It’s been more than 100 years since a police lieutenant removed a watch and ring from the charred hand of Sarah Brodsky, a 21-year-old who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. More than 140 people, mostly young immigrant women, perished in the famous 1911 fire that caused some workers to leap to their deaths much like those who jumped from the Twin Towers on 9/11.
Despite the horror of what happened, artist Richard Levinson drew inspiration from the tragedy after a poignant encounter with Brodsky’s ring, which was given to her fiancé after the fire. Today, the ring Levinson describes as a “mythical object” belongs to a good friend, the granddaughter of a woman Brodsky’s fiancé married years after losing his first love to the flames.
“The ring,” he says, “sees through to the love that transfers through the generations.”
Of course, it’s common for jewelry to pass from one family member to another. But here the ring took a more circuitous route, a fact that gives the object even more emotional power. Brodsky’s fiancé actually married twice in the years following her death. His first wife died from tuberculosis, and both wives knew the history of the ring they were wearing. “The ring was gifted out of love and respect for prior love, even as it looked forward,” Levinson says.
In 2016, Levinson began a new body of work rooted in the ring’s journey. Now the installation Sarah Brodsky’s Ring is being shown for the first time at Bentley Gallery. Walking into a cavernous exhibition space with exposed wooden beams and concrete floors, gallery-goers see large-scale acrylic and graphite images on swaths of creased linen with raw edges, a material that references the cloth factory workers used to make the button-down shirtwaist style blouses of that era.
A liminal image of Brodsky’s face appears at the center of a large artwork people see to the left after entering the main gallery. Installed to allow the bottom of the fabric to gently sway and pull away from the wall, it seems to signal Brodsky’s ghostly presence, as if she’s seeing the journey and impact of the ring unfold before her. Elsewhere the artist has created other faces, sometimes barely visible, that reference not only the fatal fire but his own encounters with loss.
Levinson spent decades as a pulmonologist and critical care physician, an experience he credits with having a significant impact on his larger body of work. Here, the form and materiality of several pieces prompt reflection on breathing tubes, radiological images, and the reality that most victims of fire die by smoke inhalation rather than flames. It’s powerful symbolism, especially in the age of COVID-19.
A large cityscape suspended near the center of the gallery anchors the installation. Rendered primarily in black on two transparent pieces of mesh hanging back to back, it calls viewers to consider the wider context for the factory fire, and the ways city life can both hinder and foster human connections.
For another work, Levinson renders elevator numbers, knowing that several women died trying to escape through an elevator shaft. Others died attempting to climb down a fire escape, something Levinson conveys with a mixed media sculpture including a pair of ladders.
Throughout the gallery viewers see rings formed with thin wire, often jutting out into the air as if floating through space. Circles abound, nodding to both the physical ring and the circularity of human existence.
As a physician, Levinson often observed the significance that particular objects held for his patients and their loved ones. In hospital intensive care units, for example, he’d often see people bring in items related to patients’ histories and interests, from childhood toys to recent golf trophies.
“People put emotive power in those objects,” he says. “They conjure up the best memories you have.”
Exploring Sarah Brodsky’s Ring at Bentley Gallery, viewers encounter the story of a fatal fire, a found object, and the ways love lives amid loss. But they also experience the breathing room to consider their own relationships to objects, memory, and loss during a period of personal and shared history marked by the devastating impacts of pandemic life.
Sarah Brodsky’s Ring continues at Bentley Gallery, 215 East Grant Street, through October 9.