in his work. Often people are disturbed, forced to think and take sides regardless which side they’re on. He makes it impossible to sit on the fence, but it’s clear to me that he is trying to build bridges over fences that divide all of us. A good example was his “Golden Gates Bridge Over Troubled Borders.” Remember it is no longer standing. And don’t forget the violence. Violence (human caused or natural) has also been the thrust behind much of Neil’s work.
His story would be an unlikely journey for any of us except Neil. It is a story of a very perceptive and sensitive child, who was greatly influenced by his father and who even as a child possessed the gifts of an artist. And what Neil has to say has to be viewed in the context of his Jewish- European roots. His father was an immigrant, who was given the name “Bernstein” by his sponsor.
As a Jewish immigrant’s son, and while in the army and stationed in Bamberg, Germany, Neil was naturally drawn to Auschwitz. For the artist the experience was transformational. He describes feeling while there “cross-currents of energy” … how it was “deafening and like in a dream … there was a violet light ring floating above … I wept for hours … lost all sense of time and place.” He missed his bus and stayed the night.
At some point Neil got on his knees and began constructing his Holocaust works from the soil just outside the gates of Auschwitz. He used materials he dug up. The works consisted of twelve sculptures arranged in a circle and made from soil, branches, and stone. As it would anyone, the Auschwitz experience profoundly affected Neil, but it also gave him a direction that makes him unique.
There is a lot of his father in Neil. His father was fearless, public service minded and into channeling, but there are two other relatives who also influenced him greatly. From Marc Chagall Neil gained an artistic vision, and from Baal Shem Tove came his mysticism. It was his father however who took charge of his early education. Here are some things Neil says about that education. “I didn’t fit in a public school … I was considered a rebel and labeled a problem child … only my father knew how to handle me, so he took me to work with him and taught me himself. I was socialized with adults and met the most interesting people. My father also frequently took me into the worse black neighborhoods before African Americans were integrated.”
Other things happened to Neil that made him feel like an outsider, painful things. It became easy for him to isolate himself. Rather than face abuse and bullying, he escaped into mysticism. Here he describes an example of this: “weeping and shuddering, I saw a faceless entity reach out its hands and place them over my eyes. It spoke in Hebrew, chanted a blessing, and flew up into the sky like an image out of Chagall. There were shadowy angels everywhere, some of them quite frightening, but the Great Besht took my fear away. I was able to sing along in a strange language. I returned to that place every day for years, and on my eight birthday I received my purpose. ‘You are to make works of peace among turmoil.’” And I think his works show that he has been able to hold to this.
Throughout the remainder of his childhood, he “built paintings, sculpture, musle-cars and motorcycles,” and his first studio was on his family’s estate in Levittown, Pennsylvania. That area of the state then, according to Neil, “had as residents some of the most interesting people in the world. In the 1970’s, it bustled with creativity.” One of those people, who had a studio in New Hope, was George Nakashima. Neil began frequenting Nakashima’s studio, and on one such visit, Neil says, “George took me in the woods and taught me to listen to their souls.”
The military didn’t offer Neil many opportunities to shine, except for the Auschwitz experience and one other. While stationed at Fort Gordon, in Georgia, he chose as a canvas the exterior walls of old wooden buildings and painted huge murals on them.
In 1980, Bernstein met Pearl Forman. Besides her relationship with Einstein and her stint in the WACS, she got him interested in architecture. The die was cast. He became an architect. This pleased his father because “it’s much more practical than all the frightening art that you make.” His architectural and technical skills allow him to execute artistic ideas that are impossible for most artists.
After attending the Philadelphia College of Art and Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, Neil joined the “wild guys” of The Highwire Artists Cooperative in Philadelphia. The “wild guys” were noted or infamous for taking over abandoned lumberyards, churches and funeral homes and building installations and site-specific exhibitions in them. They would do this until the city ran them out. Neil says that along with The Clay Studio, Nexus, and Zone One cooperatives, they “created a revolution of contemporary art in Philadelphia called First Fridays.” First Fridays attracted thousands of people, which gave Neil enough exposure for him to get his own show, a one-man Holocaust exhibition at The Philadelphia Inquier Gallery across street from City Hall. This was the first time he used Jewish blood (his own), which caused quite a stir. Neil said when his exhibition was quickly shut down he knew for the first time that “we were at war.”
