Alon Reininger’s “Ken Meeks, patient with AIDS.” Contact Press Images Courtesy
Alon Reininger’s “Ken Meeks, patient with AIDS.” Contact Press Images Courtesy

Arts & Culture

‘Art AIDS America’ explores how art changed an epidemic

By Rosemary Ponnekanti

Staff writer

September 26, 2015 02:00 AM

When artist group Gran Fury installed neon signage, a giant photo, six cardboard cutouts and some concrete into a New York window in 1987, it changed art history and America itself. That installation, “Let the Record Show,” helped change how America viewed HIV/AIDS and how art itself worked. Next weekend Tacoma Art Museum explores that change in its groundbreaking national show “Art AIDS America.”

“One person gets infected with HIV every 10 minutes in the U.S.,” explains Rock Hushka, senior curator at TAM and co-curator of “Art AIDS America.” “That’s better than in 1992 when someone was dying every 10 minutes. But it’s an enormous ongoing problem, and we’re not talking about it as much as we should. And artists’ responses to the AIDS controversy have influenced the way people continue to make art.”

Ten years in the planning, “Art AIDS America” corrals 125 works by major American artists like Annie Leibovitz and Jasper Johns, as well as lesser-knowns like Chloe Dzubilo and Joey Terrill, spanning from 1981 to the present. It’s a huge show, with some huge pieces like a projected recreation of the Gran Fury installation and a Jim Hodges curtain of silk flowers some 20-by-16 feet.

It has taken years of negotiating with institutions and artists, not to mention convincing museum officials of the value of a show that talks about politics, gay sex, disease and death, often in disturbing ways. But Hushka and his co-curator Dr. Jonathan Katz at the University of Buffalo have assembled a show that is hitting national headlines, attracting art scholarship and will travel to the Zuckerman Museum of Art in Georgia and the Bronx Museum in New York (the show’s partner) when it closes in January.

Help us deliver journalism that makes a difference in our community.

Our journalism takes a lot of time, effort, and hard work to produce. If you read and enjoy our journalism, please consider subscribing today.

The real importance of “Art AIDS America,” though, is for Americans themselves.

“It’s important for artists, because HIV hit the arts community as hard as any,” says Duane Wilkerson, president of the Pierce County AIDS Foundation, which is partnering with the museum for events related to the show. “This was their ability to express grief, loss and rage. And it’s important…because it will remind people of the tremendous loss from AIDS over the years, and that it’s still happening.”


“Art AIDS America” doesn’t have a headline piece — but if it did, it would be “Let the Record Show.” Hushka has had a deep admiration for Gran Fury ever since he did his master of arts thesis on the collective, which organized out of the ACT UP activist group that used angry demonstrations to get people aware of the AIDS crisis in the mid-1980s. Hushka worked closely with the existing members (the group disbanded around 1995), as well as the New Museum where they originally installed the work, to recreate the piece, as most of the original components are lost.

The photomural of the Nuremberg trials will be projected, as will the cardboard cut-outs of the six American social leaders whose denouncements of the reality of AIDS were originally inscribed on concrete plinths. These include then-Senator Jesse Helms, who advocated quarantining the infected; columnist William Buckley, who thought they should be given identifying tattoos; and Ronald Reagan, who famously said nothing about the epidemic for its first seven years. The running LED readerboard of AIDS statistics will also be projected, but TAM is recreating the iconic pink neon triangle — the symbol homosexuals were forced to wear during the Nazi regime — and the message “Silence=Death” which, as the American Journal of Public Health noted in a 2006 editorial, “cut to the heart of the social crises that continue to produce and sustain the epidemic.”

The recreation, says Hushka, acknowledges that the piece was made “as a gesture, rather than artwork in the traditional sense,” highlighting the “tension between art and activism” and paving the way for later art that broke boundaries of medium to make a social point.

Other artwork in the show that similarly reshaped contemporary art include “When We Stay,” a curtain of golden silk flowers draped from the ceiling by Spokane artist Jim Hodges. As Hushka points out, it’s not overtly about HIV/AIDS, but if you know that the work is influenced by the loss of friends and Hodges’ own activism, you see the layers.

It also, says Hushka, references the work of one of the most famous AIDS-related artists: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, a Cuban-born artist who died of AIDS-related illness in 1996. The museum showed one of Gonzalez-Torres’ more famous works in last year’s “Hide/Seek” show about homosexuality in art: a pile of candies, intended to be gradually taken and eaten by viewers. In “Art AIDS America,” two of the artist’s untitled works (“Water” and “Still Life”) explore hope and decay: a blue bead curtain that allows museum-goers to pass from one area to another, and a pile of papers printed with personal details, designed to be taken one by one.

Other works in the show reference personal experiences in a way that art had not done before: Mark Morrisroe’s Polaroid self-portrait in 1988, hooked up to an IV stand; Catherine Opie’s black-and-white photograph of a San Francisco candlelight march for AIDS in 1986; Robert Sherer’s “Sweet Williams” painted with HIV-positive and HIV-negative blood.

