Fritz Koenig’s Sphere, the Trauma of 9/11, and the Politics of Memory

Coinciding with the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and responding to a vibrant popular and academic debate about the role and function of public monuments The Way We Remember: Koenig’s Sphere, 9/11 and the Politics of Memory explores four distinct but interrelated themes surrounding the issues of public monuments, memory, trauma, postmemory, and the power of art to represent the past.



The Way We Remember opens with a focused examination of the German modernist sculptor Fritz Koenig’s Great Caryatid Sphere (1968–1972), which was originally created as a fountainhead and monumental centerpiece for the World Trade Center Plaza and became one of the earliest memorials of 9/11 after it emerged from the rubble of the collapsed Twin Towers—battered, bent, and scarred, but resilient and defiant in still standing upright where it was once placed between the now-collapsed twin towers.  

The Sphere provides a unique entry point for the exhibition section that tells the story of 9/11 through the lens of its first “unofficial” memorial, and the debates that resulted from the implementation of the World Trade Center memorial project and the inauguration of “Reflecting Absence” as an official National 9/11 Memorial.

Fritz Koenig’s "Sphere" installed as a 9/11 Memorial in Battery Park.

Beginning in the early 1960s through the early 1990s Koenig worked on many commissions and projects that memorialized the victims of persecution against Jews. Brought together for the exhibition the works and archival materials for these works tell a story of European, and especially German post-war memorials and the ‘memory-work’ they perform.

On Columbia University’s Morningside campus, students, faculty, and staff have gathered annually on College Walk to commemorate those who lost their lives on 9/11, among them 42 Columbians, by reading their names aloud and placing US flags, one for each life lost, on adjacent lawns in a recurring effort to visualize the enormity of our collective loss. While these annual 9/11 commemorations are ephemeral, Columbia’s Morningside campus is dotted with other, more permanent markers of memory in the guise of monuments erected since the University moved to Morningside Heights.  

Featured in this section is Daniel Chester French’s statue Alma Mater (1900–03) which stands prominently as a physical embodiment of the Columbia community. Commission by Harriet Goelet as a monument for and memorial to her recently deceased husband and Columbia alumnus Robert Goelet Jr. (1841–99), the statue continues to attract student attention in times of crisis and mourning and has been the focus of student activism, and sometimes violent protests: on May 14, 1970, for instance, three sticks of dynamite ripped a hole into her bronze garments. But Alma Mater is also the center for make-shift memorials, most recently following the death of former Columbia Professor and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

Columbia Community Members leaving flowers at the feet of "Alma Mater" in memory of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Other campus monuments featured in this section of the exhibition are William Ordway Partridge’s statues of Alexander Hamilton (1907), Thomas Jefferson (1914), and College Dean John Howard van Amringe (1911–22) allowing for an exploration of different memorial modes, strategies of display, and an investigation of changing attitudes, both peaceful and violent, towards the campus monuments and those who they were set up to commemorate.  

Twenty years after the attacks on the World Trade Center we find ourselves in the middle of a global public health crisis of unprecedented proportions. At the height of the pandemic in December of 2020, the daily death toll in the United States surpassed for the first time that of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on every single day. 

How do we begin to visualize or quantify the enormous loss in human lives and make it palpable? How do we mourn and commemorate those we have lost? Is there an appropriate way to memorialize this moment of individual and collective suffering in the history of our nation, especially in local minority and immigrant communities, which were hardest hit by the pandemic across the country? Do our memorial traditions provide us with appropriate forms of commemoration? Can artists’ responses to previous traumatic events such as the First and Second World Wars, the horrors of the Holocaust, or the events of 9/11 provide us with viable models? In order to explore these questions, we reached out to artists and members of our local communities in and beyond Morningside Heights to invite proposals for memorial projects that will be presented in this section of the exhibition. Their responses will offer preliminary insights and possible answers.

Fritz Koenig’s Great Caryatid Sphere (1971) amidst the rubble of the World Trade Center towers after 9/11. Photo Michael Reiger / FEMA Photo Library

September 10 - November 14, 2021

Curated By

Curated by Holger A. Klein, Lisa and Bernard Selz Professor of Medieval Art History

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