WRITTEN BY ROBERT ATKINS

Gran Fury
All People With AIDS Are Innocent, 1988
AIDS HAS RAVAGED THE AMERICAN ART WORLD
with heartbreaking savagery. The single modern-art catastrophe that might compare to the AIDS debacle is World War I, which decimated the ranks of European artists. While it's no longer a surprise how many talented, young artists AIDS has stricken, the AIDS crisis has also catalyzed powerful and unimaginable consequences: it demolished the art-world closet once and-for-all and it irrevocably altered the course of late 20th-century art.

Many of the most effective and compelling artworks of the late-eighties and early-nineties engage the spector of AIDS--in sorrow, rage, and remembrance. Although most critics and curators are well aware of the importance of AIDS-themed canvases by art stars like Ross Bleckner and David Woznarowicz, few have a clue that artists and art-activists created an alternative body of street and public artworks about AIDS that was even more influential.

David Wojnarowicz
Bad Moon Rising, 1989
acrylic photograph and collage on wood panel, 37" x 36-1/2"
courtesy PPOW, NY
Ross Bleckner
One Day Fever, 1986
oil on linen, 48" x 40"
private collection
courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, NY
Remarkably, the iconic images or symbols of this plague are not made-for-TV movies, photojournalistic pictures, or schmaltzy pop songs, but the NAMES Project Quilt, a community artwork, and two artist-conceived emblems, Silence=Death and the Red Ribbon. Their effectiveness proclaims both the power of art and the limits of popular culture. Uncompromised by profit-oriented producers and other collaborators, visual artists remain our culture's last--and most vital--independent agents.

Like everything touched by AIDS, the art it spawned has been relentlessly politicized and ruthlessly "mediated." Art about AIDS is, in part, a moving record of resistance to those who exploit tragedy for political gain or for the sensationalistic, commercial purposes of the media. Until 1985, the media totally monopolized the production of AIDS images.

Art about AIDS arose in vehement response to pictures of people with AIDS featured on the nightly news and in the morning papers. During the first few years of the epidemic--AIDS was discovered in 1981--the media offered only images of emaciated AIDS "victims" and "disease carriers." They were not-so-subtly (and cruelly) identified as either "innocent" or "guilty." Hemophiliacs and children made up the former group, while gay men and IV drug users comprised the latter. In such a climate, is it any wonder that the Gran Fury collective's outdoor art-banner announcing that "All People With AIDS Are Innocent" caused a furor when it was exhibited at New York's Henry St. Settlement for the second Day Without Art in 1990? The first wave of AIDS art was produced with but one propagandistic purpose: to counter the horrific, media representations.

THIS SINGLE-MINDED RESPONSE TO SOCIAL CRISIS
brought modern art back to its roots. Two centuries ago, the painters of the French Revolution gave birth to modern art with images like David's famous Death of Marat (1793). There was nothing extraordinary about depicting a martyred leader. But David's depiction upended three centuries' precedent: He painted a contemporary figure as he was--a man with an incurable skin disease soaking in a tub. David neither idealized nor allegorized him.

Since then, artists and theorists have debated the role of art in time of crisis. If Picasso's Guernica (1937)--the painter's up-to-the-minute portrayal of Franco's bombing of a Basque village--is the exemplary, 20th-century, political artwork, it is also an anomaly from an era when painting was jettisoning its social moorings in favor of exploring the characteristics of form and abstraction. AIDS activists and artists found few role models in modern art. They instead revitalized public art, producing symbols and icons, posters and memorials such as the AIDS quilt. Their public artworks reached millions.

Rosalind Solomon
Untitled, 1987
silver gelatin print, 32" x 32"
Back in the mid-eighties, photography seemed like an effective way to confront both the demoralizing media imagery about AIDS and the threat of the cunningly unstoppable virus. But its mechanical grounding in the appearance of reality would prove to be nearly useless in dealing with a syndrome lacking visual chartacteristics. What does AIDS look like? Well-intentioned, mostly lesbian and gay, photographers produced hundreds of sympathetic portraits of people with AIDS, images of PWAs living with--rather than dying from--HIV disease. But their portraits are often unsettlingly difficult to figure out. Just who are their smiling subjects, these perfectly average looking Joes and Janes?

A furor arose with the first high-profile presentation of pictures of people with AIDS. In 1988, the Museum of Modern Art in New York showed portraits by Nicholas Nixon, who is neither gay nor afflicted with HIV. His serial images of the declining health of people with AIDS offer an unsentimentalized, sometimes grim record of courage and despair in the face of death. Members of ACT-UP protested the negativity they saw in Nixon's work with a picture-side teach-in. (This was one of two anti-MOMA demonstrations ACT-UP staged that year; the other protested the exclusion of AIDS-activist graphics from the museum's "Committed to Print" show.)

Nixon's pictures are, in fact, often grim accounts of the virus' murderous capability, but they are also a welcome record of its effect on a diverse, not-always-gay population of heterosexual women-of-color and hemophiliacs. As the first body of work exhibited on an extremely public stage, they also suffered from impossible expectations. Like Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia (1993)--the first Hollywood film about AIDS--Nixon's pictures were somehow expected to appeal to everybody: to simultaneously win over bigoted or uncommitted museum goers; and to foment activism and buck up the spirits of people with AIDS. No single body of work could possibly work such magic.

