The artwork of sculptor, draftsperson, and installation artist Michael Richards (1963 – 2001) challenges prevalent assumptions about the physical properties, and therefore the aesthetic application, of suspension in Black cultural production. As an African American of Jamaican and Costa Rican descent, Richards grappled with questions of citizenship, racism, and freedom, frequently using motifs of flight and gravity. Although Richards created his work before his untimely death in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, his piece titled Tar and Feather nevertheless anticipates the possibilities, and important limitations, of suspension as a theoretical framework. When placed in conversation with the theoretical discourse that now exists surrounding suspension, Richards's material sculptures and archival sketches posthumously anticipate the limits of conventional strategies for Black possibility. This paper argues that Tar and Feather illustrates the asymptotic imbrication of blackness and freedom, which renders the plot as both a diagram of forces and an abstract aesthetic geography from which to create.
If Michael Richards were alive today, he might say that reaching for freedom is not only futile but impossibly dangerous: every time freedom seems so close for Black people, it recedes just out of reach. The New York–based visual artist worked in a variety of mediums, including sculpture, drawing, and installations, and focused on spotlighting inconsistencies between Black Americans’ experiences and those of their white counterparts. He frequently illuminated those discrepancies in his artwork by thematically focusing on the Tuskegee Airmen and their struggles with discrimination at the hands of the United States government.1 Pieces of his like Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian (1999) and Air Fall One (His Eye Is on the Sparrow, and I Know He's Watching Me) (1998) incorporate images of airplanes and metaphors of flight. In hindsight, Richards's frequent use of plane imagery seems prophetic given his death in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. However, focusing on the sadly spectacular circumstances of his death distracts from the serious political and social inquiries present in his artwork, and articulated through the physical mechanics of rising and falling.2
As an African American of Jamaican and Costa Rican descent, Richards was fascinated by the contradictions latent in Black identity and more broadly the nature of blackness. Invoking what Fred Moten might refer to as the “fugitivity” of blackness,3 Richards often spoke through the metaphor of escape: “It's about a societal escape. Trying to transcend the societal boundaries that we set up as an invisible trap around us.”4 Perhaps Richards felt this cynicism himself as he came of age in the post–civil rights era. In pieces like Tar and Feather (1999), the artist creates a traplike installation that depicts blackness and the surrounding superstructure that holds it in place. The piece betrays a malaise and lack of faith in the ideals that inspired the movement just a generation before his time. As a result, Richards's work is especially relevant to our own age, since, following on the heels of an era marked by hope, we are left with the inescapable reality of police brutality and mass incarceration.
Tar and Feather comprises seven total objects: six pairs of bonded bronze wings, arranged in downward V shapes, and one bucket of tar hang motionlessly, suspended in perfect equilibrium (figs. 1 and 2). Inversely proportional, the higher the bucket of tar rises, the more impossible its escape becomes, making freedom practically and theoretically impossible for Black people to reach. This suspended aesthetic relationship between blackness and freedom decouples the assumption that freedom naturally leads to, or springs from, social elevation. Tar and Feather guides viewers by mechanically demonstrating the gravity of blackness held in place by invisible limits, visualizing blackness and freedom in an asymptotic relationship. Plotting the outer limits of the asymptotic trap articulated in Tar and Feather, I read the work as questioning the very gravitational forces of up and down, flight and falling, rising to freedom and plummeting toward failure.
Mapping the asymptote requires visualizing those relationships between suspended objects that are determined by mechanical physics to elevate the poetic interaction of abstract elements in Tar and Feather as objects that both reference the real world obliquely and are constrained by its physical properties. A close reading through the free body diagram, a system of annotating force vectors in physics, fundamentally sets in motion a means of speculating what it means to be free. To that end, this essay proceeds first by analyzing the visual vocabulary Richards employs to establish his metaphors. Then, I will place these motifs in a relationship through a close reading of Tar and Feather. By turning to suspension immediately afterward, I discuss its significance, and shortfalls, leaning on diagramming through free body models of force and movement. To conclude, I read through the asymptotes toward the theoretical plot from which to reconsider the aesthetic relationship of blackness to freedom in a system that fundamentally precludes it.
Tar and Feather operates on the register of what Phillip Bryan Harper calls an “abstractionist” frequency that “emphasizes its own distance from reality by calling attention to its constructed or artificial character. . . . In thus disrupting the easy correspondence between itself and its evident referent, the abstractionist work invites us to question the ‘naturalness’ not only of the aesthetic representation but also of the social facts to which it alludes.”5 That is, abstractionist aesthetics allows Tar and Feather to unexpectedly draw viewers into the trap of their own expectations to experience the tension between naturalness and artifice. For example: the bucket of tar exists as an object with distinct material qualities, such as its weight and viscosity, and yet, within Richards's visual lexicon and through its positioning in a manner that highlights natural forces, it becomes representative of “social facts.”
