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The Arts Respond: Visual arts express the personal and universal

Sunday, September 08, 2002

By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette art critic

"Please pray for our Pap," read the small sign along a tree-lined rural Pennsylvania road late last fall. Printed in a child's hand, the rest of the text explained that "Pap" was serving in the Air Force in the Middle East. Along the bottom were some naive drawings, perhaps added by a sibling who also wanted to contribute.

This steel, concrete and ash representation of the ruins of the World Trade Center was built by employees of the Walter Long Manufacturing Co. on the South Side shortly after Sept. 11. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

Was it art? No less so than the thousands of spontaneous memorials that sprang up in the aftermath of Sept. 11, near the trinity of sites so unnaturally ravaged, but also in other locales.

From the team effort of Walter Long Manufacturing Co. workers, whose miniature WTC ruin sits atop a red, white and blue-painted pole crowned with an American flag, to artist Shawn Quinlan's painstakingly stitched "Quilt That Won't Comfort," thick with symbols of Catholicism, Judaism and Islam juxtaposed with tanks, Monopoly money and oversized Cipro tablets, people made objects during the past year that rose from deeply held feelings and ideas. That the former work resides in a South Side company parking lot and the latter in The Andy Warhol Museum is consequential only in that it illustrates the egalitarianism of tragedy.

The first artistic responses to the attack were probably made by photographers and video artists who intuitively pointed their tools of expression at the unfurling events. Group exhibitions of such photographs have been shown in New York arts venues as well as in refugee spaces provided by a shocked community, and some have made their way into publication.

Gradually, works in other media have appeared, locally and nationally. Some of these are more sophisticated than others, but the definitive image of 9/11 has not yet emerged. Nor should we look for it, necessarily, in the near future.

While Picasso painted "Guernica," his forceful protest of the city's bombing in the heat of the Spanish Civil War, the United States had withdrawn from Vietnam several years before Maya Lin's meditative Vietnam Veterans Memorial was designed. So, too, artworks that will symbolize last fall will arrive in their own time, each addressing a different aspect of a shared incident.

Writing last month of a project by artist members of World Views, a program once housed in the World Trade Center, New York Times art critic Holland Cotter said, "What could end up being some of the most stimulating new public art is still in the experimental stage. The big sculptural question of the moment, which is also the big architectural question, is how to give aesthetic shape to the emotions evoked by Sept. 11. ... Several of the [members'] projected pieces are sculptural and refer to 9/11, though tentatively and obliquely, which may still be the only viable way to go."

The first anniversary of the attacks is occasion for a concentrated outpouring of artistic expression as well as a variety of memorial services, here, nationally and internationally. Local art venues that are commemorating the day in some manner include Silver Eye Center for Photography, Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, Society for Contemporary Craft, Carnegie Mellon University, Frick Art & Historical Center, The Andy Warhol Museum, the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, Westmoreland Museum of American Art and The Butler Museum of American Art.

Creative expression isn't the only part of the art world that's been affected by the events of 9/11. For example, exhibitions have reflected a renewed interest in 19th- and early 20th-century American art, and a new interest in art of the Islamic world. Funding, by government and corporate sponsors; availability of artwork from overseas lenders; insurance costs for the shows; attendance, particularly by out-of-town visitors; and rising auction prices for rare artworks as the stock market slides, are some of the factors undergoing at least temporary change.

Through all of this, the visual arts have retained a prominent role, one they'll keep as long as people have a need to reflect, and for signifiers that articulate their collective experiences.

Reach Mary Thomas at mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.

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