Art of the AIDS Crisis

by Mia Saraceni

          When one takes a look back on the 1980s, the most common visions include lots of neon, teased hair and glam metal. It’s seen as one of the greatest periods of all time, but nobody tends to remember the darkness hidden within.

          Amidst all the neon and chick-flicks, a deadly disease was being spread along with an even deadlier stigma. From 1981 until the early 1990s, the HIV/AIDS epidemic was sweeping the nation and spreading detrimental misconceptions.

          The most common of all the delusions was that the virus could only be spread by homosexual men, and that catapulted mass amounts of homophobia and fear.

          The world for that community was absolutely turned upside down, and one of the few things they were able to hold onto was expression through art.

          “Some artists felt like it was something they could use to reflect upon their own feelings,” art teacher Mr. Darryl Audia said. “I think we can say that’s true for anything.”

          One of the most prolific figures of the time was Keith Haring, an artist who used simple pop art to convey serious messages. His work has become so notable, in fact, that almost anybody can recognize it at just a glance.

          While Haring created pieces about many controversial world topics at the time such as the crack cocaine epidemic, he was personally connected to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, having been diagnosed with the disease in 1988.

Ignorance = Fear 1989, Keith Haring.

           Haring created the above piece titled Ignorance = Fear a year after he was diagnosed, pushing the envelope on what people should be discussing versus what was actually being portrayed.

          He was facing imminent death, but kept creating and kept attempting to shove reality down the throats of those blinded by ignorance and disbelief.

          In his journals published by the Keith Haring Foundation, Haring wrote of many trips, experiences and ideas on art itself and the things he created.

“‘The paintings are not final statements,’” he wrote. “‘They can be changed, reshaped, combined and destroyed.’”

Haring believed that every piece was a work in progress, never finished and always evolving, which is very telling of the epidemic and how the disease and stigma still affect the world today.

Fight AIDS Worldwide 1990, Keith Haring.

          While Haring was the most famous artist to create commentary pieces on HIV/AIDS, he wasn’t the only one who demanded change.

          Less bold and more poignant, artist Hugh Steers created a multitude of pieces not only regarding the disease, but also his sexuality.   

Bath Curtain 1992, Hugh Steers.

          Steers was a figurative artist who focused on the small yet surreal details of life, ones that are so often overlooked by the average person.

          Similarly to Haring, he was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 1987 but kept creating up until his final days.

          His piece Bath Curtain, as seen above, could be seen as an attempt to visualize the reality of the disease for the people who have otherwise not experienced it, but the true nature of his art is the expression of his own emotions.

          “Self-help and self-care can sometimes start with creating,” Audia said. “A lot of artists during that time, just like our time, probably used that as a coping mechanism or a crutch.”

           Bath Curtain uses body language and lighting to convey the pain and suffering of an ostracized community.

          HIV/AIDS became a prevalent and driving force for Steers towards the latter years of his life, as he was slowly succumbing to the disease. His pain and suffering provided the world with poignant pieces that represent the shared conscience amongst his community.

Morning Terrace 1992, Hugh Steers.

          The above piece, titled Morning Terrace, is an example of Steers expressing his own sexuality while leaving the viewer wondering what exactly is happening.

          The depiction of a male figure wearing high heels was a shock to an otherwise ignorant community, one that wanted to ignore any and every indication that one might be different.

          Steers used his work as a prod to American culture and its defects. In an interview with QW Magazine a few years prior to his death, he gave his opinion on his own work and its relation to others.

          “‘I think I’m in the tradition of a certain kind of American artist—artists whose work embodies a certain gorgeous blackness,’” Steers said. “‘Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline—they all have this austere beauty to them. I think that’s what characterizes America. The atmosphere, its culture, its cities and landscape. They all have that soft glow of brutality.’”

          While paintings are the most popular method of creating works of art, artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres used sculpture as his medium of expression.

Untitled: Portrait of Ross in L.A 1991, Felix Gonzalez-Torres via Art Institute of Chicago.

          This 1991 piece affectionately named Untitled: Portrait of Ross in L.A, is a 175-pound installation of wrapped candy currently calling the Art Institute of Chicago home.

          The 175-pounds represents Gonzalez-Torres’ late boyfriend, Ross Layrock. It begins as a healthy load of candy but as viewers come and are beckoned to take a piece, it slowly diminishes until there’s nothing left.

          It’s a physical representation of what HIV/AIDS does to a person, slowly eating away at everything that made them human.

          Layrock was diagnosed in 1987, the same year as Steers, and shortly thereafter, Gonzalez-Torres himself was also diagnosed.

          His work is vastly different from any social piece from the time, as he offers his piece up to the world and asks them to slowly destroy it. In an interview with Tim Rollins just a year before his death, he shared a sentiment regarding his work.

          “‘Above all else, it is about leaving a mark that I existed,’” he said. “‘I was here. I was hungry. I was defeated. I was happy. I was sad. I was in love. I was afraid. I was hopeful. I had an idea and I had a good purpose and that’s why I made works of art.’”

          His connection to the disease was the inspiration for all of his mature works, granting the public a view into the reality of what they ignorantly named the “gay cancer.”

          The point of art is expression. The pieces created by Haring, Steers and Gonzalez-Torres are just a few examples of the thousands of sculptures, paintings and drawings created by people affected by HIV/AIDS.

There are thousands of people and artists alike who deserve recognition for their activism, especially during a time so crushing and spurned.

          It was a mission to gain clarity and understanding from the public, one that they eventually received many years after their deaths.  

          All three artists mentioned died within a few years of their diagnoses, never getting to fully see the shift in public perception. They never had the opportunity to see the impact their pieces made on the movement to fight stigma.

          “As in all things, time will clarify the events which are presently unclear,” Haring wrote.

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