Hunter Reynolds, an artist and activist whose expansive work influenced generations and poignantly reflected on the immense loss wrought by the AIDS crisis and took on that era’s homophobia, died on June 12 at his home in New York’s East Village. He was 62.
The news was confirmed by Reynold’s gallery P.P.O.W., which described Reynolds in a statement, as “a deeply gifted artist and resilient fighter” whose work “explored issues of gender, sexuality, HIV/AIDS, politics, mortality, and rebirth.”
The statement continued, “Profound, beautiful, and ferociously honest, Reynolds’ work was directly influenced by his lived experiences as an HIV-positive gay man living in the age of AIDS. … Reynolds used his visual and performance art practice to spread a message of survival, hope, and healing, and to reify queer histories so often marginalized, sterilized, and forgotten.”
With a practice that spanned performance, photography, and intricate large-scale installations, Reynolds is perhaps best known for his drag alter ego Patina du Prey, which he created in 1989, the year he learned he was HIV-positive, though he likely contracted it in 1984. Reynolds retired the persona in 2000 and it was the focal point of an exhibition at P.P.O.W. in 2019.
With the advice of artist Ray Navarro (the two had attended L.A.’s Otis College at the same time and became friends in New York) in his head of not letting the disease control or define him, Reynolds went on to make the era’s most poignant and powerful reflections of the actual toll that HIV/AIDS had brought to the country’s queer communities.
Inspired by the drag queens who regularly performed at the Pyramid Club, one of the East Village’s legendary haunts, Reynolds was experimenting with “the feminization of my male face—putting on makeup and taking pictures, which I had never done before,” he recalled in a 2019 interview with Artforum.
It was an October night and there was an opening at the Kitchen that evening. He went out in “half drag, with a feathered hat and chest hair on display.” The evening did not go as planned: “I figured, ‘It’s 1989 in New York City—it’s not going to be a big deal.’ Astoundingly, I was met only with aggression.”
The following year, Reynolds staged a major performance as Patina du Prey in a group exhibition at Andrea Rosen Gallery, about six months after it had opened. Around this time, he began a photographic series titled “Drag Pose” that solidified what would become Patina’s signature look: a full face of make-up, no wig, no breasts, and a hairy chest peeking past a deep-cut gown. A collaborative exhibition with artist Chrysanne Stathacos, dedicated to Surrealist artist Méret Oppenheim, came in 1992, where Patina’s Banquet Dress debuted.
But, it was in 1993, when he moved to Berlin for a residency at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien, that Reynolds began creating the works that Patina would become best known for. It was still three years before antiretroviral therapy would no longer make an HIV-positive diagnosis a death sentence (for those who have access to it). Hundreds of thousands of people were dying.
“I didn’t know if I would be alive in two years or not. Those years were some of the worst of the epidemic,” he said of those days. He decided that in order to honor those who had died he had to recite their names, so using the catalogue of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, he recited some 26,000 names as part of a performance from a hospital bed.
That eventually led to Memorial Dress, a black ball gown with those 26,000 names screenprinted in gold onto the dress via a laborious process. The columns upon columns of names go on and on, seemingly infinite. With all the names listed in this way, the amount of loss feels at once incomprehensible and tangible.
The work first showed as part of the ICA Boston’s groundbreaking exhibition “Dress Codes.” Reynolds told Another Man in 2019 that he hadn’t anticipated how much of a chord the work would strike. “I wasn’t prepared for the intensity of it,” he said. “People found the names of their friends on the dress and began crying, having cathartic events in front of me. I did six weeks of performances almost daily and it changed the direction of my work, connecting to the body and spirit, with the dress as a spiritual vortex to the universe.”
After its debut, Memorial Dress almost immediately began to travel widely, with Reynolds often staging performances in it. In photographic documentation, Patina du Prey stands on a pedestal, her arms raised as she allows people to grasp the depth of the loss. At each staging, Reynolds exhibited the Memorial Dress with a guest book in which visitors to the exhibition could add the names of loved ones who had also been lost to HIV/AIDS. In 1996, Reynolds updated the Memorial Dress to include the names amassed over three years with the assistance of the arts nonprofit Visual AIDS.
“For decades, Hunter Reynolds’ work and life bore witness to the unflinching fierceness of compelling, authentic art making and advocacy,” Patrick Owens, a board member and former president of Visual AIDS, told ARTnews in an email. “He bore witness to how a powerful and supremely creative voice can raise the visibility of long-term survivors who continue to inspire us. All of us at Visual AIDS honor Hunter as an artist, advocate, activist, collaborator, mentor, provocateur, visionary, and friend.”
Reynolds’s mission to remember those who had been lost to AIDS lined up with his own activist leanings. He had been an early member of ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power), which formed in 1987 and sought to radically change the conversation around HIV/AIDS through protests, education, medical research, advocacy, and art. Reynolds was present for ACT UP’s infamous die-in protest, called Stop the Church, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York in December 1989. As documented in one photograph, he was arrested outside the church before he could enter.
Earlier that year, he founded ART+ Positive as an affinity group to ACT UP to fight homophobia and censorship in the arts. Among their most famous actions was a 1989 protest at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York against legislation brought forth by U.S. Senator Jesse Helms to prevent the National Endowment for the Arts from funding art that was deemed obscene or indecent. Reynolds estimated that around 2,000 people came, including artists like Barbara Kruger, Nancy Spero, Leon Golub, and Hans Haacke.
