Yesterday, December 1st, 2015, was the 27th annual commemoration of World AIDS Day, a day in which we raise awareness of the ongoing AIDS pandemic. In solidarity with World AIDS Day, the artistic community simultaneously commemorated Day Without Art, in which the extensive contributions of artists with HIV/AIDS are honored.
The AIDS movement and the condition of the American arts scene have long been intertwined–not solely due to the staggering LGBTQ representation in the arts, blurring the lines between the two parties, but because both groups face a common adversary: censorship.
Playright William Hoffman referred to the AIDS crisis as “days of double darkness.” When it began to spread in America in the early 1980’s, HIV/AIDS was originally known as GRID, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. Homophobia led to the calculated ignorance of the American mainstream, leaving many to die in the streets and callously without care in hospitals, despite massive outcry by the LGBT community. President Reagan and his administration completely marginalized such outcry. They famously did not even acknowledge the existence of HIV/AIDS until over 5,000 people, largely gay men, had died, and when they did, the response was less than empathetic. As a result, ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, was founded in 1987 to bring about legislation, medical research, improved treatment that would directly benefit people with HIV/AIDS. World AIDS Day was created a year later.
Metropolitan artistic epicenters, such as the East Village scene, were struck extremely hard, as many queer artists had contracted HIV/AIDS. Artists mobilized in solidarity with the ACTUP, acting through Gran Fury, an artist/activist coalition that used the urban landscape as a canvas to raise awareness of the AIDS pandemic and the government’s lack of response. Billboards, t-shirts, postcards, and posters alike, with bold, eye-popping designs, were mobilized with guerrilla tactics. The slogan, “Silence = Death,” and the appropriation of the pink triangle remain Gran Fury’s most prominent legacies.
Homophobia, pozphobia, and the arts, each intertwined, came to even more of a crossroads in 1989, when, famously, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C censored Robert Mapplethorpe’s traveling solo exhibition, The Perfect Moment. Senator Jesse Helms had gathered 100 Congressmen to lead the charge to protest the National Endowment for the Arts’ funding of the exhibition. Via Helms’ protest of the homoerotic and sadomasochist themes of Mapplethorpe’s work, the artist, who had died of AIDS-related causes just a few months before, became a posthumous cause célèbre of the American culture wars. Just as queer issues and HIV/AIDS had been erased from mainstream political discussion, they looked to erase the contributions of artists with HIV/AIDS.
Later that year, amongst this controversy, Day Without Art was launched on December 1, 1989, by Visual AIDS, a non-profit founded to record the impact of HIV/AIDS on the artistic community. 600 art institutions demonstrated the importance of people HIV/AIDS to art by closing galleries and museums, removing or covering artworks, holding memorials, and offering programming that highlights artists with HIV/AIDS. The Met Museum covered Picasso’s famed portrait of Gertrude Stein with a placard about AIDS. The Guggenheim draped itself with a giant black cloth. The Whitney distributed over 8,000 postcards by Gran Fury. Activists protested the NEA, which denied a grant for an exhibition about AIDS at Artists Space in Manhattan.
Despite PrEP, campaigns for condom use, and drug cocktails, ACT UP and Gran Fury’s outrage remains relevant. Attesting to this, World AIDS Day and Day Without Art continue to be commemorated annually. Race and class boundaries prevent access to resources (especially PrEP) and education for those of color and low-income individuals. Trans women of color are 49 times more likely to contract HIV than the average person. Stigma and microaggressions persist, with devastating effects, preventing people from knowing their status and protecting themselves. AIDS criminalization still occurs, as two-thirds of states in the United States have specific statutes that incarcerate people living with HIV for nondisclosure—even in cases with no possibility for transmission or exposure. Mainstream attention had only shifted away from HIV/AIDS because white people stopped dying.
As a publication dedicated to artistic and social awareness, the Stanford Arts Review would like to remind you that AIDS is not over. We commemorate Day Without Art by honoring 20 extraordinary artists who have died of AIDS-related causes, imploring you to be acutely aware of the devastation that HIV/AIDS and the lack of responsive action has caused the artistic community.
(Click thumbnails to enlarge.)
Keith Haring (1958-1990), New York street culturist, social activist, and dancing baby fanatic.
Patrick Angus (1953-1992), expressive acrylic painter of love letters to gay demimonde.
Jack Smith (1932-1989), transgressive filmmaker and father of performance art.
Jimmy De Sana (1950-1990), photographer of savage nudes and key figure of East Village punk.
Alex Aleixo (1952-2008), Brazilian collagist, worshipper of pornographic and pop cultural shrines.
David McDiarmid (1952-1995), an AIDS artivist who wields camp, color, sass, and sex as his weapons of choice.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-1996), Cuban-born gay visual artist with a minimalist and conceptualist vocabulary, employing everyday objects to address themes of love and loss.
Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), the modern Michelangelo.
Tseng Kwong Chi (1950-1990), photographer, trickster, dignitary impersonator, and culture shock fabricator.
David Wojnarowicz (1954-1922), militant AIDS artivist and creator of historical authenticity.
Peter Hujar (1937-1987), capturer of exquisite, unconventional, awkward beauty.
Barton Lidice Benes (1942-2014), conceptual artist and assembler of thrown-away fragments — including his own AIDS-infected blood.
Steven F. Arnold (1943-1994), visionary surrealist, caberet fever-dreamer, protégé of Dali.
Mark Morrisroe (1959-1989), a troubled narcissist and artistic, sexual, and social outlaw.
Martin Wong (1946-1999), Asian-American painter of cluttered, complex, ethnicized cityscapes.
Hugh Steers (1963-1995), painter of emotional and personal turmoil via allegories of sex and power, with a soft, brutal glow.
Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955-1989), Nigerian-born photographer, seminal figure in Black contemporary art, and explorer of diasporic and indigenous identity, beauty, and spirituality.
Chloe Dzubilo (1960-2011), a transgender activist, nightlife icon, designers’ muse, and maker of expressive marks, each like a shout.
Carlos Almaraz (1941-1989), an early leader of the Chicano street arts movement who imbued the L.A. urban landscape with vibrancy, rendering it with fantastical colors and thick, explosive impasto.
Frank C. Moore (1953-2002), surrealist painter of whimsical children’s book illustrations jumbled by a Jungian dreamscape.
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For more information on the resilience of the present day AIDS community and the role that art continues to plays in its activism, please visit Visual AIDS’s website, Of particular note is the Visual AIDS Artist+ Registry, the largest database of works by over 400 registered artists with HIV/AIDS.
Please consider helping support Visual AIDS with a donation and expand their registry by encouraging any HIV+ artists you know to apply to become an artist-member.