Tar and Feather generates a poetic balance of significant motifs akin to what, building on Édouard Glissant, C. C. McKee describes as “desiring relation” of objects “with none taking priority in the encounter.”6 Though near the spatial center of the piece, the bucket of tar is no more or less important to the piece than the wings, and the absence of any one element would unbalance the system and cause its collapse. Because they are all suspended over a pulley system, each object is balanced, physically and metaphorically, by the presence of the others, so that blackness and freedom are held in a precarious and interdependent equilibrium.
Although the wings are symbols of flight, Richards has described flight “both as freedom and surrender.”7 Held between the story of the flying Africans who, legend says, could fly out of enslavement and back home to Africa and stories of the enslaved who threw themselves overboard rather than enter forced bondage, African American flight oscillates between freedom and surrender—as it does at the conclusion of Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, with Milkman Dead's ambiguous suicide-as-deliverance, when she writes, “If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”8 Yet, the wings in Tar and Feather don't hover weightlessly; instead, they dangle from the pulley system, anchored to a bucket of tar.
Sagging beneath the feathers, the bucket pulls the gaze down toward the liquid black tar, where it is the tar's extreme heaviness, more than its color, that gestures toward blackness's ontological position. As a counterpoint to the ambiguous lightness of the wings, the tar plummets toward the ground with an abundance of weight. The volume of the tar read together with the weightiness of its pull against the wings gives the sense that the black tar is there in abundance. Indeed, the overfull tar tops off the bucket and leaks onto the floor. The tar is excessive—simultaneously mercurial and heavy. This too much liquid blackness is an “endless reservoir”9 from which dominant culture draws—an ontological position that Saidiya Hartman and Frank B. Wilderson III describe as simultaneously the “position of the unthought” and the “foundation of the national order.”10
Though not immediately visible, each wing is topped by a nipple, likely cast from Richards's own body, highlighting the fleshiness and sensitivity of the delicate equilibrium. Perhaps surprisingly figurative for an abstractionist piece, the nipple intensifies a vision of blackness that is sensual, perhaps sexual, and always available.11 It is also in keeping with several other of Richards's works, such as Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian and Winged—in which miniature P-51 Mustang fighters pierce the torso of a Tuskegee airman, cast from Richards's own body—where the artist's body casts add an element of surrogacy and direct participation to the artwork.12 More intensely, in Tar and Feather, the nipples, pierced by a monofilament and anchored to the bucket of tar, hold all the installation pieces together—a nipple piercing that sensitively illustrates the precarity of lifting the bucket of tar with such a delicate part of the body. At the same time, the physical restrictions of natural laws belie the optimism of elevation. The asymptotic relationship demands an ever-increasing amount of force to lift the bucket of tar; no matter how light it becomes, it would compromise the filament, despite its real or imagined strength. Put simply, the tether would snap. As a result, the asymptote forces real consideration of impossibility: how hard is one willing to push in pursuit of a freedom that is definitionally out of reach?
Tar and Feather asks us to approach Richards's concern with escape, or its impossibility, through the lens of mechanical physics, by visually diagramming the sum of total forces present within a domain. To think about diagramming, I turn to Lauren McLeod Cramer's practice of “diagramming blackness” through icons of catastrophe, whereby visualizing the latently racialized architectures realizes the means of suspending bodies through natural properties.13 The diagram is helpful precisely because it disaggregates between, as she writes, “the visual effect of suspension (hovering and lightness) and the process that creates suspension (force and pressure).”14 Diagramming traces the presence of all forces within a system, excavating the final product to observe its initial construction. Equilibrium, consequently, shifts from indicating a state of ease to a state of balanced tension. Suspension is one such example of a form of equilibrium: the object appears weightless not because force is absent but because the present force is equal in magnitude and opposite in direction. Tar and Feather is held in suspension because the bucket of tar is suspended by six wings so that the entire system is held in static equilibrium. The wings hold the bucket up, but they also fix the bucket in place. In this case, suspension functions to preclude, rather than promote, escape. Instead, the lack of movement reconsiders balance, equality, and especially what forces are necessary to defy gravity. Just as the objects in Tar and Feather gesture to elements in reality, so too do the forces that govern their behavior.
