THIS ACCOUNT OF SOME ALTERNATIVE ART FORMS

is not intended to suggest that conventional format paintings and photographs about AIDS haven't been produced. They have. But in our historicizing, museum-and-"masterpiece"-culture, it's easy to forget that ephemeral, public, and even non-art works provide the context for understanding the paintings and sculptures that eventually come to epitomize an era.

Robert Mapplethorpe
Self-portrait (with Cane Skull), 1988
gelatin silver print 24"x 20"
courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, NY

Nor is this account meant to suggest that the huge outpouring of canvases and sculptural installations about AIDS hasn't also stirred up very public controversy. Along with the works already described, they--in many cases--helped catalyze the so called Culture Wars, or revenge of the puritannical right, that's led to the obliteration of the National Endowment for the Arts. (The Corcoran Gallery of Art's 1989 cancellation of Robert Mapplethorpe's "The Perfect Moment" show, and then-new NEA chair John Frohnmayer's dithering about rescinding federal funding for the AIDS exhibition "Witnesses: Against our Vanishing" at New York's Artists Space helped escalate the conflict.) If the works in these exhibitions--and others like them--weren't so powerful, why was the Right wing positively incensed?

Literally hundreds of artists, the majority of them lesbian and gay, have produced often moving, sometimes brilliant responses to the AIDS epidemic. Their traditional-format works offered the possibility of more complex and reflective responses; possibilities that are inherent in the "slower," less immediate media of painting and sculpture. Until the end of the eighties there seemed to be little call by museums or commercial galleries for art objects about AIDS. During the planning of the first, travelling, museum-group show about AIDS ("From Media to Metaphor: Art About AIDS," curated by Thomas Sokolowski and myself), a few vocal activists even suggested that AIDS was not subject matter in the conventional sense, so there could be no exhibitions of paintings about AIDS. Some of the best-known American painters, sculptors, and photographers making art about AIDS might also be described simply as some of the best-known American painters, sculptors, and photographers. They include: Nayland Blake, Ross Bleckner, Nancy Burson, Nan Goldin, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, Duane Michals, Donald Moffett, Frank Moore, Rod Rhodes, Masami Teraoka, and David Wojnarowicz. From anger and activism, to metaphor and memorialization, their approaches reflect the complexity of the epidemic's effect on contemporary American life.

Frank Moore
Bubble Bath, 1990
oil on canvas with mixed media, 83"x 99"
courtesy Sperone Westwater Gallery, NY

Masami Teraoka
A Thousand Condoms, Geisha & Skeleton, 1989
watercolor, sumi ink on canvas, 133" x 82-1/2"
courtesy Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco

Although generalizing about their diverse output is difficult, their work might usefully be considered in relation to the classic stages of coming to terms with death that Elizabeth Kubler Ross identified in On Death and Dying--denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Donald Moffett's angrily sardonic, ad-like light-box reading Call the White House...Tell Bush we're not all dead yet (1990), for instance, contrasts sharply with the poetic resignation of Duane Michals's Dream of Flowers (1986), an AIDS-subtitled series of pictures in which a beautiful young man is progressively covered with flowers. The late Felix Partz, a member of General Idea, the Canadian art team, once told me a la Kubler Ross that "We have universal health care, so we don't share that problem with you...It's why we focus on grief and mourning, not anger." This Pop art-inspired artmaking team's installations showcased gigantic simulations of AZT capsules and other drugs taken by PWAs in order to bring home--to "domesticate," in their word--the realities of this fearsome, medical condition. Other well known Canadian, European, and Australian artists making art about AIDS include Gilbert & George, Peter Kunz-Opfersei, Pierre et Gilles, and Matthew Jones.

Gran Fury
Call the White House, 1990
backlit ciba transparency, 40" x 60"

If I've focused on the United States, it's not only because I'm American. Art based on identity politics and grounded in protest--rather than aesthetic pleasure--is a peculiarly American approach to artmaking. AIDS, likewise, is a peculiarly American problem vis-a-vis the rest of the industrialized world, whose citizens are assured affordable health care. A Dutch artist I know could not imagine AIDS as artistic subject matter because HIV disease has not been politicized in the Netherlands, where it remains a public health--rather than a moral--problem. In Southern Europe, where notions of the public and private realms are so different from those of the Protestant North, AIDS and homosexality are tolerated, but rarely spoken about. Not surprisingly, few Spanish, French, or Italian artists make AIDS-inspired work. The activist truism that every community has its own AIDS epidemic finds its corollary in a particular society's AIDS art--or lack of it.

