On ViewThe Bronx Museum Of The Arts
July 13 – October 23, 2016
Just inside the entrance to Art AIDS America, Marlon Riggs’s fifty-five minute Tongues Untied (1989) is projected on a large wall within its own gallery, playing on a continuous loop for the duration of the show. Riggs’s poetic documentary essay on race, history, and sexuality makes for a commanding start to the exhibition. Early on he intones, “The ride is rough. There is no jelly for this,” an aptly foreboding taunt for the absorbing, haunting, and at times unwieldy exhibition that follows.
With 125 works on view by nearly as many artists, the exhibition is refreshingly decentralized, offering a dizzying display of subjects, subjectivities, and visual and political strategies. An effort is made to give space to the poetics of each artist while simultaneously positioning AIDS as a cultural and political force and ongoing health crisis.
Organized by the Tacoma Art Museum in partnership with the Bronx Museum of the Arts, the exhibition is co-curated by Jonathan David Katz of the University of Buffalo, and Rock Hushka, Chief Curator at the Tacoma Art Museum. Tacoma holds an important place in the history of the AIDS crisis: in 1988, Tacoma resident David Purchase launched the Point Defiance program, the first government-sanctioned needle-exchange program dedicated to reducing HIV transmission among intravenous drug users.
In the earliest years of the crisis, AIDS was spoken of as the “gay cancer.” Its association with homosexuality has been hard to shake, and it is not easily shed in the exhibition, either. Often exhibitions of AIDS-related art focus on the “early years,” reifying a canon of mostly dead, mostly white, gay male artists, inadvertently relegating the crisis to the past and rendering invisible those who survived, those who continue to work, and the continuing impact on other communities and younger generations.
Overall, though, Art AIDS America resists the urge towards nostalgia and mystification. While many of the best-known artists lost to AIDS (Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Robert Mapplethorpe, Martin Wong) are represented, their presence is almost underplayed. Reading the curators’ contributions to the catalogue, one might expect Gonzalez-Torres to be the exhibition’s centerpiece. His mournful elegies to his partner, and his adroit undoing of some of the more flatly masculinist strains of Minimalism have rightly foregrounded him in the period’s art historiography. The exhibition, as it is presented under the guidance of the Bronx Museum’s Director of Curatorial and Education Programs, Sergio Bessa, shows balance and restraint: Gonzalez-Torres’s exquisite beaded curtain, Untitled (Water) (1995), which might have been foregrounded as a classic exemplar, does not ostentatiously hang, as it might have, from the high ceilings of the Bronx Museum’s entry; rather, it appears in the crowded third gallery of the exhibition, a slyly domestic transition to the exhibition’s final back room.
The loosely chronological grouping allows us to see just how quickly responses to the crisis infiltrated art and life: the restless, angry, and tragic photographs documenting the illness and its physical toll on artists and their loved ones are almost too many to count. The earliest work in the exhibition, Izhar Patkin’s Unveiling of a Modern Chastity (1981), is the artist’s response to first observing Kaposi sarcoma on the bodies of fellow patients in medical waiting rooms. The surface of the canvas is a grotesque, haptic moonscape rendered in rubber, latex, and ink. Arch Connelly’s humble, tentative Blurry Self-Portrait (1987), resembles nothing less than a be-sequined, disease-infected cell. Necessary attention is also given to the works and actions of Gran Fury and ACT UP, as well as to the ongoing work of the Visual AIDS organization, which since 1988 has sponsored public art campaigns, including Day Without Art (1989), the iconic red AIDS ribbon (1991), and freely distributed AIDS-awareness broadsides designed by the likes of Barbara Kruger and Glenn Ligon (1992).
The inclusion of younger artists, confronting these issues in a new light, brings the exhibition up to date. Now, with the increased availability of more sophisticated antiretroviral drugs, AIDS has receded from the cultural spotlight—even as many artists who were transformed by it continue to work and exhibit today. Kalup Linzy’s Lollypop (2006), a lip-synced rendering of a saucy, banned duet from the 1930s, and the photographic works of LADZ (John Arsenault and Adrian Gilliland) reminds us that the fear of HIV transmission remains a backdrop for the most innocent of desires, and that queer identity for many hinges not only on loving as one wishes, but often a daily negotiation for survival as well. Three self-portraits from the artist Kia Labeija are also included. A twenty-six-year-old woman born with HIV, her frank sexuality radically unsettles any coherent narratives of the crisis, be they of triumph or tragedy.
The Bronx Museum is located at an important axis within the history of the crisis. Montefiore Medical Center was home to some of the most important and innovative research trials in the early years of the epidemic; the Bronx-Lebanon Hospital, according to Bessa, was near bankruptcy in the early 1980s, and was effectively saved by the vouchers and funding that came in for treating the infected. Throughout the exhibition, the museum has partnered with Visual AIDS, BronxWorks, the New York African Film Festival, and other organizations, in a range of programs, acknowledging that the work of awareness and gaining access to care is far from over, and not by any means limited to gay communities.
While art historians were debating the death of the author, the art world was faced with a crisis in which its authors were actually dying. Suddenly, bodies were thrust to the foreground again and again—in die-ins, in protests, in the painful assertion of the body, its substances, and its vulnerabilities in both art and activism. Art AIDS America presents artists for whom love, creativity, politics, and survival were and remain an intertwined, by-any-means-necessary affair. No wonder the show is a little bit messy, and the better for it.