 

The broadsheets the ACT-UPpers' distributed at MOMA demanded both "no more pictures without [political] context" and images of PWAs "who are loving, vibrant, sexy and acting up." An abyss seemed to separate Nixon's controversial "negative" imagery from the blandly "positive" portraiture of the photographer-sympathizers. If portraying people with AIDS wasn't the answer, many observers wondered, how could art help change minds and alleviate this crisis?

Gran Fury, an artists' collective that operated as New York ACT UP's propaganda office, offered another "answer" --actually another modus operandi--by creating a strikingly public, non-museum role for art attempting to combat the epidemic. Rejecting portraits of people with AIDS, the group instead gave visual form to the shocking statistics emanating daily from the federal Centers for Disease Control and New York's Department of Health. Gran Fury formulated an ambitious agenda to provide the "context" other Act UPpers had found lacking in Nixon's work. Its members wanted to dispense essential information that the government wasn't. They targeted the street, rather than the gallery, and they recognized that images are far more empowering when accompanied by words of explanation and elaboration.

The collective's graphic streetworks that began to appear in 1988 married the methods of art, advertising, and education. They cut a wide psychic swath across the AIDS landscape. One print offered the alarming news that "One in 61 babies born in New York is HIV positive" and another wittily cajoled men to "Use Condoms or Beat It." Gran Fury's first institution-sponsored graphic admonished artworldings to fight AIDS, because "With 47,524 Dead, Art Is Not Enough." The toll, of course, continued to mount.

 

 

THE ARTWORLD IS AN ECO-SYSTEM
--curators often collaborate with artists, and imagery sometimes travels from street to gallery, and then back again. Gran Fury came into being with the encouragement of activist-curator William Olander, who invited the ACT UP committee that later became Gran Fury, to create a piece for the new Museum of Contemporary Art's window on bustling, lower Broadway. Olander commissioned the installation because he'd been so impressed by the highly-visible work of another collective allied with--but predating--ACT UP called the Silence = Death Project.

This group's six, (anonymous) gay men conceived the graphic emblem that has become synonymous with ACT UP and AIDS activism: SILENCE=DEATH printed in white type beneath a pink triangle, all set on a black ground. To create it, they inverted the pink triangle the Nazis forced homosexuals to wear in concentration camps--and which gay activists of the seventies had already "appropriated" as a symbol of gay liberation. A neon version of the logo was a central element in "Let the Record Show," ACT UP's feisty installation at the New Museum indicting the Reagan-Bush administrations's inaction on AIDS. It now hangs in the museum's collection.

 

 

As Gran Fury's artful propaganda grew more self-assured, it increasingly migrated to more established and better-funded locations. In these public (and often publicly funded) sites, it also generated non-stop controversy. The group's famous Benetton-ad-inspired image of three, interracial, homo- and heterosexual couples kissing above the caption "Kissing doesn't kill: Greed and indifference do," raised hackles across the country as part of Art Against AIDS's "Art On the Road" project in 1990. Their placement on the side of Chicago buses, prompted one Chicago alderman to call the print "an incitement to homosexuality." Gran Fury's contribution to the Venice Bienalle, the same year nearly got the group prosecuted for obscenity.

Bear in mind that the Bienalle is the most prestigious of biennial international exhibitions; an invitation to participate telegraphs the news that an artist (or, in this case, an art collective) has arrived. Gran Fury seized the opportunity to export its hell raising methods to Europe. Its Pope Piece paired two billboard-sized panels: one coupled the image of the pope with a text about the church's anti-safe-sex rhetoric; the other a two-foot-high erect cock with texts about women and condom use. Italian authorities--including Bienalle personnel--considered prosecuting the group for blasphemy. Only the intervention of sympathetic magistrates precluded an international scandal.

 

Gran Fury, "Pope Piece"

 

Gran Fury's spectacular entrance into the public arena coincided with an epochal, once-in-a-century shift in consciousness. This passage from modernism to post-modernism meant that what could be seen only as an artist's protest poster in the context of the Vietnam War, could, 20 years later, be regarded as art. It also linked Gran Fury's work with a number of key art-players of the moment, such as Barbara Kruger and Hans Haacke. This was hardly an accident. The savvy, art-school educated members of Gran Fury consciously looked to such art for inspiration, while supportive critics such as Douglas Crimp perceptively and persuasively made the case for Gran Fury's activism-as-art. The same, feminist-derived identity politics that en masse brought art by people of color and queers into the artworld, heightened the visibility of art about AIDS.

