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Unsettled: How an Old Painting at VMFA Foreshadows Modern Terrorism

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On an initially blindingly bright morning 15 years ago, the World Trade Center towers disintegrated in lower Manhattan, another plane crashed into the Pentagon and another into a field in Pennsylvania. September is a month for remembering the nearly 3,000 people who died.

The official observance this year was going to show that yes, New York and the nation remembered, but also had moved on. At least some of the broken pieces had been put back together or replaced with something new: the Freedom Tower, the 9/11 Museum, and the memorial. Even an underground transit station cum shopping mall, with an outer shell that suggested a huge peace dove, was the physical manifestation — however expensive, somewhat ham-handed and commercial — of moving on.

But moving on is never easy — and this year proved impossible. New York, and the nation, were rattled a week after the annual 9/11 observance with bombs that blasted onto West 23rd Street in the Chelsea neighborhood and on the Jersey Shore. The dumpster from which the New York explosion came suggested nothing suspect. It was outside an apartment building under renovation for affordable housing for disabled people.

But Richmond has a dumpster, too. And it’s always been suspect. An ominous, boxy, red metal container is a focal point of a large painting that has hung for many Septembers in the 20th century Sydney and Frances Lewis galleries of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

The dumpster in “Street Scene Autumn,” by the late Sidney Goodman, a Philadelphia artist (1936-2013), is set on a big city sidewalk with a single, minimalist skyscraper in the distance. The building suggests the shaftlike form of one of the Twin Towers.

Ten men are depicted in this colorful, figurative canvas, and they’re either scurrying or striding purposefully away from the trash container. Their eyes don’t meet, the light of day is orange-hued and the sense of impending doom is unmistakable. One of the men has collapsed and sits on the curb, unable or unwilling to move.

If Goodman’s haunting and ominous work had been painted after Sept. 11, 2001, it would have been considered another gem of this brilliant and sought-after painter’s works. But the thing is, it was painted during a three-year period, from 1974-1977, decades earlier. (He reworked it, painting out corpses that he initially placed in the street). The Oklahoma City bombings were in 1995.

“Street Scene Autumn” is uncannily prescient and a masterwork that I try visit whenever I’m at the museum. It isn’t only the brilliant way Goodman places his objects, the movement he achieves, or the punch of its existential message that entices me. It’s also that this painting reminds me of an overriding reason for having art: Meaningful theater, music, cinema, dance, literature and visual art does more than entertain, decorate or amuse. It reminds us that if much of the time we feel unsettled, it’s because our time on this stage is fleeting. S

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