It can be easy to forget how devastating AIDS was in the American consciousness, with fresh political and social issues jockeying for our attention daily. Artists were especially vocal about AIDS, many of them suffering from the disease, contending with the loss of family and friends or living in city centers like Los Angeles and New York where creative communities were hard hit by HIV.
A throwback to another age, one when AIDS loomed large on the art world’s mind, “Art AIDS America” at the Zuckerman Museum of Art is a powerful, harrowing survey of works made from the 1980s until today in response to the AIDS crisis. It is also an often devastating reminder of the incredible toll the disease took, ruining lives and bodies, and inspiring heights of compassion, but also depths of inhumanity in the way politicians and religious figures used the disease to play out personal agendas.
Participating artists include some of the art world’s heavy hitters: Kiki Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, Ross Bleckner, David Wojnarowicz, Andres Serrano, Kalup Linzy, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Catherine Opie, among many others. A number of the artists included in “Art AIDS America” succumbed to the disease too, giving the exhibition the feeling of a memorial, as in Keith Haring’s final work, “Altar Piece,” a metal shrine to the dead featuring the artist’s cartoon radiant babies but invested with a sober new tone.
Death and dying are naturally repeated motifs in the show. But in a culture that often treats death as entertainment rather than with the respect it deserves, “Art AIDS America” feels even more revelatory in addressing a subject often denied and erased in American culture.
Images from photographers Nan Goldin, Ferenc Suto and Alice O’Malley recall memorial photography of the 19th century, which captured loved ones after death. There is something profoundly moving in seeing the variety of ways people contend with death: some with humor, some with agony, others with a poetic clarity, as in Robert Farber’s recording “Every Ten Minutes” in which a bell rings through the gallery to signal another death from AIDS.
The exhibition, which debuted at the Tacoma Art Museum, became a source of protests and anger because of co-curators Rock Hushka and Jonathan Katz’s slim representation of black artists — four among the 107 originally included. It was seen as an especially galling omission when AIDS disproportionately affects the black community. As a result, the Zuckerman Museum curators have created a kind of show-within-a-show in its Atlanta incarnation, making a compensatory effort to include artists of color and also black voices in the show.
Does all of that additional work by African-American artists support the larger mission of the show? Sometimes. Works by Willie Cole, and by Glenn Ligon support the exhibition’s themes (as seen in a photo by Peter Hujar of the aftermath of a race riot) of an America built on other discriminations and elisions.
Whether the inclusion of certain black artists furthers the aims of the show is debatable. But the responsiveness of the museum does prove art’s status as a living, breathing organism rather than a moribund collection of stuff. Under smart curation, it morphs and changes and responds to the world it occupies.
The Zuckerman has also included the testimony of Atlanta activists who witnessed the AIDS crisis firsthand. Atlanta, it turns out, was an especially significant city in relation to the crisis, with its large African-American population, the presence of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and even the role of the arts, with Atlanta’s Nexus (now the Contemporary) staging the first exhibition of artwork responding to the disease.
“Art AIDS America” is unapologetically raw, sexually provocative and not for the pearl-clutching prone. There are graphic images, and ribald, provocative evocations of love and lust that make the show cathartic and life-affirming, despite a backbeat of death and suffering. It’s a show to incite strong emotions, and those boxes of tissues placed considerately throughout the gallery will be a necessity for some. Death and discrimination are rarely pretty, but talking about them is essential.