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Spirit in the “Sky”: Spencer Finch’s National 9/11 Memorial Museum Installation Remembers

Spencer Finch 9-11 art installation at the memorial and museum in New York

Jin S. Lee / Courtesy of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum

Spencer Finch’s “Color of the Sky” installation at the National September 11 Memorial Museum juxtaposes the permanent immediacy of 9/11 and the passage of time.

Some people argue that the sheer number of world-changing watershed events in 2020 have propelled us as a nation into the realm of the unimaginable. Yet almost 20 years ago, weren’t we saying the exact same thing about 9/11? While that September morning shocked us to the core, the hours and days that followed brought out the best aspects of human spirit among the heroic first-responding police and firefighters, survivors and beautiful remembrances of its fallen. In the years that followed, New York City and America’s healing process continued with the construction of the National September 11 Memorial Museum.

The impact of the day on the American psyche is encompassed within the museum’s collection of concrete and metal ruins mixed in with multimedia displays, personal artifacts found in the rubble, evocative magazine coves and a room that puts a human face on each of the 2,983 people who perished that day, as well as those who died in the February 26, 1993 attack. Spencer Finch’s installation—the only artwork to be commissioned by and for the museum—is abstract in execution yet very specific in terms of his intention to unite many different perceptions of a singular event.

detail Spencer Finch's Remembering the Color of the Sky that Spetember Morning

Ofer Wolberger / James Cohan Gallery

The New York Times reported in May 2014, the eve of the museum’s official opening, that Finch’s The Color of the Sky on That September Morning was effective on many levels. His primary challenge was creating something that could “at once could be evanescent and powerfully evocative.”

“It had to be believable,” Spencer Finch told the reporter. “It had to be about that human quality of remembering, how it’s so fuzzy in some ways, and in other ways it’s so completely clear.”

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It perfectly captures the fragility of life as well as the sheer magnitude of the worst terrorist attack on American soil.

Remembering the color of the sky that September morning Spencer Finch

Ofer Wolberger / James Cohan Gallery

From a distance, the 40-foot high wire grid installation looks like an abstract but cohesive depiction of a cloudless late summer sky with its mosaic of brilliant blues. However, as one gets closer, each of the 2,983 individual squares of hand painted Fabriano Italian paper comes into relief. Each sheet appears as ephemeral as the missing person fliers that papered the city in the days, weeks and months following the attacks.

When one realizes what lies behind this veil that Spencer Finch created—a repository for unidentified remains of those who died at the World Trade Center closed to the public—it perfectly captures the fragility of life as well as the sheer magnitude of the worst terrorist attack on American soil.

“With both a scientific approach to gathering data and a poetic sensibility, Finch’s installations, sculptures and works on paper offer an examination of human perception through the lens of nature, history, literature and memory,” James Cohan, whose New York City galleries have regularly displayed and sold Finch’s work, said. “He has a unique and sensitive approach to using color and light to recreate specific moments in time, both personally experienced and universal, perhaps most notably displayed in his visceral and deeply moving installation for the 9/11 Museum.”

Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago features artist Spencer Finch

Rhona Hoffman Gallery

Following suit, the 2014 New York Times article further detailed that Spencer Finch approached the color of every square with “scientifically objective precision,” and used a colorimeter (a device that reads the average color temperature) to measure the hue in a specific place.

This idea has previously found itself into his other internationally renowned works, such as one depicting Emily Dickinson’s Garden as well as Trying to Remember the Color of Jackie Kennedy’s Pillbox Hat, a series of 100 pink pastel ovals on paper, evoking the iconic suit she wore on the day of husband/president John F. Kennedy’s November 1963’s assassination—another occasion which changed life as Americans knew it. However, the physical size and emotional context of the installation put the 9/11 memorial into another category.

Spencer Finch artwork Bontanica

Diego Berruecos / Courtesy of Galerie Nordenhake

“I’m not sure why it still resonates, but I think a lot of it has to do with context,” Spencer Finch said, reflecting upon the impact the installation has had on visitors in the six years it has been on display. “My goal was really to harness the process of memory as a way of remembering. So, it is the activity of remembering that connects to the memory of these people. Memory is a very complex and subjective function, and I was trying to take that into account. The museum (also) has such an intense and upsetting environment, and I think the artwork provides some sort of relief or maybe even hope for people after walking through other parts of the exhibition.”

A statement from the 9/11 Memorial & Museum’s staff, meanwhile, explains that the use of a Virgil quote (“No Day Shall Erase You From the Memory of Time”) nestled among the squares Spencer Finch hand-painted squares suggests the transformative potential of remembrance while succinctly reinforcing the museum’s mission. New Mexico artist Tom Joyce forged letters from recovered World Trade Center steel, meanwhile, adds extra gravity to this installation.