As Cramer points out, given the prevalence of such heaviness surrounding blackness, there is a radical potential in depicting “images of blackness that float.”15 Undoubtedly, the inundation of weighty depictions of blackness deeply stunts imagined possibilities of what blackness might do otherwise. Society's gravitational limits would be challenged by counter representational aesthetics. Yet, I propose that rather than offering an alternative representation, Tar and Feather opts instead to depict things as they are, albeit with an abstractionist sensibility. As a result, rather than intervening in the representation of weightiness, I seek to identify how Tar and Feather makes the seemingly natural forces of gravity and uplift otherwise strange and peculiar.
For instance, thinking blackness and suspension together must acknowledge the deep embeddedness of lynching in visual culture, and the violence that underwrites Black people held in suspension.16 Richards alluded to lynching in several of his works, including Same Old Song and Dance (1992, figs. 3–4)17 and Escape Plan #IV (2000, fig. 5). Tar and Feather picks up on the undercurrent of lynching and links it to the adjacent violent act of tar and feathering. The title gestures to ways the tar bucket and set of wings also conjure the specterlike Black body, through rituals of spectacular public violence.
Thus, for Richards, suspension is neither exclusively grounding nor elevating, but it rather expresses a condition of deep ambivalence that keeps blackness fixed in place. He often depicted his subject as stuck: in tar, as is the case for Are You Down?, or in place, as suggested by the Escape Plan series and the life-size casts. Escape Plan #IV, in particular, stages a macabre allusion: the Rapunzel strategy of growing out hair to escape is thwarted by the Black, kinky, textured hair that curls into a noose. Ultimately, suspension is seen here as a death sentence, as the ambivalent forces come back to land on the body. The possibilities of suspension sit in deep ambivalence with its dangers, past and present, to blackness; consequently, reading Tar and Feather through free body diagrams contextualizes the total system of forces, such that we might reconsider suspension's productive limitations.
Diagramming blackness also speculates how the arrangement of forces might otherwise be constructed. As Cramer continues, “Architectural diagrams are similarly seeking detachment and other modes of existence; diagrams are renderings that visualize all of the possible arrangements of a structure, considering how its joints could be alternatively arranged.”18 The diagram not only proposes an arrangement but imagines others as well, optimizing toward equilibrium. Looking toward the “joints” of its construction is to approach the circumstances of its potential, and also the conditions of its impossibility. In Tar and Feather, these possible arrangements hinge on the joints in the piece, the pulley systems that define the terms of relation and modulate the force involved. It is the speculative dimension run through the pulleys that leads me to a specific type of diagram called the “free body diagram.”
Drawing upon Newtonian physics rather than from architectural theory, the free body diagram emphasizes the imbalance of forces that govern the body's ability to move. If the free body diagram depicts a net vector of scalar force, then the object is in motion, perhaps moving with enough velocity to escape a system. When brought into Richards's visual lexicon, escape velocity represents the necessary force to overcome the opposing force that would otherwise keep it in place. The free body is represented neither through the free-floating figure nor the figure who balances competing forces; rather, the free body is the one with enough force to destabilize and thus overcome the balance of a system. The necessary forces might be thought of as the force that percolates the “catastrophic chaos,” disbursing blackness and despatializing the categorical philosophies of antiblackness.19 The question then is what force (and in what amount) is required to destabilize, disturb, or otherwise disrupt, even for a moment, the architecture of forces that hold blackness in place. Turning to Tar and Feather, the arrangement of objects establishes a relationship of forces such that movement speculates suspension's generative limitations and the endless deferral of catastrophe.
Plotting the Natural Limits
Mechanically speaking, free body diagrams speculate all possible arrangements of Tar and Feather if an outside force were exerted.20 We might imagine that the wings could exert additional force downward, thus physically and symbolically elevating the bucket of tar supposedly toward freedom. However, the force required to lift the bucket even marginally higher would strain the force pulling on the wings, and proportionally the tar would feel increasingly heavy. Unexpectedly, the harder the pull downward, the heavier the object becomes. The multimode pulley system creates an asymptote, the natural consequence of suspension at an angle.
