Document, Protest, Memorial: AIDS in the Art World

Artists and curators are assessing the impact of the epidemic on art and the art community

It’s been three decades since AIDS first made an impact on the New York art world, annihilating a community and activating one of the most highly effective artist-driven political movements of the 20th century. At that time, for every Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres lost to the disease, there were scores of lesser-known artists, such as Ray Navarro, Hugh Steers, and Robert Blanchon, who also left their mark with art that documented, protested, memorialized, and reinterpreted the devastation of the era.

In recent years, there have been several important exhibitions reexamining the legacy of AIDS activism in the 1980s, including the just-ended “Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism” at the New York Public Library. And last year in New York, at La MaMa La Galleria, there was “NOT OVER: 25 Years of Visual AIDS,” curated by Kris Nuzzi and Sur Rodney (Sur); and an exhibition revisiting Rosalind Solomon’s 1988 “Portraits in the Time of AIDS” at Bruce Silverstein Gallery.

Prior to these was perhaps the most influential show, “Gran Fury: Read My Lips” at New York University’s 80WSE galleries in 2012. This retrospective was devoted to the artist’s wing of the political-activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), founded in 1987 and dedicated to change in AIDS research, policy, and treatment. This show, in turn, expanded on the 2009 “ACT UP New York: Activism, Art, and the AIDS Crisis, 1987–1993” at Harvard University’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts.

General Idea’s iconic AIDS wallpaper, 1989, takes off on Robert Indiana’s LOVE logo. COURTESY NEUE GESELLSCHAFT FÜR BILDENDE KUNST, BERLIN

General Idea’s iconic AIDS wallpaper, 1989, takes off on Robert Indiana’s LOVE logo.


While these exhibitions focused on the activism of the period, other shows now are examining the impact of AIDS on art today. “LOVE AIDS RIOT SEX 1: Art AIDS Activism 1987–1995,” curated by Frank Wagner, which opened at the Neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst (nGbK) in Berlin in November 2013, was followed there by “LOVE AIDS RIOT SEX 2: Art AIDS Activism 1995 until Today” this January. And a joint exhibition of the ANTIAIDS Foundation and the PinchukArtCentre in Kiev, Ukraine, titled, “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way,” opened last November with works by Tony Oursler, Nan Goldin, Ai Weiwei, and Damien Hirst.

Jonathan D. Katz, cocurator of the 2010 “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., is currently working on “Art, AIDS, America,” scheduled to open at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 2015. The exhibition will feature artists from the ’80s and ’90s, such as Gonzalez-Torres, Wojnarowicz, and Frank Moore, but will go right up to the present with works by Patrick Webb, Hunter Reynolds, and Donald Moffett. “I was troubled by the repeated references to AIDS as a tragic tangent to the history of American art and one that did not do anything or lead anywhere.” He adds, “AIDS was the great motor for some of the most major changes taking place in the American art world over the last 30 years, and I wanted to do an exhibition that explored that.”

“The show fundamentally argues that when AIDS was first in evidence in the American art world, there was a kind of orthodoxy governing contemporary art; it was considered anti-authorial and anti-expressive—Postmodernism ruled the roost,” Katz says. “Ideas like ‘death of the author’ were sustainable until artists started to actually die.”

Indeed, for much of the ’80s, many major institutions and critics ignored the AIDS crisis and viewed the activism of ACT UP and the public-art projects of artist collectives such as Gran Fury, General Idea, and Group Material as unnecessarily fueling the flames of the culture wars by drawing attention to the gay presence in the art world and directly attacking right-wing politicians. In fact, when art historian Douglas Crimp published an issue of October magazine devoted to AIDS and activism in 1987, he created a schism in the publication’s editorial board.

Now artists and curators are willing to concede that great art did come out of the anger, sorrow, and bafflement in the face of an epidemic, although few people would agree with Katz’s assessment that the AIDS crisis’s greatest impact was a transformation of contemporary art. “AIDS had an enormous impact on the culture, in the broadest sense of the word, not just the confines of contemporary art,” says Robert Atkins, a writer who, with Thomas W. Sokolowski, cocurated the 1991 exhibition “From Media to Metaphor: Art About AIDS.” The great achievement was public art, whether you look at the “Red Ribbon Project,” Day Without Art, or SILENCE = DEATH. “This was art by artists that impacted culture in a big way,” says Atkins.

“Out of the urgency of the moment,” he adds, “every artist dealt with AIDS in a way, and its strength was its inclusivity.” He notes that Goldin, Jenny Holzer, and Barbara Kruger, among many others, made work about AIDS. “If we look at works from the 1990s and later half of the 20th century, we have to wonder, why is this work never conceptualized as a response to the AIDS crisis? Culture is a big thing, and AIDS was at the center of everything.”