The exhibition still caught the eye of Joan Rosenbaun, then director of the Jewish Museum in Manhattan. The long and short of it was that she was already “in a lot of hot water” over her own Holocaust art exhibition, a show that included a Lego model of Auschwitz and photos of Holocaust survivors holding cans of diet soda. Neil’s connection with Ms. Rosenbaun connected him with New York’s art scene. But it took the “World Trade Center disaster to finally bring Manhattan (along with Neil and everyone else) to its knees.”
Here we need to go with Neil … as he went back then … to meet Kirk Vamedoe from MOMA and Seward Johnson, the owner of The Grounds for Sculpture, and walk with them through The Grounds and the Van Gogh Room. The experience, along with the two hours he spent alone with the two artists, had a profound affect on Neil. He says, “Seward is misunderstood by many in the art world, and he has gone to extreme lengths to make high art accessible to common-folk regardless of their race, creed, color or education. And most people entirely miss Johnson’s point. Common-folk are generally intimidated by the art world and what Johnson has done shatters that and the glass between the viewer and the picture plane, bringing Renior and Van Gogh into our time. This doesn’t mean however that either one of them (Seward or Johnson) has resorted to manipulating the public in the way Disney did (and now prevails in western culture), but the inverse … a winding back of the watch … and it is exactly this and because they really give a damn about people that they go to such painstakingly difficult extremes. Seward, like myself, spends a lot of time in court fighting his right to display controversial art in public places. The two of us discussed the difficulties of articulation, engineering, placement, and censorship of large-scale art pieces in public places. At the time I was applying for a number of the longer steel beams of The World Trade Center, in order to build a hundred foot tall set of “Times Chimes”- a massive work that make tones as it sways in the wind.” This brings me to discussing Neil’s “Art Rises from the Ashes” exhibit near Ground Zero.
Yes, Neil Bernstein thinks big, really big. His idea for “Times Chimes” and the realization of the “Art Rises from the Ashes” exhibit are examples of just how big. When New York Times art mogul Michael Kimmelman asked “Where are all of the Davids at Ground Zero”, I would say he overlooked Neil.
According to Neil, he survived the World Trade Center disaster because he didn’t go to a broker’s training meeting at the New York Mercantile Exchange. His car wasn’t running; he missed a ride, and missed having breakfast in the North Tower like he normally did. Twenty-eight of his co-workers perished. This he says it angered and frustrated him and made him feel like he had to do something to help people heal.
It wasn’t easy. He had been a lousy broker and was nearly broke. And then just as New York did he was able to rise from the ashes in a spectacular way. Neil pulled it off in way that the world couldn’t ignore.
He worked the same way he always had. He channeled and bizarre things started happening. “… the sound of breaking glass in the middle of the night … lightning bolt-like configurations that skipped across the igneous boulders on my property … doors opened without any help … a heater broke … and there was horrific alter-world shrieking in the forest” … and on it went. And so many of these elements re-emerged in his 9/11 work.
But Neil couldn’t have pulled it off without family and friends, and a flexible landlord, and the help of neighbors around the World Trade Center. And let’s not overlook the sweat, the tenacity and the creativity that it also took. Neil says his whole life was consumed by the project.