In addition to Silence=Death, two other public artworks, the Ribbon Project and the Names Project have come to symbolize the AIDS crisis. Like Silence=Death, the Red Ribbon was created by an artists' collective, the Visual AIDS's Artists' Caucus. (The Visual AIDS group--founded in 1989 in New York by Gary Garrels, Tom Sokolowski, Bill Olander and myself--produces the annual Day Without Art on December 1, among other educational projects and events.) The Artists' Caucus produced the Ribbon to subvert the onslaught of gooey jingoism unleashed by the Gulf War and embodied in the yellow ribbon. But what exactly are Silence=Death and the Red Ribbon? Emblems? Symbols? Logos? Artworks? Or all of the above? Some readers who have no problem accepting that printed streetworks are art, may be troubled by such a suggestion. Like other conceptual, non-object artworks, Silence=Death can't be bought or sold. But art is more than objectmaking; it is also our culture's primary visual means of awareness, of thinking. (That's why Hollywood and Madison Ave. get so much of their inspiration from Soho.) In philosopher Hans Magnus Enzensberger's words, art is a branch of the consciousness industry.

Intended to be anonymous, the Red Ribbon was designed as a symbol of commitment to people with AIDS and the AIDS-struggle. It debuted on the televised Tony Award cermemonies in late spring of 1991 and six months later you couldn't turn on the tube without seeing it: at the Emmies, the People's Choice Awards, and the Oscars; at sports events like the US Open; at Freddie Mercury's "Concert for Life" in London; and on Presidential candidate Jerry Brown's lapel. The Republican handlers who removed it from Barbara Bush's bodice at the 1992 Republican Convention in Houston appreciated its apparently subversive message. But by then, the Ribbon--like any successful "media" artwork--had already assumed a life of its own. Its apotheosis as the best-known emblem of the early 90s led to its mid-decade oversaturation as a jeweled fashion accessory and computer screen-saver. In the wierdly freeform realm of symbols, it also came to represent the frustration many AIDS activists felt in the wake of the 1992 elections.

The NAMES Project Quilt (organized in San Francisco by activist Cleve Jones) is that rare phenomenon in contemporary culture, a real community artwork with no initial connection to artists or art schools. Typically known simply as the AIDS Quilt, and composed of more than 46,000 three-by-six-foot, quilted, appliqued and collaged rectangles of fabric, it commemorates fully 20 percent of the AIDS deaths in this country. Since 1986, participants have created these quilt components for friends, lovers or public figures like Arthur Ashe, Rock Hudson, and Michel Foucault. Images of pets, military medals, and drag queens coexist with slap-dash calligraphy, campy humor and heart-rending tributes from loved ones. "Love you, Mark" takes on new, poignant meaning when it's signed in glitter by Mom, Dad, and Lover Steve.

The ever-expanding quilt--now the size of 20 football fields(!)--is too large to be exhibited in its entirety. Its national debut took place in 1987 on the mall in Washington, DC. Like Maya Lin's nearby Vietnam War Memorial--whose black granite walls are inscribed with the names of the deceased in the chronological order of their deaths--the NAMES Project Quilt is shocking for its concreteness. But unlike the memorial's haunting testimony to the facelessness of death, the Quilt is a passionate affirmation of diversity. Nominated for a Nobel Prize in 1988, the Quilt helped give the plague--and its sufferers--a human face.

Some AIDS activists have criticized both the Quilt and the Ribbon for their mild mannered mode of address. But they miss the point. By the end of the eighties, the AIDS crisis had directly affected millions of Americans--PWAs and their families, friends, and caregivers. The Quilt helps attend to the needs of those mourning AIDS losses. The Red Ribbon is a bridge to non-AIDS-involved audiences; a gentle first step--its founders hoped--on the road to active support of PWAs. The Quilt and the Red Ribbon helped transform AIDS from a syndrome that dare not speak its name, to a subject that could be raised sympathetically in People magazine and acknowledged by those watching entertainment industry darlings (and role models) strutting their stuff at televised events.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres
Untitled, 1991.
Printed billboard, 10'- 5" x 22' - 8"
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Gift of Werner and Elaine Dannheiser.
©1997 The Museum of Modern Art, New York
In order to shift public opinion, to alter the psychic landscape, such symbolic works must, paradoxically, emphasize their "publicness" and distance from the artworld. This also connects them with Dada-esque, guerrilla events: Performance art like demonstrations where protesters drop and others render the contours of their fallen bodies in chalk, or a clandestine action in which Queer Nation encased bible thumping Senator Jesse Helms' suburban, Washington home in a gargantuan condom. But there's also a continuum linking these guerrilla actions to mainstream events and observations--such as the annual skyline-dimming Night Without Light or the application of a huge Red Ribbon to the Eiffel Tower for a United Nations'AIDS conference--and to art itself.

The Museum of Modern Art's sponsorship of artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres's outdoor, photo-billboards of his own empty, rumpled bed completed shortly after his lover's AIDS-related death is an historic, but little discussed milestone of 1991. It suggests how fully AIDS has radicalized art institutions. While works like Gonzalez Torres's have forebears in conceptual and feminist art of the seventies', before the epidemic major museums had never sponsored such provocative work at the time of its creation. No matter how successful the American Right wing is in demonizing the arts and promoting their suppression, it fights an unwinnable, rearguard action. Just as the legacy of the 1960s is embodied in changed attitudes about sexuality and abortion, so, too, is the effect of AIDS.
The arts--like so much else--will never again be the same.

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