In 1981, the artist Izhar Patkin, then in his mid-20s, went for a checkup at a free medical clinic in the West Village. He’d been to the same clinic a year or so earlier—he’d moved to New York from Israel in 1979 to attend the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study program and was too cash-strapped to visit a doctor who charged—and had seen men coming in to get regular penicillin shots to combat sexually transmitted diseases. He’d brought that up with one of the clinic’s doctors—was all this penicillin such a good idea?—and had basically been told to “get with it.” These were the days of Studio 54 and the Mudd Club; New York was one big party, and sex was a part of it. But during his visit in 1981, he noticed something more disturbing. Two of the men in the waiting room had skin lesions.
Years later, Patkin would become friends with Dr. Alvin Friedman-Kien, the doctor who made the connection between the Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions and AIDS, but at the time Patkin, like most everyone else, had no idea what he was looking at. There were rumors going around New York that certain recreational drugs caused “gay cancer.” When Patkin voiced his concerns, the clinic doctor yet again reassured him. But his experience in the waiting room, he recalled recently, “terrified me. It made a huge impression. There was no doubt in my mind that something was going on.”
Back at his studio, Patkin began work on a painting that borrowed its size and style, if not its pallette, from iconic sponge works by French Nouveau Réaliste Yves Klein. Using theatrical latex blended with liquid rubber and printing ink, Patkin laid down a yellow ground on a jute support; in the place of the sponges that Klein would affix to his canvases he fashioned cratered red mounds that resemble sores. Along the upper border of the piece he scrawled the words “unveiling of a modern chastity.”
“I was struggling with the history of Modernist space, the Greenbergian surface,” Patkin recalled earlier this month, standing in front of the painting in his current studio in the East Village. “I thought, ‘We’re done with that. People are getting sick. These wounds are oozing from inside.’”
“It’s not something I could say in words,” he continued. “It was something I did in a painting.”
According to “Art AIDS America,” an exhibition opening next month at the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington, that painting, completed in 1981, may be the very first artwork related to AIDS. “It’s the first [AIDS] work I’ve encountered,” the exhibition’s co-curator, Jonathan Katz, the director of the Visual Studies Doctoral Program at the State University of New York at Buffalo, told ARTnews by phone. A smaller version of the show opened in Los Angeles at the ONE Archives Gallery & Museum and West Hollywood Library in June, during LGBT Pride month, and ran through September 6.
Patkin’s piece will debut at Tacoma, as part of the full exhibition. The year of its completion, 1981, is noteworthy. At that time AIDS did not yet even have an official name. It wasn’t until fall of 1982 that the CDC officially defined Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Patkin’s painting even predates pre-AIDS terms like GRID, which stood for Gay Related Immune Deficiency.
Is Patkin’s painting an AIDS artwork? It depends on how you look at things. For Katz, its title—those scrawled words, Unveiling of a Modern Chastity—says it all. That title “is already understanding the ramifications, and quite presciently,” said Katz, who co-curated the exhibition with Rock Hushka, the chief curator of the Tacoma Art Museum. While works like Patkin’s, Katz said, “are ontologically related to AIDS, AIDS does not exhaust their signification.”
But a kind of ambiguity is also part of the point of the exhibition, especially with regard to the art that came at the very beginning of the AIDS crisis, before the disease had even been recognized by the medical community.
There are several works in the show that, Katz said, are “remarkably early” in the disease’s history. They don’t necessarily announce themselves as AIDS artworks—and there was a reason for that. “Early on,” Katz said, “there is a kind of attempt to allegorize the experience of AIDS such that it would be available to a viewer who would not otherwise perhaps sympathize with LGBT histories.”
A 1982 text piece by the artist Paul Thek, for instance, includes references to dust, a symbol of mortality. “Around the same time, he did another piece called ‘Afflict the Comfortable, Comfort the Afflicted,’ ” Katz said. “I think both are broadly AIDS works.”
A little later in the show are Jenny Holzer’s 1983–85 series of condom packages carrying aphoristic messages like “Expiring for love is beautiful but stupid” and Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1983 photograph of a vase of tulips that resembles the angel of death. There are also Robert Gober’s drain pieces and drawings that Larry Stanton made in 1984 while he was dying in the hospital. One, Katz said, “shows a crude stick figure—Stanton was very weak at this point—and it reads, ‘Life is not bad. Death is not bad. I am not afraid of dying, a little sad, but not defeated.’ ”
One early ’80s piece Katz would like to have gotten for his show is Jasper Johns’s Perilous Night (1982), which is in the collection of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. It is not often discussed in terms of AIDS, Katz said, but in his reading, the work’s complex symbolism, which includes images of spotted arms that Katz feels allude to Kaposi’s sarcoma, was in some ways an early response to AIDS.
To many, AIDS art is synonymous with AIDS activist art, such as the work by Gran Fury and others that was presented in the 2010 exhibition “Act Up New York: Activism, Art, and the AIDS Crisis, 1987–1993.” Katz’s show, he said, “is in some sense premised against that perception.” The exhibition’s animating conceit, he said, “is that much that hasn’t been identified as AIDS art is in fact AIDS art.” Artists, he said, “carefully and strategically positioned” their works within the art world and the museum world “in order to operate, as it were, at a subterranean level, so as to avoid censure.” That censure, he said, was coming from outside the art world—but also from within it. There was “the stuff Jesse Helms was promulgating in Congress” but there was also the policing coming from “postmodernist criticism at the moment, which decried authorial or expressive work.”
For Katz, those non-activist, non-blatant AIDS artworks constitute a larger historical irony. “The coding that an AIDS–informed body of artwork engaged replicated precisely the coding of queer art of the 1950s, when McCarthyism made equally impossible the articulation of identity. It’s very strange to see queer art come out of the closet and then go back in. And under AIDS [some of it] does precisely that.”
There were artists, he said, who “were seeking to create works that could enter the art world and the museum world systems and address AIDS covertly.”
That doesn’t mean that all of the works in his show are subtly metaphorical. Others are overtly about the epidemic. A 1988 satirical piece by San Francisco–based artist Jerome Caya called Bozo Fucks Death shows Bozo the Clown attempting to anally penetrate a skeleton.
After its run in Tacoma, “Art AIDS America” will travel to the Zuckerman Museum in Kennesaw, Georgia, and the Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York.