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The presence of absence

For artists, 9/11 has been elusive. How does one render, or reimagine, something so universally and vividly seen?

'September' (Marian Goodman Gallery)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / September 9, 2011

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Sixth in an eight-part series.

There’s a painting by the German artist Gerhard Richter called “September.’’ Looked at casually, the image seems poised between representation and abstraction: a slightly blurry arrangement of blues and whites and grays, anchored by two vertical rectangles, beneath an unsettling presence of brown-black.

Looking more closely, and with the title in mind, one realizes just how representational it is. The rectangles are the twin towers of the World Trade Center; the brown-black is the pall of smoke that issued from the towers on Sept. 11, 2001. Richter’s use of white smudges, which adds to the appearance of abstraction, recalls the fluttering office paper that filled the sky that day.

Richter was flying from Germany to Newark on Sept. 11 for the Manhattan opening of a show of his work. The flight was diverted. Richter’s itinerary is one of the countless peripheral stories that make up the mosaic that is our ongoing collective sense of that day. Call it the cultural absorption of 9/11.

It consists not just of what happened in Lower Manhattan, but also the impact of watching what happened there, and the innumerable cascading consequences, whether as minor as a canceled trip or as overwhelming as the death of a loved one. Most enduringly, it consists of the reexamining of that impact and those consequences in art and literature.

What makes Richter’s painting such an emblem of that cultural absorption isn’t so much what it shows. There have been numerous other renderings, in various media, of the events of Sept. 11. No, what makes “September’’ emblematic is how the painting so eerily balances absence and presence. Sept. 11 is there all right. But you have to know to look for it, and then look closely. Robert Storr, a noted curator who has written about Richter’s work, has called the painting “the ghost of a ghost.’’

That could describe the cultural status of Sept. 11, too.

Ghosts can be discernible, of course - that’s what makes them frightening. The ghost of Sept. 11 can be seen in the abundance of bollards and barriers and empty plazas in the security-conscious design of public buildings. It’s there in how resurgent patriotism has maintained such a potent presence in the culture. It’s there in the ongoing fascination with the culture of surveillance (what was once a cause of paranoia in so many films is now a cause for reassurance). In its most troubling form, the ghost of Sept. 11 can be seen in Hollywood’s seemingly ever-greater taste for calamitous spectacle.

The list of creative works inspired by the events of that day - or, more accurately perhaps, that responded to those events - is long. There are so many 9/11-themed titles that Wikipedia has a page devoted to the songs, as well as another that lists novels, films, and so on.

There have been photography collections (Joel Meyerowitz’s “Aftermath’’), a television series (“Rescue Me’’), films (“Flight 93,’’ “World Trade Center’’), novels (Don DeLillo’s “Falling Man,’’ Joseph O’Neill’s “Netherland’’), popular songs (Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising,’’ Paul McCartney’s “Freedom’’), even a Pulitzer Prize-winning classical music piece (John Adams’s “On the Transmigration of Souls’’).

The works continue to come. A new production of “The Guys,’’ Anne Nelson’s 2001 play about New York firefighters and Sept. 11, opened Tuesday in Lower Manhattan. A film version of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,’’ starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, is scheduled for release Christmas Day.

Yet considering the impact of Sept. 11 in other realms - political, diplomatic, economic - what’s surprising is that the list isn’t longer. It may be even more striking that no Sept. 11-inspired work has seized the popular or critical imagination in any sort of outsized way. Certainly, there have been no Sept. 11 counterparts to Erich Maria Remarque’s novel “All Quiet on the Western Front,’’ Picasso’s painting “Guernica,’’ Shostakovich’s “Leningrad’’ Symphony, Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.’’

Masterpieces don’t just happen, of course. The National Endowment for the Arts or the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize in Literature, doesn’t have its version of a Netflix queue. Still, even allowing for the unpredictability of genius, it may be that the very nature of the event undermines artists. Shortly after Sept. 11, the photography curator John Szarkowski said: “No matter how many times you show the picture of the plane crashing into the tower, it’s not any kind of answer. It’s only a question.’’ Some questions even art can’t answer.

Or we don’t want it to try to. A recording of Steve Reich’s classical chamber piece “WTC 9/11’’ was in the news last month. Complaints about the seemliness of there being a photograph of the twin towers on the CD cover led to the photo’s removal. Reich said in a statement: “We can put the focus back where it belongs, on the music.’’ Even a decade later, that remains a problem in dealing with Sept. 11 artistically, the gravitational pull of politics and controversy. Mel Brooks’s film “The Producers’’ was released 23 years after the end of World War II. How long will it take before the first Sept. 11 comedy? Will there ever be one? Should there ever be one?

Simply posing such questions suggests how far we have come. Would there be comedy, period, people wondered in the days immediately following the attacks. “There’s going to be a seismic change,’’ said Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair magazine. “I think it’s the end of the age of irony. Things that were considered fringe and frivolous are going to disappear.’’

That sentiment may seem absurd now; the Black Death, to cite just one example, didn’t exactly end irony and frivolousness. Yet Carter was by no means alone in thinking as he did. People thought that way for the very reason most rarely think about Sept. 11 now (except when anniversaries come around, or Osama bin Laden is killed). Ours is a culture of the instant, an ongoing present tense and disposable past. “The roar was still in the air, the buckling rumble of the fall,’’ DeLillo writes in “Falling Man.’’ “This was the world now.’’ As overwhelming - as unprecedented - as Sept. 11 was, it soon enough became then. This culture is very hard on then.

