Seen From Above
An Interview with artist Daniel Kohn
As one of many visual artists who took part in World Views, a
cultural program offering vacant office space in Tower One of the
World Trade Center, Daniel Kohn painted several views of the New
York landscape from his 91st floor studio. Of course, on
September 11, 2001 the landscape paintings that Kohn produced during
his residency in 1998-99, which he says "embody the physical
sensations of being up there in the Towers," took on a new
significance. In a matter of hours they were transformed from simple
meditations on place into haunting images of an interior view that
no longer existed.
In the spring of 2002, Kohn was commissioned by the Metropolitan
Transportation Authority to create an installation of his paintings
in Grand Central Terminal's Vanderbilt Hall. The installation called
"Seen from Above" and comprised of two large-scale landscape
paintings went up on July 19, 2002. The paintings presented striking
views—one looking west towards New Jersey, the second facing east to
Brooklyn—as seen from the upper floors of the World Trade Center,
thereby inviting the viewers to contemplate these views from their
own individual perspective. "We hope that Seen From Above will
provide people with an opportunity to reflect and perhaps find some
solace in the aftermath of September 11," said MTA Chairman Peter S.
Kalikow "This installation is another reminder of how important the
arts are in helping us deal with an almost incomprehensible event.
By presenting this exhibition in Grand Central we hope to create a
contemplative environment that will help people heal." Indeed, the
reactions to Kohn’s installation, as recorded in a guest book that
viewers were invited to write in, reveal a desire both as
individuals and as a nation to fully grieve the events of September
11, 2001. As Kohn says, " I think we all need, as individuals and as
a society, time to think through what has happened to us."
Oldspeak recently caught up with Kohn to ask him about his
studio experience in the towers, how 9/11 suddenly transformed his
life and work, and to weigh in on the discussion about what to do
with the WTC site.
Oldspeak: You had a studio space in the World
Trade Center. How did that come about and what was it like?
Kohn: I had started two large
interior/still life paintings in France before my move to the U.S.
in 1996, which depicted objects on a round table. Because of the
scale and choice of colors, the rear of the table looked like a
horizon. When I visited the bar at the top of the WTC in 1996, I was
completely taken by the view towards Brooklyn, with its layering of
elements: the receding city, Far Rockaway, and the sea beyond. I got
very excited when I found out there was a residency starting up
which offered studio space on the 91st floor of Tower One. I was
planning to continue these large still lifes, but to do so while
looking at the actual horizon. I was curious about what such a
superimposition of things would do. The reality of the residency was
of course quite different. The studio was a 10,000 square foot
space, shared among eleven artists, with east and north views. The
interior was absolutely raw—concrete floor and pulp ceiling—and
reminded me of nothing so much as a parking garage in the sky. I
moved in with all my work, and did work on the still lifes and some
interiors I was doing for a hotel up in Lenox, Massachusetts, but
spent a lot of the first three months just looking at the view and
pacing my studio.
Obviously the meaning of your WTC paintings
changed after 9/11, but what do you think remains from your original
intentions for the paintings?
They remain beautiful images which embody the physical sensations
of being up there in the towers. Looking out, seeing the days
change, feeling the towers sway in strong wind, hear them creak. I
did not like the towers, but they nonetheless imprinted themselves
in me. The paintings which I started there were about looking out,
but also the relation of looking to the movement of the person
looking in the space. As you moved going about your business, the
view would shift. As you got closer to the window, the East River
would open up below. Then you would see the jagged roofs and forms
of the other skyscrapers, vainly reaching up. They were all so small
compared to us.
There was also the fear of being up so high. Feeling the
fragility of the building around us, wondering how it could possibly
hold up, yet somehow confident in the mass belief that they would. I
often wondered how they would deconstruct them (take them down) when
the time came. And there were glorious skies, clouds passing, crisp
or wispy, and days where we were enshrouded in mist, or even above
the clouds. Much of my work became shaped by the way Brooklyn became
suspended between the East River and the sea beyond Far Rockaway,
the sky above.
You live in Brooklyn and watched the towers
fall from across the river. What was it like watching them fall
knowing you had spent that time creating your paintings there?
It’s hard to say anything other than the fact that it was
devastating. I think we all (I am speaking really of those who saw
it with their own eyes, since I cannot really imagine what it was
like to view it through the media) underwent the typical trauma of
war. We witnessed the unthinkable. Well no. What I mean is that what
was thinkable but relegated to what does not happen in "real life",
or at least not to us, happened… to us. This represents a fracture
in one’s sense of reality, since henceforth anything can happen.
Your city can be bombed, you can die of anthrax; you or your family
can actually come to harm. These are things we all learn in small
ways throughout life. But rarely in such an overwhelming way. Rarely
is it a mass experience. At least in our society.
How soon after the tragedy did you begin to
realize their significance of your WTC paintings? Was it difficult
to accept that significance? Did it feel imposed upon you at first?