The more weight given to freedom, the more impossible blackness becomes. The bucket of tar would theoretically approach an asymptote, a natural limit around which all elevation would practically grind to a halt. The asymptote, which Dionte Harris describes as “one of calculus's impossible figures,” describes the flight path of the bucket as it rises at a decreasing rate: as he writes, “Asymptotes are lines toward which a curve strives but is unable to reach.”21 The line demarcates the limit of where the bucket might go. Thus, it is the boundary between the bucket's constraint and its escape and the outer limit of the domain where blackness is stuck. It is the distant fence, the expansive perimeter, and the event horizon, the system that creates its own limit, palpable in the sheer impossibility of trying to cross it. Catastrophe is always in sight but never accessible. Here the asymptote links together blackness, freedom, and impossibility, such that the suspension of these motifs keeps them tethered in relation and yet also subject to limitations. In this sense, the asymptote parallels what Saidiya Hartman outlines as the “limits of emancipation” and the violence made possible through liberal thought and discourse.22 “Freedom,” Hartman argues, is “the site of the re-elaboration of that condition [of the slave], rather than its transformation.”23Tar and Feather represents the limits of emancipation not as a fixed point but as a curve yielding flexibility and, therefore, precluding an easy rupture. The re-elaboration of the condition of the slave occurs again and again along the asymptote to ultimately trace what can be thought of as freedom's limit.
Asymptotes are plotted as lines on a graph that define the outer limits of the curve—the domain beyond suspension. As is sometimes said, evil often carries the seeds of its own destruction, and the asymptote provides the seeds of destruction in the form of the plot. Following Sylvia Wynter, the plot and plotting define a zone of orientation as well as the fugitive activities conjured up in response to oppression and control.24 While it is a space deeply imbricated within the history and logic of the plantation, the plot was also a zone of self-sustenance and creative production. In turn, “plantation logic,” as Katherine McKittrick defines it, is a “time-space” that links the plantation to contemporary geographies and blackness alongside freedom.25 It is the logic of this time-space that Richards captures in Tar and Feather: the poetic rendering of freedom's dependence on blackness, and the deceptive impossibility generated via their joint suspension. Yet, Tar and Feather shows also the negative space above the bucket of tar and beyond to the spatial plot. And it is in this negative space that other possibilities are being charted.
Plotting, as J. T. Roane conceives of it, registers the insurgent collection of survival strategies that “create a distinctive and often furtive social architecture rivaling, threatening, and challenging the infrastructures of abstraction, commodification, and social control developed by white elites before and after the formal abolition of slavery.”26 Similarly, plotting asymptotes engages the fugitive practice of imaginative creation beyond the margins of visible terrain to renegotiate epistemic possibilities for modes of aesthetics.27 It is in this place of impossibility where the unthought position of blackness might find reprieve. In the case of Tar and Feather, plotting the asymptote engages the structure's limits, that is, an aesthetic space to reimagine ontologies of blackness beyond the discourse of freedom.
Like much of Michael Richards's work, Tar and Feather visualizes a trap that Richards poetically constructs to reveal its limitations, that is, the pervasive articulations of antiblackness, which Richards highlights as barriers to realizing the liberal promise of freedom. In many cases, like police brutality, they have intensified. Instead of Rodney King in Richards's time, we mourn hundreds more Black people who have been lynched at the hands of the police and vigilantes. The “same old song and dance” indeed. What's more, the invisible forces at play in Tar and Feather emphasize the complexity and multidimensionality of the snare, not only for Black people but ontologically for how blackness finds grounding. The promise of possibility is thwarted by systemic geometries and their attendant mechanical constraints, which render uplift impossible. Under this logic, Tar and Feather casts vectors beyond the violence of brute force, further on, toward the violence of financial, logistic, and ecological exploitation, which serve to keep blackness fixed in place on a global scale.
Beyond the natural limit lies the plot—where we might see the trap from the outside. It is the impossible space that remains omnipresent but just out of reach—depending on the arrangement. As long as there is a limited range in which blackness might make itself legible, there will be asymptotes beyond it where we might figure new orientations. Aesthetically it offers a negative space of sustenance. The plot is the place to scheme geographies and geometries of holding blackness in relation to alternative ideals. If freedom is not available in our current state of being, what arrangement might actually offer it to blackness? Outside of the trap we might find more fruitful ontologies of blackness to fortify ourselves, if only we can plot our escape. ■■
I would like to thank Dawn Dale, Michael Richards's cousin and steward of his estate, for preserving Richards's work in her garage for decades after his passing. I would also like to thank Melissa Levin and Alex Fialho for their dedication to Michael Richards's work, including curating exhibitions for MOCA North Miami and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. Without their collective efforts, Richards's legacy might have been lost.
william cordova, interview with the author (email correspondence), Aug 25, 2022.
As described in the Bronx Museum of the Arts's description of the exhibition, Michael Richards and Cathleen Lewis: Recent Works (1997).
william cordova saw Tar and Feather in person in 1999, and the installation had the ability to move, but it was held in balance by the weight of the objects. cordova, interview with the author (email correspondence), Aug 25, 2022.
Aesthetically plotting recalls the narrator in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man as he siphons electricity from his subterranean hole.