The one thing that people might reasonably have expected to change in popular culture was the appetite for the simulation of disaster as boffo entertainment. If putting a news photo on the cover of a CD a decade after the attacks can be considered unseemly, where does that leave simulating on screen in 70mm (and now IMAX and 3-D) the gleeful blowing up of office buildings and killing of thousands? The postponement of the release of “Collateral Damage,’’ an Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie about a firefighter who loses his family in a terrorist bombing, generated considerable press attention shortly after Sept. 11. Postponement is not the same thing as cancellation. Less than six months later, the movie came out and grossed $65 million worldwide.

The public has long responded to epic destruction on the screen, whether it be King Kong atop the Empire State Building or the Red Sea drowning pharaoh’s army in “The Ten Commandments.’’ Remarkable advances in computer-generated imagery have given filmmakers the means to provide audiences with disasters of astonishing realism and extent. Surely part of the popularity of large-scale urban destruction onscreen is the superb execution such technology enables. How much of it, though, might come from an ongoing post-9/11 frisson? The murderous sea monsters in 2008’s “Cloverfield’’ come ashore not far from ground zero. Although the downtown that gets largely leveled in this summer’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon’’ belongs to Chicago, there is no mistaking the Sept. 11 allusion when a character yells “Let’s roll!’’ before attacking the Decepticons.

That phrase became a kind of post-9/11 motto. They were the last words heard spoken on a phone call by Todd Beamer, a passenger on United Airlines Flight 93, the hijacked plane that crashed in rural Pennsylvania. Understandably, expressions of patriotism filled the culture. Talk show hosts took to wearing flag pins on their lapels. “God Bless America’’ was sung during the seventh-inning stretch of Major League Baseball games.

To some degree, this continues. Jay Leno still wears his pin. David Letterman doesn’t. (Is taking off a flag pin as much of a statement as putting one on?) Major League Baseball now requires that “God Bless America’’ be sung only on Sundays and holidays. What went on to become the most popular network series of the past decade originated in Britain under the title “Pop Idol.’’ Would it still have been renamed “American Idol’’ had it debuted here in the spring of 2001 instead of 2002?

Another Fox series, “24,’’ debuted on Nov. 6, 2001, and stayed on the air until 2010. Conceived before Sept. 11, it combined terrorism, patriotism, surveillance, calamity, and - a crucial point - took place in the course of a single day, a telescoping of time that recalled the events of another, all-too-real single day. The message was implicit: If only Jack Bauer had been on the case. . . .

Television was the medium most dominated by Sept. 11. How could television not have been, with the memory of so many hours of astounding news footage from that day. Would the presence of that broken-off jet engine on the beach in “Lost’’ have had such resonance on page, stage, or movie screen?

Reich, speaking on another occasion about “WTC 9/11,’’ unintentionally pointed to the difficulties all that news footage posed for any attempt to deal artistically with the attacks. “For us, 9/11 was not a media event,’’ he said. Reich’s son and his son’s family lived in an apartment four blocks from the World Trade Center, one that the composer had formerly lived in. The Reichs are the exception, though. For all but the merest fraction of the world’s populace, Sept. 11 was a media event, perhaps the first truly global one since the Apollo 11 moon landing - and one that, owing to the evolution of communications technology, a much greater percentage of the population could witness and do so far more vividly.

The German avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen drew withering criticism when he suggested that the attacks were “the greatest work of art there has ever been.’’ Substitute the word “spectacle’’ for “work of art,’’ and bear in mind that “greatest’’ describes magnitude not value, and one can see a larger insight in Stockhausen’s remark. Consider the nature of the events, that they took place in such a setting (the media capital of the world), and the amount of coverage they received; “greatest’’ and “spectacle’’ verge on understatement. Reich used the term “media event’’ dismissively, but Sept. 11, among many other things, was surely that - as its perpetrators intended.

Only participants saw the sinking of the Titanic. Only participants saw the attack on Pearl Harbor. Tens of millions saw the fall of the towers in real time, and hundreds of millions more saw it replayed again and again. How can an author or composer or filmmaker reimagine an event that his or her audience has already seen in such a way, and thus imagined, for themselves?

What John Adams felt when the New York Philharmonic asked him to compose the piece that would become “On the Transmigration of Souls’’ - “I had great difficulty imagining anything ‘commemorating’ 9/11 that would not be an embarrassment’’ - surely describes the response of any sane artist to confronting Sept. 11 head-on. Listening to the cellphone rings at the beginning of Neil Young’s “Let’s Roll,’’ one can appreciate what Adams meant.

It’s hard to exaggerate the power of art, whether that art be as exalted as an oratorio or as basic as a rock song (think of the jolt that an earlier Young commentary on public events, “Ohio,’’ still packs). But art has its limits. Even a Goya, whose print series “The Disasters of War’’ may still be the unsurpassed envisioning of man’s inhumanity to man, would be hard pressed to deal with something as shocking and previously unimaginable as the events of Sept. 11.

That may be another reason for the value of “September’’ as a cultural marker: its simplicity and modesty. It doesn’t try to reproduce or expand or comment on Sept. 11. It does not exhort or even overtly lament. Instead, it indicates and reminds. As all paintings do, it exists in space, but this one also exists in time. Richter can trust viewers to superimpose duration. They know the towers will fall, yes. They also know the smoke will clear. Most important, they know that those patches of blue, the most eloquent thing in the painting, will fill the canvas.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.