The paintings I did during and after my residency were informed
by the view and formed by the place from which they were painted,
but they were rather bucolic. Painting is always transformed by
history, but this usually happens over several generations, and this
process typically becomes visible after the death of the artist. On
that morning, in the space of two hours, these quiet images took on
a whole new meaning, one which was obviously neither foreseen nor
What were your expectations before your
installation "Seen from Above" went up? What did you hope to
I’m not sure how clear I was before the installation about what
it was meant to accomplish. I felt that there was a need for
everyone, not just the heroes and the martyrs, to come to terms with
what had happened in their city. To do this we wanted to offer a
place of peace, of meaningful silence at the center of the city, a
place where they could remember, and perhaps take stock of feelings
and thoughts which had not been allowed to surface.
After the paintings came down in August 2002, I felt I knew
better what they were about or for and that they had accomplished
what they were painted for. They were to a great degree pieces meant
to aid in healing, to open up a space of reflection in a city with
little room for restful thought. It is rare for the artist nowadays
to be positioned on the terrain of the healer. But in this case that
is exactly where these paintings were meant to stand.
There was music accompanying the
installation. How important was that to the overall experience of
viewing the installation?
Quite significant really. Grand Central Station is a busy place.
Vanderbilt Hall, where the paintings were hung, is bisected by the
passageway connecting 42nd Street to the Grand Concourse,
through which everyone using Grand Central goes to reach the track.
So the music served as a sort of acoustic cocoon. It buffered the
space from the rest of the station. In addition it created a
rhythmic and melodic bed for the gaze to wander upon. I can’t really
imagine these images without the music.
There was a comment book available for people
to write in. Can you share some of the things that people wrote?
Yeah. I’ll leaf through it and read you a few…
"Thank you for providing a place where I can sort out all my
feelings about that tragic day which I will certainly never forget.
It’s a good thing somebody was on my side after I delivered a
package to the 89th floor at 1 World Trade Center at 8:30
a.m. on that horrible day. God Bless You and God Bless America."
Here’s another one. This was the one that sort of made me
"I lost a son and a daughter in the World Trade Center. Though
the pain is still with me, seeing your work helped me emotionally a
"Dear Daniel, brings tears to my eyes. Thank you for your
These are very personal.
Yes, many of these were addressed directly to me, which is
unusual in a guest book at a show.
Why do you think that was?
I don’t know. (pause) "Thank you Daniel for love and
inspiration. I thought there were no more tears left until I entered
upon this magnificent space."
"I was touched by the sight. I was so touched by the sight. I
lost a family member in Building 1. I am grateful for a peaceful
reflection. Thank you."
Here’s an unusual one, just someone who felt inspired to write
down their own story…
"I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the crew of the
southbound Number 4 train I was on that day America was attacked. We
were stuck between two stations for about 40 minutes that morning.
The tunnel had a lot of smoke in it and people were scared. The crew
kept us informed as best they could, but I could tell they were not
getting any information but they did their best to keep the
situation calm. The train was moving to Fulton Street and we were
told to evacuate by moving to the first car to exit. Once on the
platform, we discovered the station was locked up and we could not
get out. I looked at my watch at about 10:28 a.m. when the people
started to scream at the large billowing clouds of smoke that were
pumping into the station. We retreated back into the train. The
operator was the last back on. He made sure everyone got back on.
The view of the station was gone because of the thick smoke. The
train was eventually backed up to the City Hall station where we
were evacuated. The crew kept their cool. No one was hurt. Thank
you, MTA, for this exhibit. New Yorkers are the best."
It’s hard to read these without having a knot in my throat.
Yeah. I bet. What’s the feeling of reading
I haven’t finished processing all that stuff, all the emotions
tied to the event.
In a way, it is sort of unprocessable.
I think it is, though..I mean, processing might be the wrong
word, but I think there is letting emotions out but there are not
many places to do that or times or whatever. One of the things that
felt like the show was a success was that it allowed people to have
a place to let things out, to cry or to not. Because so many people
are just moving ahead without taking the time for quiet reflection.
"Thank you Daniel Kohn and the MTA for sharing beauty with all
of us passersbys. It makes me think that although there have been
acts of evil, thank goodness we can balance that with beauty,
kindness and heart."
Oh, here’s another one I wanted to read…
"At first I was weary of any attempt to make art relating to
the loss of life at the World Trade Center. The paintings seem too
benign, the environment too easy. But something in me clicked and I
realized my own delight at the views of the city from the tops of
these Towers—a delight in this landscape still beautiful even if in
its celebration of man’s intended impact on the landscape. These
paintings put me back into that stance of one small observer
suspended in air inside the eyes of so many of New York fellow
residents and visitors to this city of mankind and I realized the
vision in life we hold in common and hold sometimes only for an
One last one…
"Thank you for this very powerful experience. I just sat for
an hour, tears streaming down, feeling more connected with everyone
around me than I had in a while. This beautiful contemplated haven
in the middle of the busy city is a perfect resting spot to sit and
slow down and admire the amazing beauty of our world and our fellow
human beings. Thank you for that power of peace (and what I will
take with me forever because of it)."
What was it like getting such raw, personal
reactions to your work? Did you feel you were providing a public
service in a way? Obviously people seemed to use the installation to
reflect and grieve. Do think reflection and honest grief has been
absent in our national response to 9/11?