The high-water mark of AIDS art came in 1991; when hundreds, if not thousands of artists put AIDS at the center of their artmaking. Today, fewer artists make art about AIDS. Too many have died: Juan Downey, Arnold Fern, General Idea members Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Tony Greene, Keith Haring, Peter Hujar, Adrian Kellard, Peter Kunz-Opefersei, Mark Leslie, Robert Mapplethorpe, Nicolas Mouffarege, Rod Rhodes, Hugh Steers, Paul Thek, and David Wojnarowicz among them. Many are experiencing AIDS burnout. (AIDS activist groups and service organizations face a similar slackening of energy.) Some feel that they have said what they have to say about AIDS and have turned to other thematic concernts. Others are simply incapacitated by grief.

John Sapp
Adam and I Finally Went to Key West, 1989
charcoal on paper, 60" x 84"
collection of the artist
The American AIDS crisis will eventually pass, if know-nothing zealots don't undermine every effort to educate and distribute needles. (As AmFAR founder Matilda Krim noted "each step in the escalation of the AIDS crisis was predictable, and could have been countered.") The suffering caused by AIDS--and those who refuse to treat it as a public health matter--is incalculable. In the not-so-distant future, though, one paradigmatic, public artwork may be completed.

San Francisco artist Rudy Lemcke conceived his memorial, The Garden, as a a river of stones flowing over black granite, complemented by bronzed boulders that double as seating. To grace its granite walls he's chosen the touching inscription from Walt Whitman: "...comrades mine and I in their midst, and their memory ever to keep." It's difficult to imagine a more affirming response to an epidemic that's transformed the West Coast epicenter of American, gay life. Lemcke selected Harvey Milk Plaza for the site of his Zen-inspired, place of meditation. Located at the Market-and-Castro-streets entrance to one of the world's preeminent gay ghettoes, this plaza is named after the city's first openly gay supervisor, who was the target of an assassin's bullet in 1978. This highly symbolic location reminds us that the struggles of the past must be commemorated and institutionalized.

Although city officials approved the proposal in 1988, (mostly gay) opponents objected, one of the first such instances in the country. They vociferously argued that a memorial should await a cure and that the required $250,000 (to be raised privately) would be better spent on research or treatment. Lemcke countered that "psychological, spiritual and political health are also real needs that must be acknowledged. The garden is a symbol of life and continuity that will help meet them." Currently helping to midwife the creation of the country's first, municipally-funded, lesbian and gay cultural center, Lemcke believes that the garden will eventually be built. The unfinished story of this project--and there are many stories like Lemcke's--is an allegory of survival against daunting odds. Creating this memorial is also a defiant act of faith.

© Robert Atkins
from The Gay and Lesbian Looker: How Queer Artists Revolutionized Art at the End of the 20th Century


Robert Atkins is a New York-based art historian and the founding editor of TalkBack! A Forum for Critical Discourse, the first American on-line journal about on-line art and cyber-cultural issues . A former columnist for The Village Voice, he has written for more than 100 publications throughout the world and received awards for art criticism from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and Manufacturers Hanover Bank. His most recent book is ArtSpoke: A Guide to Modern Ideas, Movements and Buzzwords 1848-1944, which is a companion to his bestselling contemporary art guide, ArtSpeak, now available in 5 languages. He has also curated exhibitions at venues as far-flung as Tokyo's Sagacho Art Space and the Sao Paulo Bienal. In 1991, he co-curated "From Media to Metaphor: Art About AIDS", the first major travelling group exhibition about AIDS. He is currently working on a book called The Gay and Lesbian Looker: How Queer Artists Revolutionized Art At the End of the 20th Century and is Editor-in-Chief of the Arts Technology Entertainment Network, which produces arts programming for television and the Internet.

 

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