Heroism was once the face of our war memorials. No more. You have only to compare Felix De Weldon's sculpture of five WWII servicemen planting the stars and stripes on Iowa Jima in 1954 with Maya Ying Lin’s half-buried black granite wall engraved with the 57,000 name of dead or missing Vietnam War veterans in 1982 to know that when it comes to war memorials, our gung-ho days are over.

Artist Eric Fischl seemed to punch this point up when he paid tribute to the civilian victims of war with “Tumbling Women.” A bronze sculpture, it portrayed a female plunging backward to her death – a testament to those who died in the downing of the Towers.

The winds of war shift direction

But when this work showed in Rockefeller Center in 2012, New Yorkers have so put out by it that the only removal quieted the uproar. Fischl argued back that all the emotion over the horror of that day seemed to center on replacing the lost towers without mention of some form of remembrance for the lost lives. “Tumbling Woman” is meant to remind people that 9/11 was a human tragedy, he said.

Moment of truth comes again

Fischl’s reminder goes on public display again, this time with a dozen other artists’ reminders in a show titled “Rendering the Unthinkable” at New York’s National 9/11 Memorial Museum opening on Sept. 12. And one can’t help wondering about New York’s skittishness, especially since it wasn’t limited to “Tumbling Woman.” The city had flinched before when a war memorial was planned for Manhattan’s Riverside Park: a monument to honor the Warsaw Ghetto Battle.

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It was rejected for being too graphic.

James E. Young reported on “Critical Issues in Public #Art” published in 1992 that the Warsaw memorial progressed only as far as a plaque, which still lies in the park. Missing from the memorial is the prospective sculpture of Arthur Zygolboim enveloped in flames in remembrance of his suicide in London 1943 to protest the world’s indifference to the plight of Jews in Poland. New York said it was inappropriate for a recreational park.  

Time to power up, New York

Yet an image of tragedy every bit as gritty as the Warsaw Ghetto Battle had no trouble getting to Lincoln Park in San Francisco in 1982: George Segal’s Holocaust Memorial, which describes ten life-size white plaster figures looking as bloodless as corpses strewn in piles as if tossed. There’s also the equally graphic sculpture of human tragedy that had no trouble getting into New Jersey’s Liberty State Park in 1985 - Nathan Ropoport’s “Liberation.” The monument portrays a GI cradling a limp concentration camp victim, his bones showing through ragged prison clothes.

Something Maya Lin said about her Vietnam Memorial may help New York get over itself. We need to look death in the eye, she said. Then we can turn around and walk back out into the light. Memorials like “Tumbling Woman” provide a place to face our mortality.   #Android