Two Decades Later, Eric Fischl Reflects on the Power and Pain Behind ‘Tumbling Woman’

Artist Eric Fischl, photographed with his "Tumbling Woman" sculpture on the grounds of a private residence in Sag Harbor, New York on August 14, 2021. Michael Heller photo.

“Tumbling Woman.”

It’s a sculpture created by artist Eric Fischl in the months immediately after 9/11, and it was born as an honest reflection of the complicated emotions that emerged after the attack on the World Trade Center — especially for those who lived in New York.

The bronze piece, which embodies both masculine and feminine characteristics, depicts a figure falling — as so many did from the World Trade Center towers that day.

Though it appears to capture the moment just before impact, the sculpture is not a literal depiction of those who leapt to their deaths in a final act of desperation. Rather, as Fischl explains, “Tumbling Woman” makes a far more nuanced and complex statement.

It is meant to represent the collective body of the nation and the notion of loss in the absence of so many physical remnants — that of the thousands of souls who died in the World Trade Center that day, and whose mortal remains were never found.

On another level, the work also speaks to the collective uncertainty that settled in after the towers fell, and in many ways remains with us to this day. The figure’s left outstretched hand reaches across the void, not only grasping for support and stability but inviting human connection as well.

“There’s a massiveness to it, which has to do with the massiveness and weight of this experience, this tragedy,” Fischl explained during a recent interview in his North Haven studio.

“I called it ‘Tumbling Woman’ rather than ‘Falling Woman,’ because it felt to me like it’s a lateral motion. Like a tumbleweed or sage — it’s gone with the wind, unrooted. It stops temporarily when it hits a fence post, then keeps moving on.

“It really was about trying to connect.”

Now, 20 years after 9/11, Fischl notes that in “Tumbling Woman” he was seeking to find a language for a level of grief that would be inclusive of all — referencing not only those who perished but also all of those who survived and will live forever in a world unrecognizable from what came before.

“It felt like that’s what happened on 9/11. We became unrooted, unmoored, untethered. The hand reaching out was about people holding on, slowing down, feeling that connection,” said Fischl.

“That’s the thing about the complexity of the experience itself. When you have 3,000 people die and you don’t see any bodies, how do you process it? It’s a disappearance, a phenomenon.

“If you notice, the grieving language turned to architecture, and that became the way of understanding what just took place, rather than we just lost 3,000 human beings,” he said. “The torment, torture, the terror of it must’ve been so overwhelming.”

The truth is, for Americans, 9/11 was eye-opening on countless levels, and there was much we were forced to see for the first time on that day. Coming to terms with our place in the world, the fallibility of freedom and the realization of just how much our enemies despise us is a process that began in September 2001 and continues still — witness the current situation in Afghanistan.

Then, of course, there were the physical realities of the event itself — the unfathomable choices that occupants of the towers were forced to make in order to escape their pain and anguish.

“America had no stomach for it to begin with. They censored the most potent images of suffering — the people leaping from the building,” said Fischl. “Those of us who saw it in that instant recognized that that is the penultimate expression of how horrible this event was, that you were in the place of choosing one death over another. It’s inconceivable — people choosing the way to die.

“I certainly felt in the moment and the days after that America had lost its anchor. It lost its center, it was off balance,” he said. “Those of us who had felt that there were certain things that were ‘America’ — and most of them were naïve, I felt — those came crashing down. In that moment where you’re reordering your understanding of your life, your identity, all that was in play at that time.

“So it was that sense of not knowing. That sort of endless tumbling. We’re not standing, we’re not grounded,” he said in describing the figure of “Tumbling Woman.” “The fact you didn’t see bodies, yet so many people inhabiting bodies died in that moment. I thought it was so important to reassert the body back into the conversation, into the grieving, into the understanding. It was important to me that it be a representation of a body.”

Those were the overwhelming emotions confronting Fischl in the aftermath of 9/11, and, as an artist, he said he felt it was his responsibility to help society process events by providing context and a response to the tragedy.