Artists also reinvented older art forms, such as portraiture and the memento mori, to convey everything from physical horror to spirituality.

For some living artists, “Art AIDS America” is an important enough show that they contributed directly: Jasper Johns, who requested a particular watercolor referencing plague victims from a private collection; Robert Gober, who loaned a pewter-drain sculpture from his own studio; Andres Serrano, who made a unique print of his installation “Milk/Blood” specifically for the museum.

All, says Hushka, changed the course of art practice.

“These were poetic post-modern concepts and memes that used personal experience as a way of bringing AIDS awareness into museums and circumventing art market concerns,” says Hushka, of the influence of AIDS-related art that also managed to bypass federal laws concerning “obscene” images such as gay sexuality. “Those practices are now taught in art schools.”

“Art AIDS America” also references feminism. Hushka and Katz have tried to be as reflective as possible of the fact that one in four people living with HIV/AIDS is a woman — and with 28 female artists compared to 87 men, they’ve achieved it.

“We’re aware that while ... gay white men in the arts community ... were on the frontlines, we also had to face the reality that so many women artists gave up their careers to take care of their male friends and family,” says Hushka. “That changed the pool.”

With a 300-page catalogue beefed up by 15 scholarly essays, “Art AIDS America” is definitely the kind of show you want to learn about as well as see.

“It’s super-text-heavy, because we want people to feel empowered to agree or disagree with us ... and to jump into (their own research on) the Internet,” Hushka says. “We intended it to be both a primer and a reflection on the last 30 years.”


If you feel like an AIDS-related art show seems a bit 1990s, then you’re not alone. With effective drug treatments and public health policies in place, HIV/AIDS has slipped backwards in social awareness.

“There’s a bit of fatigue that sets in after 30 years,” says Duane Wilkerson, who has worked in the field since 1984 and has seen numbers gradually dropping at events like the recent Pierce County AIDS Walk. And while that is partly due to the control of the epidemic, says Wilkerson — there were only 44 new infections in 2014, compared to 62 in 2009 — communities that are less affected tend to be less aware. There’s also a generational gap, with a whole generation born after the disease had been brought under control.

Yet HIV/AIDS has not gone away. While new drug cocktails reduce the numbers of people suffering and dying of AIDS-related complications, 650,000 people have died of the disease since 1981 — 12 times the number of American deaths during the Vietnam War, points out Wilkerson. There were 45,000 new infections in 2014. And 15 percent of those living with HIV in Washington state don’t even know they have it.

“Awareness is spotty,” Wilkerson says.

The other problem is the stigma of having HIV/AIDS — still a huge issue even 30 years on.

“I’ve seen young men dying whose fathers didn’t even come to see them, people afraid to get tests, afraid to tell their loved ones,” says Wilkerson. “It’s still a huge barrier.”

For that reason alone, he says, “Art AIDS America” is a vitally important exhibition. It shows the devastating physical impact, the mental terror, and the sheer numbers of the dead: one-quarter of the artists in the show died of HIV/AIDS complications.

“Art has such a wonderful ability to cut through to the heart of the human condition,” Wilkeson says. “It bypasses the rational part of us and goes straight to our irrational fears. It changes the heart while the mind is still figuring things out. ... You see people as human beings, with pain, aging and loss. ... It has tremendous power, and I’m excited that it will do that for people here in Pierce County.

“Tacoma Art Museum needs tremendous kudos in putting this exhibit together. It’s very brave, to tell what’s really going on.”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568



“Art AIDS America” exhibit

WHERE: Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma.

WHEN: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday Oct. 3-Jan. 10.

ADMISSION: $14 adult/$12 senior, student, military/free for 5 and under and 5-8 p.m. third Thursdays.

EVENTS: Members’ opening 7 p.m. Oct. 3; curator talk 2 p.m. Oct. 4; Lunch and Learn noon Oct. 7; National Coming Out Day celebration 10 a.m. Oct. 9; artist talk with Micha Cárdenas 6:30 p.m. Oct. 15; “My Brother Kissed Mark Zuckerberg” theater performance 7 p.m. Oct. 23; AIDS Memorial Quilt 2 p.m. Nov. 15; interfaith panel on art and HIV/AIDS 6 p.m. Nov. 19; panel on psychoanalysis, art and AIDS 2 p.m. Nov. 22; World AIDS Day 10 a.m. Dec. 1; artist talk with Karen Finley 2 p.m. Dec. 5; “Struggle and Strength” opens Dec. 9; “Condom Couture” closing party (noon) and artist talk with Gran Fury collective (3 p.m.) Jan. 10.

INFORMATION: 253-272-4258,


1.1 Million people living with HIV in the U.S.

45,000 new infections every year nationwide

13,000 people live with HIV in Washington state; 85% are men

1,400 people live with HIV in Pierce County, 84% are men

1988: The year of the first legal public needle exchange in the U.S., which was the Point Defiance AIDS Project in Tacoma. Syringe exchange is still “one of the most effective behavioral prevention tools we have,” says Duane Wilkerson, of the Pierce County AIDS Foundation.

Source: Data from Washington State Department of Health 2015 report.