I find it hard to think outside of the experience of a New
Yorker. I realize that I don’t know the rest of the country very
well. In New York there is a clear need to let this event resonate.
To come to terms with it on a deep level, as Frank Herbert says in
Dune, to let the fear go through us, to feel it, and to come
out on the other side. The energy in New York is to move on and
forget. To erase. I was shocked at how quickly the site was cleared
up. I think what started as a rescue effort and continued as a
search for remains was actually quickly overshadowed by the will to
erase. This was compounded by the fact that the site was made off
limits (off sight) by its determination as a crime scene. We all
needed to see in order to acknowledge the truth of what we had
lived. I think there is actually very little voyeurism in this.
Perhaps a society calls voyeuristic our need to see the violence it
is capable of giving or taking.
So I think there is a clear need in New York to have places where
one can stop, reflect, think over, or let our emotions wash over us.
Not to dwell on them perversely, but to feel them, and come out on
the other side. It is not just the paintings, but really the whole
installation, the music, and the intimacy of the arrangement of
benches which brought you close to the monumentality as well as the
peacefulness of the view which the paintings represented, which gave
people such a place.
How was this experience gratifying or
rewarding to you as an artist?
I know it sounds corny, but after the paintings came down, I felt
really honored to have been able to make such a gift, to be able to
give back to strangers and friends alike.
There are many ideas floating around about
what should be done with Ground Zero. Do you have any ideas about
what should be done with the space?
A consensus amongst the people I know is that we should not
hurry, that time is necessary to digest what happened and to begin
to formulate a long-term symbolic response. In the U.S. the economic
has so much weight that it is hard for people to express their
dismay at the predominance of economic rationales. But in this case
there is a clear outcry, in my eyes, against the immediate stated
intention of the Port Authority and Silverstein, the leaseholder, to
rebuild the exact same amount of office space. I subscribe to the
idea that a mass burial site should be acknowledged as such before
it is built over. It is not a question of making downtown Manhattan
into a cemetery, but there are many possible uses which can
accommodate recognition of what happened.
My work is concerned with place in a very broad sense. But I want
to express something here which is prompted by your question…. From
the time the towers came down, I have been disturbed, annoyed, by
the names which have been used to refer to the events which brought
down the towers and the location of the disaster. 9/11, Ground
Zero…I keep trying to use other terms in my speech, which always
seem on some level like avoidances. This may be a form of denial on
my part, but it is also a need to avoid the stereotypical. My
primary analysis of those events was that they were planned to use
our own stereotypes and thus to strike at the core of our own myths.
The response by the American administration was a similarly
stereotypical recourse to war. I even feel that our response as
individuals followed very specific scripts of grief, anger and
impotence, which in many people leads to a desire for revenge.
A friend who is both a therapist and a secretary at a Wall Street
law firm told me of a woman at her firm who had expressed that we
should kill the people who had done this. Susan then asked the woman
if this was her conscious thought-out response or a purely emotional
wish. The woman had to acknowledge that it was rather emotional and
that it might not be the same had she time to think it through. I
think we all need, as individuals and as a society, time to think
through what has happened to us.
You find yourself in a place where your
private work as an artist has intersected and met with a significant
moment in history. How do you respond to that? Do you think the
private and public essence of art must come together before art can
be significant? That is, does history intervene to preserve and save
artists and art movements from oblivion, or does art intervene to
preserve and save history?
I wish I knew which came first…I think art becomes significant
for many different reasons.
I have always been aware that societies simplify the past, that a
confused mass of painters was resumed into two or three figurehead
movements which hid as much as they revealed. I felt a good deal of
skepticism when people complained that the present art world was
more confused and less meaningful than the past had been. I simply
felt that history and culture would make its choice, simplify
everything, neither for the better nor for the worst, and that most
of us would disappear into oblivion.
I know my work is significant to this place now, but I have no
idea whether it will remain so, or if what is significant to the now
will appear the most dated and therefore trivial later on. I think
what makes it significant is this preoccupation with place and how
place resonates through form. And I am good at that. For my own
reasons I wanted to paint in those buildings. Because of my own
susceptibility to place, I was still painting from that information
two and a half years later when that place was destroyed.
What made it relevant, to some at least, was that it was a view
from inside. It did not represent the towers as these monsters or
icons from below or afar. It was not concerned with their
stereotypical existence as landmarks or icons of world capital.
Instead, it was concerned with the physical sensation with what it
felt like to be in those towers and look out.
Looking is not some neutral mechanical act. You look with you
eyes, your mind, your body, with the soles of your feet. You look
with you culture and your past. So I painted these views with my own
complexity. They contain some of the towers, some of New York, some
of France and India where I was born. They are French and American.
And they echo what it felt like, to stand at a window or walk before
them as a human standing on two legs, subject to vertigo but also
able to master it, capable of acts of kindness or petty revenge,
I think artists, by offering a representation of the world as
they see it, from where they stand, with all of their complexity and
humanity allow others to see better their own position, to better
understand their own gift of sight.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in
Oldspeak are not necessarily those of The Rutherford