ART+ Positive’s formation was a response to artist Mark Kostabi’s quote in a Vanity Fair article: “These museum curators, that are for the most part homosexual, have controlled the art world in the 80s. Now they’re all dying of Aids, and although I think it’s sad, I know it’s for the better. Because homosexual men are not actively participating in the perpetuation of human life.” (Kostabi has since retracted and apologized for this statement.)
“I knew him and I lost it,” Reynolds said in the Another Man interview. “I had to do something so I got my voice together, stood up in front of the meeting for the first time, and created an action against him. 60 people showed up.”
Hunter Reynolds was born in 1959 in Rochester, Minnesota, and his family moved frequently during his childhood to follow his father’s professional football career, spending time in various parts of Florida, including Jacksonville and West Palm Beach.
Among his earliest memories, he said in a 2016 oral history with the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, was related to a traumatic experience that occurred when he was about six months old and his mother, who had postpartum depression, “severely burned me with scalding hot water, and I remember a lot of that experience, especially the healing part of it,” he said. “I don’t remember the actual burn. … [Y]ou do have psychic, visual, physical memories, and you can—and they started manifesting as dreams later as a child, and I had recurring dreams that were, like, very intense.” Part of that healing process included art, with his grandmother teaching him oil painting when he was 4 years old.
At the age of 14 in 1973, Reynolds came out as gay, the first person to do so in his high school. He soon started the first Gay and Lesbian Student Union there, which became the first such organization anywhere in the State of Florida. “My action of coming out created this avalanche,” he said. His mother, however, kicked him out of her house, and at 15 he moved to California to live with his father, who had moved out there to be an actor. (His parents divorced when he was 7.)
While he was still a teenager living in L.A. during the ’70s, Reynolds was kidnapped by two men for around three days. He was taken to a house in Laguna Nigel, in Orange County, and was tortured and photographed in various S&M positions as part of one of the men’s side business (he was an executive at Shell Oil).
“I had had so much experience with suffering and pain, physically, that I could psychically block it all out,” said Reynolds, who expected to die in this situation. The men had him sign a model release, bound him again, put him in the car’s trunk, and dumped him on the side of a freeway. In his oral history, Reynolds said that his testimony eventually led to the two being caught and prosecuted.
Reynolds soon immersed himself in Hollywood disco parties as a way to heal from this trauma. Around this time, his boyfriend and mentor Richard Oreiro convinced him to get his GED so he could attend art school. With that motivation, “I decided to reinvent my life,” Reynolds said in the oral history. “I had three friends that I could tell the story to, but I didn’t tell them the depth of it. And I never went to therapy over it. I just simply moved on and listened to what these people said to me. You know, if I didn’t have the ability to, like, listen to the advice of these amazing gay men I had met, who ended up mentoring me, I would—I don’t know where I would be.”
After graduating from Hollywood High Adult School, Reynolds completed a year in fashion school, before deciding to apply to arts school. He eventually attended Otis-Parsons Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design), completing his B.F.A. in 1984. Shortly afterward, he moved to New York.
While in New York, Reynolds held various stints at some of the day’s most important several galleries, including Paula Cooper, Circles Art Gallery, and Annina Nosei Gallery, where he was a preparator for some of Babara Kruger’s earliest installations. Nosei also gave him his first New York solo show in 1986; the following year he was included in a group show at Artists Space.
But it was after his HIV-positive diagnosis in 1989 that Reynolds’s art began to reflect on his own diagnosis, serving as a witness to his own experiences of living with HIV. In addition to the creation of Patina du Prey, Reynolds also created numerous other memorable bodies of work, including “Blood Spots,” in which he enlarged images of his HIV-positive blood dropped on paper, and “Mummification,” durational performances in which Reynolds was wrapped in cellophane and tape to resemble a mummy.
Between 1989 and 1993, Reynolds also amassed a massive archive of New York Times clips that dealt with HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ-related issues. Those clippings were at first used for series like Dialogue Tables and Activist Media Installations, but then later became the source material for a new body of work, “Photo Weavings,” that debuted at New York’s Participant Inc. in 2011. For the work, Reynolds scanned these news clippings and then superimposed images from various other bodies of work—“Blood Spots,” images of Patina, and more—that are then stitched together.
His art had come full circle. And in 2019 at P.P.O.W., Reynolds revisited the legacy of Patina du Prey for an exhibition titled “From Drag to Dervish,” showing together for the first time many of Patina’s dresses alongside other related works, including the bright-pink mixed media installation Patina du Prey Vanity (1990–93) that the gallery had first shown at the 2018 Armory Show. On the occasion of his 2019 show for Patina at P.P.O.W., Reynolds told Artforum, “Don’t ever kill your alter ego off—she won’t have it.”
But for Reynolds his life and art have always been about survival and both the loss and resilience that comes with that. He continued to make new entries into this “Photo Weavings” for over a decade. In a recent artist statement, he said, “Viruses follow me around, like dark shadows trailing my footsteps on the path of life. Covid-19, HIV AIDs, Syphilis, Hep-C, HIV Strokes, Viral Fungal Infections on my brain. Illness and death have been so much a part of my life and art that I cannot separate them.”
“It seems no accident that Hunter not only survived HIV, homophobia, the art world, cancer, censorship, agism, ablism, and so much more,” said curator and writer Theodore Kerr, who conducted Reynolds’s oral history. “He also held on more than a week after this year’s HIV Long-Term Survivor’s Awareness Day on June 5. He is a tenacious survivor. Even with his physical death, his spirit and artwork live on. On the journey to fulfill his life’s work, he chartered many paths for others to find and follow.”