First came the “Zero” paintings, 12 of them on 4’ by 8’ canvases that he hung from trees to paint. As he channeled, diagrams, huge vertebrae and propeller-like forms emerged. The contrast between the blacks and the vibrant colors was important to him, as he worked through the nights. There were driveshaft-like forms that led to rectilinear three-dimensional boxes that would hold the World Trade Center ash that he collected from the site. Next came the “Temple Towers”, two, 12’ tall glass and steel towers topped with Statue of Liberty-like metal crowns that were electrified and illuminated from within. Neil says that he then was directed to a local salvage yard where he found a 15’ diameter children’s merry-go-round made of steel. The merry-go-round became “The Shield of David”, a 40’ diameter sculpture that was eventually hung from blood-soaked chains above the “Tunnel Vortex” that became the entrance to the exhibit. The “Voltex Tunnel” was constructed in such a way as to bring people to their knees and when their knees hit the floor glass would shatter, and from here they could look at the “The Shield of David” … floating in a white lit chamber … through a 12” portal. Then came “Anubis”, a child’s play-horse wrapped in bandage and covered with resin, WTC ash, and Neil’s own blood, sweat and tears.
Neil also made for the show a number of 24” by 48” canvases that were of minimal color. And there were sepia tone rectangle boxes with charcoal and WTC ash that were called “Empty Boxes”. The “Empty Boxes” were made while Neil was meditating on the absences of identifiable remains of those who perished and that there were no bodies to put in caskets. (Note: I may have overlooked something … even something important to the artist and the people who went to the exhibit).
As one can imagine, the Warren Street exhibit … just a couple blocks from Ground Zero and housed in a grand industrial space with a 30’ ceiling and massive steel doors … attracted worldwide attention. But more importantly, the exhibit became a shrine. People who were most affected by the tragedy came … some every day … family members of victims, neighbors, survivors, first responders, rescuers often returned daily to rest, to pray, to eat, and to tell their story. And of course the exhibit (and Neil) had its/his share of detractors.
When the show closed, it was taken down in Manhattan and reassembled in Johannesburg. When he arrived in South Africa, Neil saw an 80’ by 30’ banner hanging in the main square of The Sandon Civic Center with a gigantic image of him “holding up ‘The Shield of David’ like atlas.” The opening was attended by hundreds of people, including Ambassadors and many members of Mandella’s administration. The tremendous reception, the crowds that followed, and the positive worldwide press Neil says, “was absolutely surreal.” After Johannesbug, for the exhibit it was on to The Sofia Museum of Art in Bulgaria, where again the show was a staggering success. And again Neil was treated royally. Since then individual pieces from the “Art Rises from the Ashes” exhibit have been shown (and some have found a home) in galleries and museums around the world.
There is much more of Neil’ story left to tell. It would require a book, maybe several books. So I’m going to jump forward here to when Neil moved to Tucson Arizona for health reasons.
Neil says that shortly after the move he went to Nogales, a nearby town that straddles the US/Mexico border and saw “the magnitude of what was happening there.” This served as inspiration for a new series of work called “Borderworks.” Channeling again he used debris, this time debris that he collected along the main migrant routes across the desert … where thousands of people have died trying to enter our country. The irony of this then was that it was the beginning of a new chapter of Neil’s life and like undocumented immigrants crossing the border searching for a new life in America, it was, I repeat, a dangerous situation for him.
The “Hurricane Chair” came out of this period in 2004. It is made from crack-house metal roofing, WTC ash and a harmonic conversion vibration device. This piece was selected from thousands of works by Kathrine Galitz, a curator from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for a juried exhibition called “Art of the State” at the Pennsylvania State Museum of Art. The “Hurricane Chair” became the centerpiece of the exhibit and was there when Hurricane Katrina hit.
