Nan Goldin, Gilles’ Arm, Paris 1993. ©Nan Goldin, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.

Luis Cruz Azaceta, AIDS, Time, Death, 1989. The New School Art Collection. Photo by James Prinz.

Gerard Gaskin, Ebony Ball, Manhattan, 1997.

Larry Stanton, Untitled (Hospital Drawing), 1984. [I’m Going To Make It] Courtesy of Arthur Lambert and the Estate of Larry Stanton.

Larry Stanton, Untitled (Hospital Drawing), 1984. [I’m Going To Make It] Courtesy of Arthur Lambert and the Estate of Larry Stanton.

Jonathan Horowitz, Archival Iris Print of an Image Downloaded from the Internet with Two Copies of the New York Post Rotting in Their Frames, 2004. Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York/Rome.

Roger Brown, Peach Light, 1983. Photo: James Connolly. Kavi Gupta and the Roger Brown Estate, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Carrie Yamoaka, Steal This Book #2, 1991.


The Anguish of Remembering


ARTAIDSAMERICA Chicago was a documentary about the early days of the AIDS epidemic in the United States as told through works of art. And for those of us of a certain age, it was also a memorial that reopened the never-quite-healed wounds of loss and rejection. We could not see the exhibition as merely a documentation; it was too much a family album.

The works in the exhibition were placed into four categories that represented the four dominant themes of the show: Body, Spirit, Activism, and Camouflage. The categories worked for understanding the exhibition as an analytical documentary. But for those of us who lived through those early days, Body, Spirit, and Activism merged into a nightmare of despair, hope, and anger. By blending the pieces from each category together in hanging the show, that anguish became an overarching category of its own.


Body concentrated on the physical ravages of AIDS on the human body and the role of sex and drugs in the spread of the disease. Eloquently summarizing the physical devastation, the solitary bony appendage in Nan Goldin’s Gilles’ Arm creates a deadly slash across white bed sheets.

Also noteworthy in this category is AIDS, Time, Death by Luis Cruz Azaceta. A wheel that is also a clock rolls down a hill covered in skulls, blood seeping into the ground below. It is a variation of the Doomsday Clock on the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, designed by Suzanne Schweig (Martyl) in 1947, and conveys the same sense of impending annihilation.

For me, the most thoughtful piece in this category was Keith Haring’s No Title, 1988. It depicts the connection between sexual arousal and the sensation of pleasure in the brain and how the need to satisfy that dynamic dominates one’s life—and how it becomes one of the causes of the spread of the epidemic. The work provokes the viewer into confronting the dilemma of satisfying biological needs versus the desire to stay alive—the primal internal conflict we still face today.


Keith Haring, No Title, 1988. Collection of the Rubell Family Foundation. © Keith Haring Foundation. Photo by James Prinz.


The Spirit category was mostly devoted to finding comfort in religious or other spiritual practices, or just each other. In Ebony Ball Manhattan by Gerard Gaskin, two young men embrace. It was one of the rare pieces in the exhibition that showed any kind of affection between two people. But was this a one-night stand? Were they finding solace in each other? Or was this a love that would see them through this holocaust?

More than a decade before Gaskin’s image, Larry Stanton, a portrait artist, made two drawings the year he died. First while hospitalized for pneumonia, he declared “I’m going to make it.” And later, just before he died and rendered in a very child-like style: “I am not afraid of dying. A little sad but not defeated.” To declare victory in the face of death at such a young age (37) must have taken extraordinary faith.

The most overtly religious piece in the exhibition was Keith Haring’s very moving Altar Piece. In the center panel of this triptych according to Christian creed, Mary holds out her infant son for all to see and to contemplate the sacrifices that they made. It speaks directly to our inconsolable loss. This piece has so moved the Christian community that versions of it are to be found in churches in Manhattan, San Francisco, and Paris.


Keith Haring, Altar Piece, 1990. Denver Art Museum, Gift of Yoko Ono. © Keith Haring Foundation. Photo by Michael Tropea.


