Close Your Eyes: A Moment for the Lost Art of 9/11

"Sphere" by by Fritz Koenig.

“Sphere” by by Fritz Koenig.

Across America today there will a moment of silence as we remember September 11, 2001. We will relive the moments of horror, anguish, and anger we felt watching innocent lives lost, the unimaginable courage and sacrifice of first responders, the desperation in the posters of missing loved ones that began collecting on New York streets – thousands – by the setting of the sun, and the video of planes hitting towers, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. 9/11 is the ultimate evidence that what is seen can’t be unseen. 

Except, there was something I didn’t see, and I’ll never get a chance to see again.

 I was at home on 9/11 waiting for the Activities Director of my church to drop off tickets for Shakespeare on the Rocks. She shared pleasantries about the play. We were both very excited to have so many in our church sign up. As she left my front door she turned and said, “I heard the strangest thing on the radio. They said a plane just hit the World Trade Center.”

 “That would be horrible,” I answered. I counted the tickets, opened up a spreadsheet on my computer to assign seats, and clicked on the TV to see if she heard that wrong. Sure enough – she had. The picture on the screen was showing the Pentagon in flames. I remember thinking she surely knew one place from another. Before I could turn the sound up, the image changed to the World Trade Center, both buildings on fire. Confused, I watched the screen as they replayed the tape of the burning North Tower and the plane hitting the South Tower. I had one thought.

 “This is no accident.”

 As I was struggled with that realization the towers began to collapse in front of my eyes. I saw it all via TV replay. The flames, the jumpers, the terrified escapees with white on their faces and saucers for eyes, babbling to cameras about stairwells and helpings hands. The fire engine from a crew that ran toward the danger, and would not be coming out. I called church members who had family in New York and many military friends who knew people lost in the Pentagon.

 I barely slept – working, eating, living – in front of the TV. STILL I never saw it – I never thought of it – until last week: the lost art of 9/11.

 Researching a painting for a book I’m working on, I discovered a list of artworks that were lost when the towers collapsed. Sculptures on the grounds, collections housed in one of the 21 libraries in the towers, photographs stored in vaults, and millions of dollars in rare paintings owned by businesses and collectors in the buildings.

 Among the destroyed were:

  •  All of the sculptures on the grounds.
  • The Kennedy Negatives – 40,000 negatives of photos taken by the Kennedy’s private photographer.
  • A cast of Rodin’s “The Thinker” in the Cantor Fitzgerald building.
  • Art and literature from Helen Keller International. Only 2 books and a bust survived.
  • 900,000 objects from the 19th century excavated from the historic Five Points neighborhood.
  • Path Mural by Germaine Keller
  • Commuter Landscape by Cynthia Mailman,
  • Fan Dancing with the Birds by Hunt Slonem,
  • The Entablature Series by Roy Lichtenstein,
  • Needle Tower by Kenneth Snelson.
  • Original works by Pablo Picasso
  • Original works by David Hockney
  • Original works by Le Corbusier
  • 300 sculptures and drawings by Rodin
  • A bust from The Burghers of Calais

 And more… all lost.  Barely reported, rarely mentioned, and hardly mourned.

 It is easy, and probably normal, to say, “What’s a bunch of art compared to over 3,000 deaths?”

 It’s a lot, because art is the evidence of 3,000 lives or 30,000 or 3 million. Art is the thing that connects us to each other, to the world, to the past and to the future. Art is the expression of humanity at our most rare, honest and beautiful. Art is the thing that reminds us why life matters and why death hurts so much.

I never did assign those Shakespeare on the Rocks tickets. The church ended up not going to the play. We held a memorial instead. We remembered the dead, supported the living, honored the first responders, prayed for our enemies, and uplifted our nation. But – we never mentioned the art.

Sometime today, during that video replay, memory, or moment of silence – take a second and close your eyes – for the art you never saw, and will never see again.

 Then, as a world, let’s do better.


The World Trade Center Tapistry by Joan Miro

photo AP

WTC Stabile by Alexander Calder


Sky Gate, New York by Louise Nevelson


The Kennedy Negatives


Statue from Helen Keller International


Ideogram by James Rosati


Fan Dancing with the Birds by Hunt Slonem


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