Neil describes how he responded to the tragedy in New Orleans in this way: “I meditated and prayed for three days and was directed to go to New Orleans and collect debris and African American blood. When I got there it was impossible to go through the barricades, but I was given specific instructions on how to get through. I entered the disaster site and went deep in the Lower 9th Ward. The place was completely abandoned, and there were heaps of belongings of victims and architectural wreckage everywhere. Suddenly out of nowhere an old African-American man with a shopping cart appeared. He introduced himself as Henry George Washington.” Henry appears repeatedly in Neil’s photo-collage debris series called “The Bottom of the Ninth Ward.” “… Henry gave me two syringes of his blood for a hundred dollars … after obtaining pieces of debris and shipping it back to Tucson, I began to channel the works.” What emerged were huge-muscle-car paintings covered with African-American blood, cremation ash, and debris found at the site, which was then preserved with epoxy resin. While Neil was working on this series, Aimee Chang, the director of the Orange County (California) Museum of Art, selected “Anubis” (from the “Art Rises From The Ashes” collection) for the juried “New American Talent” exhibition at the Jones Center in Austin, Texas. Meanwhile, Neil continued channeling and working. One of the pieces from the “The Bottom of the Ninth Ward” series would end up being selected for the juried “Uprooted” exhibition at the Louisiana State University Museum of Art. (It is important to note here that Neil has “turned down huge sum of money” for his work, but it’s hard to say if he’ll always be able to afford to do that.)
It is at this junction that I met Neil for the first time. I owned and operated then El Ojito Springs Center for Creativity, a galley and performance space located then on 4th Avenue, a major tourist destination and general hangout for hipsters in Tucson. Neil says that I told him “that I really wanted to shake things up in Tucson” (which I don’t remember saying), when I asked him to show some his 9/ll, Katrina and Borderworks work at El Ojito. When he agreed I actually gave him preference over other artists and some of them removed their art in protest.
For the show Neil created a new piece, which became quite an attraction. He brought in a huge freezer, turned it upside down, removed the door and replaced it glass, and placed inside the operating freezer two dead coyotes “crucified” on giant steel crosses lit by red spotlights. I must say Neil’s enthusiasm was catching and spilled over into the street as he organized then a series of funeral processions that went up and down 4th Avenue. For each procession Hispanic-Americans would volunteer to be carried in open-caskets, and off they’d go to the tune of drumming and a wild saxophone.
Yet Neil says he felt like he wasn’t doing enough.
Now I’ve come full circle to where in Neil’s life I started this essay. Keep in mind here the Visual Artists Rights Act, which became the law of the land and says, “certain artists can now prevent any intentional or grossly negligent destruction of a work of ‘recognized stature.’” And if any artwork qualifies as “a work of recognized stature,” Neil’s 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina Debris Works and “The Golden Gates Bridge Over Troubled Borders” certainly does. Remember in 2008 Neil assembled and reassembled “The Golden Gates Bridge Over Trouble Borders,” in the desert near the border and in Tombstone, (at great personal expense), and it was destroyed four times. But that wasn’t the end of it.
Up until now I have intentionally not implicated anyone or any entity in Santa Fe. Let me make it clear that it was in Santa Fe that the 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina Debris Works were destroyed. It was also in Santa Fe where once again “The Golden Gates Bridge Over Trouble Borders” was destroyed again and again (two or three times) and finally dismantled by the host of the exhibit. It was also in Santa Fe where Neil was intentionally run down with a truck while he was standing on a sidewalk. (Neil was seriously injured, and his recovery has been very slow.) It is because of impending litigation that I don’t here describe what happened in Santa Fe. It is in the court or courts where the truths of these events should come out … when there were violations of a federal law and a crime was committed … and I don’t want to trump the legal process.
Bernstein survives. He is still Bernstein. His ideas are just as big, and since they lead us back to and confront us with some of the most horrific events of our time they will always make some people’s blood boil. It is the use of ash from the Trade Center rubble, his own blood, and the blood of an African American survivor of Katrina, used as glue in his work, that sometimes turns people off, while it certainly inspires more people than it shocks. This bold risk-taking is also what sets Bernstein apart and when all is said and done makes him, I think, an important American artist. I can only hope that there is more to come from him.
Bernstein can be accepted now. He has paid his dues. Let’s accept him. Let’s judge him on the merit of his work. How many artists would do for us what he did at Ground Zero? How many would’ve gone to the lengths he has to bring home for us (those of us who are unable to personally go) German concentration camps or allow us to touch the aftermath of a storm like Katrina?