Eric Fischl’s home and studio in North Haven sit atop a hill overlooking a serene inlet. Climbing the steep stairs gradually reveals what could easily be mistaken for a Tuscan villa shimmering under the summer sun.
Then, it’s hard not to gasp upon seeing her.
“Tumbling Woman” rests in the center of the courtyard, welcoming visitors as they reach the top of the steps. Touching the bronze sculpture’s outstretched hand is instinctual, the motion wipes away a few cobwebs woven between her chin and shoulder.
She is stunning. But public outcry over her in October 2002—after she was placed on the lower concourse of Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan—was so acute that she was covered up and promptly removed within a week.
“Tumbling Woman” is Mr. Fischl’s ode to “the jumpers”—those who fell or jumped to their death from the towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Their images were on display through every media outlet, but in the United States, reaction to the human toll was quickly diverted to mourning the lost buildings.
The sculpture serves as a reminder of those who died. It is a simple piece, a woman at precisely the moment before impact. Her impressionistic, rough texture gives her movement, yet she is elegant, her legs together midair, parallel to the horizon ahead, her left arm reaching out for someone.
“It’s meant to touch, in a way, to connect you on the inside, so you don’t feel so alone and vulnerable,” Mr. Fischl said last week, sitting inside his studio. “At the time, it was so much the mourning of the architecture. These buildings. These icons.”
“When I started making the sculpture, I needed a way to include us, who survived, as well as those who died,” he continued. “That’s why it’s tumbling, as opposed to falling. The feel of the piece itself is more of a horizontal movement than a crashing down. And it’s that tumbling, that sense we all had of not knowing where or when we’re going to stop—free-fall, kind of rolling around in confusion. And I had put the hand out as part of that, because I was hoping that in the long run, people would grab the hand. That that would be a way of connecting and maybe even giving you the sense of trying to slow it down, stop it. They would reach to touch that.”
He quickly laughed. “Of course nobody touches art. It’s a nice thought, but the guard is going to cut your f-----g hand off if you touch it.”
Following the terrorism attack, Mr. Fischl said he felt an urgent responsibility to address it through his work, for the public, to help people make sense of what had happened. That is what art does at its best, he said, adding he saw his sculpture as “a sincere gesture of expressing the pain and vulnerability. Those feelings were part of the tragedy.”
However, the public did not want to put their feelings and experiences in order, he said—at least not in this way. The pain of that day, more than a year later, was still an open, gaping wound, and the sculpture seemed to keep the memory fresh.
“It was a rough experience for me because it was such a rejection. I think it probably was too early,” he said. “A lot of comments came back that said, ‘Had she been in an art gallery …’ the fact that it was in public, unannounced, it just showed up at Rockefeller Center, people didn’t think it was fair. So there’s this split between that, art, or the contextualized thing, isolated and you choose to go to it and prepare yourself, as opposed to go and come upon something that is expressive.”
Nothing will ever display more graphically the horror of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers than the amateur photographs of those tragic souls frozen in time.
“They’re taking control over the last moment of their life. I had all kinds of mixed feelings about that experience because, on one hand, the vividness of the horror is manifest in that choice. That somebody chooses one death over another, and they’re both certain. And you say, ‘No, I’m going this way,’” he deliberated. “I think everybody watching it said, ‘I don’t want to see this.’ This really is so terrifying. At the same time, we knew immediately that that was the most succinct and eloquent way to describe this horror.”
“Tumbling Woman” is markedly androgynous, in some ways masculine. She has a muscular torso, her breasts are small, her shoulders broad. She embodies both the male and female principle, Mr. Fischl explained, and she is not nude—she’s naked, he said. There is a marked difference.
“Naked is a vulnerable state. Nude is not. Nude is a pose,” he explained. “Nakedness gets to the soul of a person. To their feeling of power, lack of power. Comfort, discomfort, all of the things that are more psychological or emotional. I chose to represent the sculpture through the female principle, as opposed to the male one, because I think the female principle still represents to us nurturing, vulnerability. It’s the mother principle. It resonated to me, in a way, that it was hitting a lot of different chords in our society that would disturb us, increase our sense of loss.”
Mr. Fischl was not in Manhattan when the planes hit, he said.
“We watched it unfold like most of the world did,” he said. “I was terrified. So many of our friends live in the city. Friends work in the building. In fact, we did lose a friend.”
Art can document a time and place forever, and it often represents an exploration of the human condition, he said. “It’s a memory device that tells the story that is multi-layered, complex and paradoxical. It’s vulnerable to interpretation and keeps it alive. It’s a skill set that not many people have,” he said. “My first response watching it was, ‘If artists are needed, now is the time. This is it. This is the real thing.’ And then I was incredibly disappointed that so many artists didn’t respond.”
His disappointment manifested in his realization that some artists have become manufacturers of merchandise, instead of using their talent for the greater good of humanity. He explained, sadly, that many are working on a personal style that doesn’t necessarily fit into that sense of expressive urgency.
“What really surprised me was that many artists I talked to actually didn’t feel an artistic responsibility to deal with it. And some even felt that it was opportunistic, like you would be doing it for all the wrong reasons,” he said. “It was really weird. It just shows how decadent artists can be. They’re into it for making objects that are commodities.
“Would you expect Hermes or Vogue to do something about 9/11? What are you saying?” he asked a phantom artist sitting in front of him. “This is art, for God’s sake. This isn’t that.”
Ultimately, “Tumbling Woman” is a triumph because she won’t die. Her job is to keep the tumblers on that day in the conversation, as media continues to make invisible their heroism because it’s too hard—or too painful—to understand that choice.
Mr. Fischl straightened from a slump and smiled. “I am happy that it resonates. That it didn’t go away even though they covered it up and took it away. It didn’t go away. There are six of them; they’re spread out. One is in Europe, several around the country. I just found out that a collector has donated it to the Whitney. It’s finding its way back downtown. It’s cool. Hopefully they’ll show it.”
Upon suggestion that it should sit in the “jumper” section of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in Manhattan, he says too quickly not to notice, “That would be a dream.”
As heartbreaking and tender that section of the museum is, many visitors may not know just how heroic the tumblers were—how they saved perhaps thousands of their fellow humans that day. For testimony after testimony, survivors of the South Tower credit the tumblers for having saved their lives.
Officials declared the South Tower safe soon after the first plane hit and asked them to get back to work. Thankfully, many ignored their supervisors and got out as fast as they could when they bore witness to the pirouetting heroes tumbling past their windows.
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One fine body…