Art To Teach And Remind Us (of what has come before)

I was an oblivious child when the AIDS epidemic swept through the gay community like a ravenous angel of death that no one yet understood.  While watching cartoons on a big boxy TV, I remember brief news reports of an evil disease that sinners got because God was mad at them.  Through my conservative Christian lens, AIDS was a part of the forbidden topic of homosexuality that sat well outside my world of understanding.  Gradually, as it happens with little kids, I grew up and learned more about myself and the world and one day I found myself free and conscious and examining a part of history that surely affects me so much, but one that I had never really had any direct knowledge about.

An entire generation of gay men has been wiped out and a horrible scar left on the collective psyche of those who remain.  Living in NYC has allowed me to meet men who lived through those harsh times and hearing their stories of lost friends and life in a society violently waking up to the emerging queer community is powerful.  Their stories also makes me realize how easy my life has been in some ways.  The history of gay men is a vibrant tale that has spent most of its time in shadows and learning about the men before me has been largely a person-by-person survey.  I’m eager for a wider perspective of where we’ve come from so as to better direct where we go from here.

Recently I went to see an art exhibit called, “HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture“, that presents a hundred years of queer themes in art.    Below is a small selection of the work that had an impact on me…all three pieces from the late 20th century and dealing with the AIDS epidemic and the loss caused to the community.  There are powerful lessons in these works so take a moment to look and read and pause to remember.  The description below each image was taken from the exhibit writeup online.
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"Unfinished Painting" by Keith Haring (American, 1958–1990). 1989. Acrylic on canvas.

In the midst of the AIDS crisis, the poet Thom Gunn said he never thought there was a “‘gay community’ until the thing was vanishing.” In 1990, 18,447 Americans died of AIDS. The artist Keith Haring would be one of them, passing away on February 16, 1990, at the age of thirty-one. Haring had vaulted to public prominence as a graffiti artist whose comical and mysterious cartoons started appearing randomly in New York City’s subway system and led him to mainstream fame in the art world. The sketchy, skittering nature of his drawing is worked into this painting, but the structure of the unfinished work gives it a formal weight. The hanging strings of the unfinished painting suggest not just incompletion but unraveling.
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"Felix, June 5, 1994" by AA Bronson (Canadian, b. 1946). 1994 (printed 1999). Lacquer on vinyl, 84 x 168 in.

“I made this photograph of Felix a few hours after his death. He is arranged to receive visitors, and his favorite objects are gathered about him: his television remote control, his tape-recorder, and his cigarettes. Felix suffered from extreme wasting, and at the time of his death his eyes could not be closed: there was not enough flesh left on the bone. Felix and Jorge and I lived and worked together from 1969 until 1994. During that time we became one organism, one group mind, one nervous system; one set of habits, mannerisms, and preferences. We presented ourselves as a “group” called General Idea, and we pictured ourselves in doctored photographs as the ultimate artwork of our own design: we transformed our borrowed bodies into props, significations manipulated to create an image, a reality. ”
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"Untitled" (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) by Félix González-Torres (American, 1957–1996). 1991. Candies individually wrapped in multicolored cellophane, endless supply. Overall dimensions vary with installation, ideal weight: 175 lb.

Even as a minimalist, Félix González-Torres also had a whimsical, humanistic side that showed the influence of pop art on his installations. In this “portrait” of his deceased partner, Ross Laycock, González-Torres created a spill of candies that approximated Ross’s weight (175 lbs.) when he was healthy. Viewers are invited to take away a candy until the mound gradually disappears; it is then replenished, and the cycle of life and death continues. While González-Torres wanted the viewer/participant to partake of the sweetness of his own relationship with Ross, the candy spill also works as an act of communion. More darkly, the steadily diminishing pile of cheerfully wrapped candies shows the dissolution of the gay community, as society ignored the AIDS epidemic. In the moment that the candy dissolves in the viewer’s mouth, the participant also receives a shock of recognition at his or her complicity in Ross’s demise.