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Spencer Finch artwork at Rhona Hoffman Gallery Chicago

Rhona Hoffman Gallery

“Many remember the beauty of the clear blue sky on the morning of 9/11,” the museum literature reads. “But, our own perception of the color blue might not be the same as that of another person. However, just like our perception of color, our memories share a common point of reference.”

Spencer Finch, meanwhile, firmly insisted that he will not be creating another work like this. When asked by other institutions to create other memorials of this particular magnitude, he said he turned down those opportunities, pointing out, “I was very lucky on this project, and lightning doesn’t strike twice. For me, the most powerful response is when people cry. I never expected to make an artwork that had that effect, and it is still amazing to me.”

Botanica light artwork by Spencer Finch

Diego Berruecos / Courtesy of Galerie Nordenhake

Moving forward, on the 19th anniversary of 9/11, a new Spencer Finch exhibition, “looking around, gazing intently, beholding,” will open at Chicago’s Rhona Hoffman Gallery. The diverse pieces share striking abstract forms of color, light and shape depicting personal interactions with nature through their arrangements and compositions.

The Chicago show follows on the heels of the successful “Botanica” exhibition at the Nordenhake Gallery in Mexico City. In the gallery’s introduction to “Botanica,” the curator explains, “Spencer Finch, with both an interest in scientific research and a true poetic sensibility, dedicates himself to capturing these phenomena. His works, however, always reflect the impossibility of arriving at a single truth about his subjects and reinforce the ephemeral beauty and aura of the observed world.”

His works, however, always reflect the impossibility of arriving at a single truth about his subjects and reinforce the ephemeral beauty and aura of the observed world.

Susan Cross (Curator of Visual Arts at MASS MoCA and editor of the 2016 retrospective volume, Spencer Finch: The Brain is Wider than the Sky) added to Nordenhake Gallery’s commentary, saying that, “Spencer Finch’s conceptual approach revolves around the perception of everyday light and color. [He] carefully studies the world around him while simultaneously striving to understand what might lie beyond it. Whether he is relying on his powers of observation or using a colorimeter, as he did to create his 9/11 installation, Finch employed a scientific method to achieve poetic ends.”

Spencer Finch book cover The Brain in Wider Than the Sky

Book Cover / "Spencer Finch: The Brain is Wider than the Sky"

Cohen continued, using pieces from Finch’s “Following a Bee (Zinnias)” series and “Color Test” (both from 2019) to delve deeper into the artist’s methodology.

“The (Color Test) series consists of a light box confronting the viewer with an overwhelming abundance of colors,” he said. “In a process comparable to the mixing of pigments on a painter’s palette, Spencer Finch filters the ‘neutral’ white emanating from the light box with two layers of translucent film imprinted with an irregular checkerboard pattern in different hues. The result, a specific and unique number of different individual color variations, calls into question the limitations of visual perception and differentiation.”

Mosaic The Color Test artwork by Spencer Finch

James Cohen Gallery

“The Brain is Wider than the Sky,” meanwhile, offers another evocative perspective of Spencer Finch’s creative process through illustrations of various career highlights from the 1990s to the present. Large format illustrations detail his translations of color and light, while accompanying texts provide commentary from the artist and insight into his varied influences, from poetry to science and philosophy.” It can be purchased on Amazon and at other fine art book retailers.

Prominent New York City museums with Finch’s works in their permanent collections include the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum, and the Morgan Library—all which can add extra context to his monumental creation for the 9/11 Memorial Museum installation. Elsewhere in the U.S., his work can be found at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

FOLLOWING A BEE
Spencer Finch artwork Following a Bee (Zinnias)

Rhona Hoffman Gallery

“These works were done in Lakeville last summer in a part of the garden where I planted a big bunch of zinnias (started from seeds!) specifically for the purpose of making these drawings. For these drawings I did not use a GPS but simply sat on the top of a ladder overlooking the zinnias with a large photograph of the zinnias (taken from that viewpoint) and traced the bee’s flight pattern on an acetate sheet placed on top of the photo, and marked each flower that the bee pollinated. I then picked one each of all the colors of zinnias and matched the colors using pastel. Then I projected the acetate line drawing onto the drawing paper and traced the bee route with a pencil. I then marked the location of the flower pollination with the smudge of pastel of the appropriate color. The pastel is a reference of course to the pollen of the flower even though the color comes from the petals not the pollen. For me this is like a little secret Monet project, where I am actually planting the garden with the intention of using it as a laboratory for making art.” – Spencer Finch

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