It is impossible to consider the impact of the crisis on contemporary art without examining the visual art created by Gran Fury, a collective of 11 men and women that provided some of the signature works of the period. Gran Fury’s first project was a window installation at the former site of the New Museum on Broadway in Soho. Created in 1987 at the invitation of the late curator William Olander, it was called “Let the Record Show…

Edith Alvarez’s 2012 mixed-media work AIDS is Not Over.  VISUAL AIDS/COURTESY THE ARTIST

Edith Alvarez’s 2012 mixed-media work AIDS is Not Over.


A neon sign at the top of the window flashed SILENCE = DEATH. It was set beneath a pink triangle, the insignia imposed by the Nazis to designate homosexuals. Here, the gay-rights movement had repurposed it as a symbol of empowerment. Beneath the sign, there was a window filled with tombstones bearing quotations from political and religious leaders, including Ronald Reagan, Cardinal John O’Connor, and Jesse Helms, expressing fear, ignorance, and outright homophobia.

“I would say, yes, AIDS had an enormous impact, in my own individual case and in the case of a lot of other filmmakers,” says Gran Fury member Tom Kalin, director of the films Swoon (1992) and Savage Grace (2007). “People came together who would not have met but for the high-speed collision of a crisis, and that forged a community.” Kalin points out that there was a generation before his that dealt with representations of the body and gay identity, including Andy Warhol and experimental filmmaker Derek Jarman. “But I think that AIDS definitely politicized a generation,” he says. “It was a different New York City then. People didn’t have cell phones. People didn’t have Facebook. They didn’t have e-mail. People went on the streets, and the streets were full of all sorts of information and imagery.”

“For some of us who were alive during the AIDS crisis, it was extremely traumatic. We were losing friends every time we turned around, and there was a lot of anger,” says Marlene McCarty, who was attending meetings of ACT UP and was recruited to join Gran Fury because she was a graphic designer. Gran Fury often appropriated the look of advertising to make its point, as in its 1989 take-off on a United Colors of Benetton ad showing a mixed-race couple and two same-sex couples kissing, with the headline: Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do. “It wasn’t hardly even a decision,” she says. “It was an imperative because too many people were dying.”

McCarty sees the impact of AIDS as seeping into almost every current movement in contemporary art. “It is so hard to separate the art that was being made at that time from the AIDS crisis. There was a lot of opposition to institutions, and that led directly to artworks devoted to institutional critique. But there was also a lot of hope for progress in areas of identity politics, because the government and the status quo were coming to terms with different kinds of people—I mean, other than straight, white, middle-class Americans. AIDS made these issues rise to the surface.”

Ono Ludwig portrays Petra, from the series of photos “We can be Heroes, just for one Day,” 2007.COURTESY NEUE GESELLSCHAFT FÜR BILDENDE KUNST, BERLIN

Ono Ludwig portrays Petra, from the series of photos “We can be Heroes, just for one Day,” 2007.


“Perhaps there was an AIDS esthetic developed by artists groups like General Idea or Gran Fury, whose media strategies criticized the indifference of society. But basically, there is no such thing,” says Frank Wagner, who curated the first show dealing with AIDS in Europe in 1988. In his most recent exhibition at nGbK, he underscores the diversity of approaches in works ranging from Blue (2012), an LED light box capturing a spiritual performance in the Fire Island hamlet of Cherry Grove, New York, by artists Ryan Brewer and AA Bronson; to Pasos (Steps), 2011, a video by Paris-based Chilean artist Lorena Zilleruelo showing an HIV-positive woman breaking out of her isolation by taking tango lessons. “I think AIDS had two impacts,” Wagner explains. “First, it reinvented the ideas of agitprop and propagandist art—you could call it an alternative public-relations campaign,” he says. “You can also say that art inspired by the AIDS crisis dared to be sentimental. It did not patronize your emotions and affections, but it tried to touch you by your heart.”

On the other hand, AIDS found its way into many artists’ studio practices. “HIV came into my life at a point where I was still finding a voice,” says Tony Feher, whose retrospective at the Bronx Museum of the Arts closed in February. “You were confronted with the possibility of your own mortality 30 years before you’d think about a heart attack, and I, among other people, started making work that looked at our own mortality.” Feher uses inexpensive plastic castoffs, like soda bottles and fruit cartons, to build minimalist installations that are at once graceful and surprisingly emotive. He often places colored marbles in jars in ways that make them appear molecular or that suggest reliquaries. “When I found out I was HIV positive, at that time there was nothing you could do,” he says, “I thought, if I am going to be dead in ten years, I better get busy. I wound up with something with an intimate scale that speaks to monumentality that doesn’t need a couple of longshoremen to drag it in the door.”