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2 Responses to Art To Teach And Remind Us (of what has come before)

  1. Mike Bento says:

    Still the most powerful and evocative summary of what it was like to live through that: Fran Lebowitz in the New York Times, 1987:

    New York Times
    THE IMPACT OF AIDS ON THE ARTISTIC COMMUNITY
    Fran Lebowitz; Fran Lebowitz, the author of “Metropolitan Life” and “Social
    Studies,” offers a dozen short reports from a world attempting to cope with
    pain and loss.
    September 13, 1987
    LEAD: 1. The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community is that when a 36-year-old writer is asked on
    a network news show about the Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community particularly in regard to the
    Well-Known Preponderance of Homosexuals in the Arts she replies that if you removed all of the
    homosexuals and homosexual influence from what is generally regarded as American culture you
    would be pretty much left with “Let’s Make a Deal.
    1. The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community is that when a 36-year-old writer is asked on a
    network news show about the Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community particularly in regard to the
    Well-Known Preponderance of Homosexuals in the Arts she replies that if you removed all of the
    homosexuals and homosexual influence from what is generally regarded as American culture you
    would be pretty much left with “Let’s Make a Deal.”
    The interviewer’s lack of response compels her to conclude that he has no idea what she is talking
    about and she realizes that soon many of those who do know what she is talking about will be what is
    generally regarded as dead.
    2. The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community is that on New Year’s Eve Day a 36-year-old writer
    takes a 31-year-old photographer to get a chest X-ray and listens to him say with what can only be
    described as a certain guarded hope, “Maybe I just have lung cancer.”
    3. The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community is that a 36-year-old writer has a telephone
    conversation with a dying 41-year-old book editor whom even the most practiced verbal assassin has
    called the last of the Southern gentlemen and hears him say in a hoarse whisper, “I’m sorry but I just
    hate old people. I look at them and think, ‘Why don’t you die?’ ”
    4. The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community is that an aspiring little avant-garde movie director
    approaches a fairly famous actor in a restaurant and attempts to make social hay out of the fact that
    they met at Antonio’s and will undoubtedly see each other at Charles’s and Antonio’s and Charles’s
    are not parties and Antonio’s and Charles’s are not bars and Antonio’s and Charles’s are not summer
    houses in chic Tuscan towns – Antonio’s and Charles’s are funerals.
    5. The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community is that a 36-year-old writer is on the telephone with a
    38-year-old art director making arrangements to go together the following morning to the funeral of a
    27-year-old architect and the art director says to the writer, “If you get there first sit near the front
    where we usually sit and save me the seat on the aisle.”
    6. The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community is that a 24-year-old ballet dancer is in the hospital
    for 10 days following an emergency appendectomy and nobody goes to visit him because everyone is
    really busy and after all he’s not dying or anything.
    7. The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community is that a 36-year-old writer takes time out at a
    memorial service for the world’s pre-eminent makeup artist and a man worth any number of
    interesting new painters to get angry because the makeup artist’s best friend and eulogist uses a
    story that she has for years been hoarding for her book which she can’t write anymore anyway unless
    she writes it as a historical novel because it’s about a world that in the last few years has disappeared
    almost entirely.
    8. The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community is that a 36-year-old writer runs into a 34-year-old
    painter at a party and the painter says to the writer that he is just back from Los Angeles and he says
    with some surprise that he had a really good time there and he asks why does she think that
    happened and says it’s because New York is so boring now that Los Angeles is fun in comparison
    and that’s true and it’s one reason but the real reason is that they don’t know the people who are
    dying there.
    9. The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community is that a 36-year-old writer has dinner every night for
    11 nights in a row with the same 32-year-old musician while he waits for his biopsy to come back
    because luckily for her she is the only one he trusts enough to tell.
    10. The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community is that a 36-year-old writer trying to make plans to
    go out of town flips through her appointment book and hears herself say, “Well, I have a funeral on
    Tuesday, lunch with my editor on Wednesday, a memorial service on Thursday, so I guess I could
    come on Friday, unless, of course, Robert dies.”
    11. The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community is that when the world’s most famous artist dies of
    complications following surgery at the age of 61 it doesn’t seem like he really died at all – it seems like
    he got off easy.
    12. The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community is that at a rather grand dinner held at a venerable
    New York cultural institution and catered by a company famous for the beauty of its waiters a 39-yearold
    painter remarks to a 36-year-old writer that the company in question doesn’t seem to employ as
    many really handsome boys as it used to and the writer replies, “Well, it doesn’t always pay to be
    popular.”

  2. Pingback: Becoming Mr. Eagle: Art to Teach and Remind Us » Leatherpage

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