Eric Fischl “Untitled,” 2001, watercolor on paper, 40″ x 60.”

But it was an impulse that he found his fellow artists didn’t necessarily share.

“When you talk about that aftermath of wanting to connect, to help, to do whatever you could as a citizen, it was, like, this is where I would be the most helpful,” he said. “I assumed that I wasn’t the only artist thinking that. But it turned out there were not that many artists thinking that. It wasn’t something that was a reflex.

“It was amazing how few artists responded,” he continued. “A lot of artists I talked to were affected by it. Their palette turned dark, or they began to work differently, but they were unbelievably self-conscious about it — like, ‘I’m not trying to form something to get out in the conversation.’ But my thought was, how you could turn that into something we could share?”

It took Fischl six months to come up with the design of the figure that he felt addressed the pain and contributed to the conversation. In September 2002, “Tumbling Woman” was installed in the underground concourse of Rockefeller Center in Manhattan to mark the first anniversary of 9/11.

But not everyone saw the sculpture as a poignant symbolic representation of our collective grief — among them a columnist at the New York Post who, at the time, lambasted the piece and Fischl for exploiting the victims of 9/11.

“She accused me of trying to resurrect my moribund career by stepping on the backs of those who were truly suffering,” recalled Fischl. “She described it in a way that actually isn’t there, as the head crashing and splaying. She probably only saw it from a photograph and didn’t see that, in fact, it’s almost surreal in its dreamlike passivity of the face, eyes closed. There’s something else there. It was important to me that it wasn’t simply about the horror, but it had a sort of dream state feel to it.

“It shows where the disconnect between art and our society is that your first reaction to art reaching out to this experience we all shared would be cynical. Like, what are you getting out of this? What do you want?”

In fact, Fischl was getting nothing out of it. The piece was not commissioned, and it was put on view in a public space rather than in a private exhibition, which he felt was important.

But within days, the outcry over the sculpture brought an end to its tenure on public view.

“When I got the call, I had gone on a trip to Croatia,” Fischl recalled. “I was on a boat, and I got a call from Jerry Speyer who owns Rockefeller Center, a very good man and a thoughtful man and a profound art collector. He said, ‘I have to remove it.’ I said, ‘Can’t you wait a few days? I’m sure it’s a kind of hysteria that will pass.’ He said ‘Our buildings are getting bomb threats, and I’ve got 5,000 people working here, so I can’t not take that seriously in this moment. I cannot risk that.’

“And that was that,” Fischl said. “I was obviously deeply hurt by it. The whole thing was caused by a sensationalist who just put kerosene directly onto a fire and accused me of abusing suffering people, not recognizing that her take on it was the most abusive, because it was absolutely untrue, it was absolutely paranoid, it was muckraking. The whole thing was ludicrous.”

In many ways, the controversy over “Tumbling Woman” illustrated to Fischl just how far removed society had become from its artists, the creative souls who, historically, are asked to provide perspective and comfort in times of despair. What had happened, he wondered, to make America’s artists feel as if it wasn’t their place to respond to such a massive tragedy?

“While I was watching the event, I was convinced that if artists are ever needed, this is the time,” he said. “I don’t even know if the second tower had gone down yet — but that notion that we’ve just entered chaos, we’ve entered panic, we’ve entered a place where art’s strength lies.”

Fischl adds that the fact he hadn’t been called on to respond to the tragedy made him want to create “Tumbling Woman” even more.

“It really pained me that nobody asked the artists to be part of this thing — nobody asked the artists for help. The government didn’t ask, civic groups didn’t ask, the church didn’t ask, the Elks Club or chamber of commerce didn’t ask. Nobody asked artists to ‘help us out here, we’re in turmoil.’”

And that, notes Fischl, was the harbinger of a deeper problem. In the years leading up to 9/11, he believes art had somehow become a remote concept and inaccessible to the masses, fueled in large part by artists who had turned away from the language of public sharing in favor of finding their own language to talk about their own thing.