Certainly, the artist best known for combining Post-Minimalist strategies—such as adopting readymades and stacking materials—with AIDS-related content, is Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who died in 1996. His most iconic piece is Untitled” (Perfect Lovers), 1991, a pair of battery-operated wall clocks, set at identical times, and left to run until they inevitably fall out of sync and one stops before the other. The work can be viewed as a metaphor for any couple gradually growing apart, or it might refer to the artist and his lover, both facing the consequences of the disease.

“I don’t know if AIDS in itself was the game changer because most art has continued to ignore it,” observes independent curator and critic Joseph Wolin, who organized the show “Absence, Activism and the Body Politic” at New York’s Fischbach Gallery in 1994. “But Felix’s work was certainly a game changer and Felix’s work was all about AIDS. I think it’s the structure of his work that had an impact, rather than the specific content about loss and a disease and one’s own mortality.”

Yet, there are still many artists living with AIDS, as evidenced by the continued vitality of Visual AIDS, which was founded in 1988 by Atkins, Gary Garrels, Sokolowski, and Olander. The program raises awareness of and supports artists who live with the disease, and also preserves the legacy of those who have died of AIDS-related illnesses by means of its registry and archive. Visual AIDS initiated the now-ubiquitous “Red Ribbon Project,” which has taken on a life of its own, with celebrities donning the ribbon to show allegiance with AIDS activists. Another source of support is Day Without Art, started in 1989, proposing a one-day moratorium on exhibitions to draw attention to the impact of AIDS on the arts community. Today, more than 8,000 institutions nationwide participate.

One artist who has made work throughout the course of his treatment is Hunter Reynolds. His performances and installations began at the start of the crisis and have appeared in New York recently at PARTICIPANT INC on the Lower East Side and at P.P.O.W. gallery in Chelsea. “I’ve always loaded my personal history into my work,” he says, noting that his recent act at the nGbK was what he calls a “Mummification Transformation” performance, in which, encased in a skin of plastic wrap, he was moved around the stage by muscular, leather-clad models. The work is intended to express the artist’s current condition, after having suffered AIDS-related strokes several years ago, and shows how it contrasts with his years in Berlin when he was in his 30s and sexually active. “I use my work as a vehicle for healing myself and others,” he says. Toronto artist Jessica Whitbread, who is also the global chair of the International Community of Women Living with HIV, puts her HIV-positive status front and center in artworks that combine the craft of needlepoint with bold-faced affirmations such as “Fuck Positive Women.” Her latest work addresses the recent criminalization of AIDS in Canada, the focus of the documentary Positive Women: Exposing Injustice (2013).

Adriana Bertini’s Encarny, 2006, composed of 4,697 condoms that had “failed the quality-control test.”  ADRIANA BERTINI COLLECTION

Adriana Bertini’s Encarny, 2006, composed of 4,697 condoms that had “failed the quality-control test.”


“I think art was fundamentally altered by the experience of AIDS; the scope of the mortality really did trigger a sense of emergency in the art world,” says Dan Cameron, interim director at the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach, California, who curated “Fever: The Art of David Wojnarowicz” at the New Museum in 1999. “You see that artists like Martin Wong or David Wojnarowicz are becoming even more present in the discourse about contemporary art.”

“I think the work of ACT UP overall and activism around AIDS is absolutely still relevant,” says Kalin, pointing to the overwhelming reception the Gran Fury show received at NYU in 2012. Testifying to its pertinence is the fact that the exhibition included a teach-in led by Occupy Wall Street Arts & Labor activists. “There certainly has been a renewed interest in activist work,” Kalin says.

Indeed, AIDS activism is now a global phenomenon as the disease has become a pandemic, often accompanied by virulent anti-gay laws in many parts of the world, particularly Africa. South African artist Churchill Madikida makes haunting installations capturing the fear and sorrow surrounding AIDS sufferers, and the artist duo Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra, better known as T&T, created their “PUT-IT-ON” series to raise awareness of HIV and safe-sex practices for urban Indian youth. These artists and many other international artists were featured in the exhibition “Make Art/Stop AIDS” at the Fowler Museum at UCLA in 2008.

“Today, a great number of people feel the emergency has passed, but where it is less of an emergency in the art world than it was in the 1980s, it is an emergency in many other parts of the world. Whether the art world includes them in its scope or not is one of the more interesting discussions that is going on,” says Cameron, who is currently researching an exhibition about AIDS from a worldwide perspective.

“I see AIDS as having produced the first language of global art because it involved artists from all over the planet—Brazil, Japan, Russia, Kenya, Mali, India, South Africa,” he says. “What interests me right now is to see how the global visual language of AIDS can be developed into a curatorial project.”

Barbara Pollack is a contributing editor of ARTnews.

A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 60 under the title “Document, Protest, Memorial: AIDS in the Art World.”

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