Eventually, the anger—no, rage—started to manifest itself. Jonathon Horowitz’s Archival Iris Print of an Image Downloaded from the Internet with Two Copies of the New York Post Rotting in Their Frames exemplifies the fury depicted in the Activism category. In this triptych, two unpreserved copies of the New York Post report on the death of President Ronald Reagan, the President who failed to publicly mention AIDS until 1987 (cowardice? bigotry? both?), while below them is the print of the corpse of a victim of AIDS. Horowitz’s piece depicts, in the most graphic way, ACT-UP’s slogan “Silence=Death.”

ACT UP NY/Gran Fury’s poster Kissing Doesn’t Kill was commissioned as a public service announcement to go into buses and subways. The intent was to educate the public about the realities and politics of HIV/AIDS. What it produced was a furious backlash. Local Chicago and Illinois state governments proposed legislations to ban the poster, and it was routinely censored and defaced by the very people whose inaction on HIV/AIDS led to the death of thousands. Today the poster seems innocuous, and it is hard to remember what outrage it caused.


ACT UP NY/Gran Fury, Kissing Doesn’t Kill, 1989. Photo by James Prinz.


Hugh Steers’ painting Poster, of a young man looking across a barren room at an ACT UP poster and an empty bed, poignantly summarizes the feelings of many of us from that time. No matter how much you demonstrated, that bed would remain empty—your loved one could not be brought back to life. But it must be remembered that although political activism cannot change the past, it can shape the future and, therefore no matter how painful, it must be done.


Hugh Steers, Poster, 1990. Courtesy of the artist’s estate and Alexander Gray Associates, New York


For me, the Camouflage category was the weakest category. Since overtly AIDS-referential art was being rejected, the intent was to hide the message by using coded symbols or language and get the work seen in mainstream art venues. But it amounted to preaching to the choir in code. Many of the hidden symbolisms were so obscure that most people would never know that they were there—never mind what they meant. The whole strategy could even be thought of as kind of cowardly activism. Nevertheless, there were a few noteworthy pieces.

Carrie Yamaoka, in Steal This Book #2, photographed a spread from Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, his manual for social revolution. She then obscured or erased all the words except “slaughter” and “history.” Yamaoka’s experience as an AIDS activist led her to understand that these two words were “the baseline of all forms of human experience,” according to the wall note accompanying the work.

In 1983, Roger Brown painted Peach Light, an image of a skeleton with a leather hat backed by concentric peach colored rings that slowly change to black. The color is a reference to the Gold Coast Bar, a leather bar in Chicago that bathed the room in peach colored lights so that Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions and the gaunt frames of their patrons would be less noticeable. As mentioned in the wall note, the cruising posture of the skeleton interweaves desire, eroticism, mortality, community and illness into one image.

The most moving piece in this category, for me, was Rudy Lempke’s The Uninvited. It is a video projection of Balinese style shadow puppetry that tells the story of a homeless gay Vietnam veteran with AIDS. It draws attention to the parallels between the two deadly catastrophes, the Vietnam War and AIDS, thereby refuting the tendency to consider people with AIDS as “other.” The message is augmented by the sheer formal beauty of the work, drawing you into its tropical false paradise permeated by death.


Rudy Lemcke, The Uninvited, 2003. Video still.


There were a number of pieces in the exhibition depicting African Americans, mostly in the form of videos. And there were a handful of pieces devoted to women with AIDS. But the exhibition concentrated mostly on the experiences of white gay males. They were the ones most affected early on in the epidemic, and it was their initial political activism that brought about the public awareness of the horrors of AIDS in the United States and the need to aggressively fight the disease. Later, the epidemic spread to the African American community and to women.

For those of us who lived through the early days of the epidemic, this exhibition was not just a documentary. It inevitably functioned as a requiem to those we lost. Marcus, Jerry, David…we will never forget you!


Michel Ségard is the Editor-in-Chief of the New Art Examiner.


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