“Privatization of the language and esoterica of art meant it became increasingly obscure and arcane in a way,” he said. “It showed me that this disconnect between society and the arts is no longer tolerable. It can’t go on. What we were watching was our society fall apart and break up into smaller and smaller groups — atomized, in a way — in order for people to feel protected because the rest of world no longer made sense.”

Though in 2002 “Tumbling Woman” was removed from view after only a few days at Rockefeller Center, the sculpture did eventually find its moment in the spotlight.

In 2016, on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, it was included in “Rendering the Unthinkable: Artists Respond to 9/11,” a temporary exhibition featuring work by 13 New York-based artists at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum at Ground Zero.

Fischl takes some comfort in the fact that the sculpture found its way to the site of the tragedy that inspired its creation. It is now in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

There are four additional “Tumbling Woman” bronze sculptures in existence as well, including one that is currently on view at LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton, and another at the home of a private collector in North Haven. In the years since its creation, Fischl has also created smaller versions of the sculpture in other mediums, including glass.

“It was purely coincidental. Someone approached me about doing a glass casting — the maquette became that,” he said. “It felt even more poignant, with clarity and fragility. It also felt like now we’re moving into a kind of ephemeral space, going up rather than coming down. I like that.”

With the perspective of hindsight and the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaching, when asked whether he felt it was the wrong time or wrong venue for “Tumbling Woman” in 2002, Fischl responded, “One thing I didn’t think it was, was the wrong venue. It was a public space in a city in which the public was the most traumatized, the most wounded, the most affected. Whether it would it have been better outside instead of in the concourse, maybe. But in terms of being a public space versus private, I thought it was important.”

Fischl points out that, every year, New York itself becomes a memorial to the victims of 9/11 as the ceremonies from Ground Zero are broadcast throughout the city, the names of victims coming from car radios or the televisions at pizza parlors, filtering out onto the street. That’s why he felt the very public platform for “Tumbling Woman” in the middle of Rockefeller Center was appropriate.

“In terms of timing, it was totally not the right time, and I really underestimated that,” Fischl continued. “I spent a year in a kind of intimate, grieving state while making this sculpture, touching this form, trying to deal with the emotional content of it, trying to imbue this object with the right portions of emotion and experience.

“It was a year of me going through it and I come out the other side, where I’m feeling I’ve articulated something that is also separated from me,” he said. “I feel like the sculpture was difficult for many, because it portrayed dramatically and publicly what many people may have been visualizing privately about the final moments of the victims.

“I didn’t think about the fact that these people who are going to see it haven’t been with me on this journey for a year. So I totally misjudged that.”

So in 20 years, what has changed? What have we learned? Are we in a better place as a society today than we were in the days right after the attack?

Maybe not. Which is why Fischl feels art is now more vital than ever.

“Artists are still important in helping to clarify how we talk to each other when our words escape us, when our anger overwhelms us, when our fear makes us retreat,” he said. “How do we connect with each other without going into the spiral of ultimate isolation? Art is the way that works, the divide between the failure of the art world to not stay connected and the failure of society to not demand that arts be central to our identity as a culture. This is it.

“What’s it like 20 years later? It’s definitely not better — and its dangerously not better,” he added. “Until we understand why it’s not better, it’s not going to get better. To me, it’s a responsibility of all of us, not just politicians, not just religious leaders, everybody has to find a way that they can talk to each other, to reconnect.

“It’s hard to do when you think everything has to be stated as a political oppositional truth. But what is it that we share? It’s about attachment,” Fischl said. “If we talk about the 20 years, that’s where we have to go, which is basically our ground zero. What is the thing that fundamentally makes us be civil, positive, productive — makes us interesting?”

While those are questions yet to be answered, in terms of art’s ability to channel the deep emotion of monumentally tragic events, despite the controversy and discomfort it generated, Fischl believes that “Tumbling Woman” ultimately has done its job.

“I think it served a purpose — at first in a negative and painful way — in that it is so often referred to as an aspect of this whole experience,” he said. “It’s become the thing that I wanted it to be, which was part of the conversation of understanding what happened.”