The Wallach Art Gallery’s New Exhibition Examines the Memory of 9/11

The three-part show also looks at monuments and memorials on Columbia’s campus, and commemorates local lives lost to the pandemic.

Editor's note:

The Gallery will reopen on September 10, 2021. The Wallach's public access dates and hours are subject to shifting Covid conditions. In the interest of the health and safety of visitors and staff, details on public access for this exhibition will be regularly updated on the Gallery's website. Please check that site for the most up to date information and registration links to visit the exhibition.

Eve Glasberg
September 02, 2021

The Wallach Art Gallery’s new exhibition, The Way We Remember: Fritz Koenig’s Sphere, the Trauma of 9/11, and the Politics of Memory, opens on September 10, and runs through November 14, 2021. The show highlights three distinct but interrelated themes. The first part examines the memory of 9/11 through the lens of one of the earliest memorials, the modernist sculptor Fritz Koenig’s Sphere, which was designed for the World Trade Center and became an important part of its afterlife. Second is Columbia’s Morningside campus as a place of memory, and the long history of the University’s interactions with its physical monuments and memorials. The final section features installations of memorial design concepts by contemporary artists that commemorate members of the Harlem and Morningside Heights communities who died of COVID-19.

The Way We Remember is curated by Holger A. Klein, the Lisa and Bernard Selz Professor of Medieval Art History in the Department of Art History and Archaeology. He was assisted by a curatorial team of graduate students including Alison Braybrooks, Karen Hartnick, Kayla J. Smith, Qisen Song, Giovanna Suhl, and Emily L. Wehby.

Klein recently discussed the exhibition with Columbia News.

Q. How did this exhibition come about?

A. A few years ago, I was asked to write an essay on Fritz Koenig’s Sphere for the catalogue of the artist’s retrospective at the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, in 2018. I had been an admirer of Koenig’s work since my graduate student days at the University of Munich, and later had the good fortune to meet him through a mutual friend. I fondly remember my visits with Fritz and Maria Koenig at their home in Ganslberg (outside Landshut in Bavaria) in the mid-2000s, and it was in the context of these visits that the idea for a focus show on the Sphere first emerged.

It took another 15 years for this idea to bear fruit. What was originally conceived as a focus exhibition on Koenig’s Sphere ultimately became an exhibition on Koenig’s Sphere, the trauma of 9/11, and the politics of memory.

Alma Mater, Columbia University

Q. Why are you focusing on Koenig's Sphere?

A. The Sphere was created as a kinetic fountain sculpture for the World Trade Center Plaza between 1967 and 1972. It is not only one of Koenig’s most monumental bronze sculptures, but its miraculous survival of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 made the work instantly famous, and changed its trajectory from a public monument to a symbol of hope and defiance in the face of terror. Less than six months later, the sculpture was put up as a temporary memorial in Battery Park, where it stood for 15 years.

Unfortunately, Koenig passed away in early 2017, several months before his Sphere was moved back to the World Trade Center site. What fascinated me about this most recent history of the Sphere was the vigorous and steadfast advocacy of 9/11 families for the reintegration of the artwork into the 9/11 memorial site, an idea long resisted by those responsible at the National September 11 Memorial, which had replaced the Sphere as the permanent 9/11 memorial in 2011.  

It is this compelling story of the Sphere’s transformation from a fountain monument into a memorial, and the politics of memory surrounding its return to the World Trade Center site, that sparked the idea for an exhibition on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

Q. Did the events of 2020-21—the pandemic, the social movements/protests, political changes—help shape the exhibition?

A. Absolutely! During the past year, statues of Christopher Columbus, Confederate generals, and other historical figures were spray-painted, beheaded, cast from their pedestals, and thrown into harbor basins in a global wave of protests against racism, white supremacy, and the legacies of colonialism. As an art historian, I felt that this historical moment demanded that we take a closer look at long-held assumptions about public monuments, memorials, and our own memorial traditions.

Even before the events of the summer of 2020, the violent clash between white supremacists and counter-protesters over the removal of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, raised important questions about the role of public monuments and memorials in civic society and public discourse: What are appropriate ways to commemorate or memorialize significant historical places and events, or the achievements of historical or contemporary figures? What role does art and architecture play in the mediation of history and/or memory to future generations?

None of these questions can be answered definitively or unequivocally. But the current moment signals how important it is to engage with the politics of memory, and that we need to understand our past to forge a better future.

Our exhibition does this by highlighting three separate but related sections: We focus on the memory of 9/11 through a close look at the Sphere; the Columbia campus as a place of memory and a historical archive; and, finally, our present struggle to grasp, visualize, and commemorate the enormous impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Harlem and Morningside Heights communities.

Q. How did you select the Columbia works that are featured in the show?

A. For me and the curatorial team of graduate students who helped put this show together, it quickly became clear that Columbia is the glue that holds together the three sections of our exhibition. While the first section focuses on the memory of 9/11, it is the memorial traditions we have established here on the Morningside campus that connect us in a powerful way to the World Trade Center site downtown and the rituals of commemoration that take place there.

Whereas Columbia’s annual 9/11 commemorations leave no physical traces, the Morningside campus is dotted with other, more permanent markers of memory in the guise of monuments erected since the University moved to Morningside Heights in 1897. We chose some of the more prominent ones for our exhibition: Daniel Chester French’s 1903 statue Alma Mater, which was commissioned as a memorial for Robert Goelet Jr. by his wife, Harriette; William Ordway Partridge’s statues of Alexander Hamilton (1907), Thomas Jefferson (1914), and John Howard Van Amringe (dean of Columbia College from 1911 to 1922); and James Edward Kelly’s bas-relief commemorating the Battle of Harlem Heights.

A deep dive into the Columbia Archives, our institutional memory, allowed us to highlight the history of these memorials and the long-forgotten stories that surround them in meaningful ways. Whether it is correspondence or historical photos, the original Butler Library Banner of 1989; or the souvenirs left at the pop-up memorial for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2020, in front of Alma Mater; the Columbia Archives and the Art Properties Collection were treasure-troves that yielded many wonderful objects for our exhibition.

"Monuments and Memory," the curatorial graduate seminar I taught this summer that informed our exhibition and allowed graduate students to participate in shaping The Way We Remember, was one of the highlights of the entire academic year for me.