Michael Richards: Are You Down? is the first museum retrospective of Michael Richards’s visionary artworks, exhibiting the sculptures, drawings, installations, and video work he created during a prolific decade between 1990 and 2001.
Of Jamaican and Costa Rican lineage, Richards was born in Brooklyn in 1963, and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. Integral to a generation of Black artists emerging in the 1990s, Richards’s artwork gestures toward both repression and reprieve from social injustices and the simultaneous possibilities of uplift and downfall, often in the context of the historic and ongoing oppression of Black people.
Flight and aviation were central themes for Richards as an exploration of freedom and escape, ascendance and descent. These themes are especially evident in Richards’s engagement with the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, Greek mythology, Christianity, and African and African American folklore. Centering his own experience, Richards used his body to cast the figures for his sculptures, which often appear as pilots, saints, or both.
The Bronx Museum was a central artistic home for Richards during his lifetime. He participated in the Artists in the Marketplace program in 1994, leading to his first-ever museum exhibition; and, in 1997, had a two-person show with Cathleen Lewis, curated by Marysol Nieves.
Tragically, Richards passed away on September 11, 2001 while working in his Lower Manhattan Cultural Council World Views studio on the 92nd floor of World Trade Center, Tower One. At age 38, Richards was an emerging artist whose incisive aesthetic held immense promise to make him a leading figure in contemporary art.
Inextricably connected to the moment of its making in the 1990s, Richards’s work engaging Blackness, flight, diaspora, spirituality, police brutality, and monuments remains timely and resonant decades after its creation.
Michael Richards: Are You Down? is curated by Alex Fialho and Melissa Levin, and organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami in 2021.
The exhibition is made possible with lead support from Oolite Arts and major support from the Wege Foundation. We are grateful to the Green Family Foundation and Funding Arts Network. Thanks to Brooke Davis Anderson; Roberta Denning; V. Joy Simmons, MD; Miami MOCAAD; and John Shubin for their generosity. Special thanks to Michael Richards’s cousin and steward of his estate, Dawn Dale.
About the Artist
Michael Rolando Richards (1963–2001) was born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. Richards moved back to the United States to attend Queens College, where he earned a BA in 1985. He received an MA from New York University in 1991, and attended the Whitney Independent Study Program from 1992–93. During his lifetime, Richards won several awards including a 1995 Art Matters Individual Artist Grant, and participated in renowned artist residencies at institutions such as the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Richards was featured in two-person and group exhibitions nationally and internationally at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Bronx, NY; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY; Miami Art Museum, Miami, FL; and Debeyard Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, among others. Richards’ artwork is held in museum collections including The Studio Museum in Harlem, NY; the Brooklyn Museum, NY; the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, Richmond, VA; and the Pérez Art Museum Miami, FL. Franconia Sculpture Park, near Minneapolis, MN, is the permanent home of Richards’s Are You Down?, a bronze recast of the original, large-scale sculpture by Richards, originally created during a Fellowship there in 2000.
About the Curators
Alex Fialho is an art historian, curator and PhD candidate in Yale University’s Combined PhD program in the History of Art and African American Studies. For the 2023–2024 academic year, Fialho will be a Helena Rubinstein Critical Studies Fellow in the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program. Fialho’s writing has been published in exhibition catalogs for the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, Socrates Sculpture Park and the Andy Warhol Museum, among others. Fialho previously worked for five years as Programs Director of the New York-based arts non-profit Visual AIDS.
Melissa Levin is a values-driven arts administrator and artist-centered curator. Levin recently joined the Jerome Foundation as their first New York City-based Program Officer, supporting early career artists in MN & NYC. Previously, she worked at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC) for more than 12 years, where—as Vice President of Cultural Programs—her role encompassed wide-ranging institutional and artistic leadership, including overseeing LMCC’s artist residencies, exhibitions, and public programming. Levin holds a B.A. with honors in Visual Art and Art History from Barnard College. She currently serves on the boards of the Artist Communities Alliance and Danspace Project.
Fialho and Levin have curated exhibitions together starting in 2014, including Trisha Brown: Embodied Practice and Site Specificity; and (Counter)Public: Art, Intervention, & Performance in Lower Manhattan from 1978–1993. Since 2016, they have curated critically-acclaimed exhibitions dedicated to the late artist Michael Richards’s art, life, and legacy including Michael Richards: Are You Down? (MOCA North Miami, 2021; North Carolina Museum of Art, 2023; Bronx Museum of the Arts, 2023–24); Michael Richards: Winged (LMCC, NY, 2016; Stanford University, CA, 2019). At Stanford, they also co-organized the academic symposium “Flight, Diaspora, Identity, and Afterlife: A Symposium on the Art of Michael Richards.”