Saturday, April 23, 2011

Four Works on the Topic of AIDS

Inspired by the last and now incredibly notorious item on a list I read today, I decide to post photos of four artworks dealing with the subject of AIDS. I wish this idea had come to me during a relevant time, like World AIDS Day, but anytime is a good time to discuss the subject. When I was about three, my uncle Jimmy, an artist, died of AIDS. I didn't know about this until high school. While I didn't really know him well since I was so young, I own some of his old art books and sketch pencils, so I hope that if I one day get more noticed in the art world, I can dedicate some of that success to a possible artistic gene in the family. :)

Here are the works:
1. "Fire in my Belly" - David Wojnarowicz (1987) [Va-nah-row-vitch (took me a while to get that correctly.)]

This photo is a still from a video that, once relatively unknown to the public at large, was suddenly launched into the spotlight by angsty, parochial politicians striving to put their foot down on "extravagant" arts funding, while still playing Santa Claus with other industries. The piece was banned by the Smithsonian, which caused an uproar and was later purchased by MoMA. Read more about the controversy and the work here.

The video can be seen on YouTube. (Seriously, what did we do before it?) It's a very moving and well put together film. It's a shame some people get stuck on one image and can't let go of their narrow mindedness. The film is far less exploitative of Christ imagery than Mel Gibson's Passion. But, of course, Wojnarowicz was gay and Gibson is a Catholic, so you know who the politicians will side with.

2. "AIDS" - General Idea (the sculpture version was done in 1987, not certain about the paintings.)

The Canadian artist collective General Idea made up of artists Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal, and AA Bronson worked together from 1969-1994. In the 1980s during the rise of the AIDS crisis, they appropriated Robert Indiana's famous LOVE work and used it to raise awareness on the issue of AIDS. More of these great conceptual works can be seen here. Sadly, both Partz and Zontal died of AIDS in 1994. Bronson continues to exhibit work. Check out his website.

3. "Ignorance = Fear" Keith Haring (1989)

Keith Haring began his career as a graffiti artist in NYC. His images like Radiant Baby and the figures featuring action lines are instantly recognizable and custom-made for activist intepretations. The pink triangle image comes from the badge gay men were forced to wear during the Holocaust. Haring is certainly the most well-known artist on this list and well-worth looking into as his work is such a predominant force in the art world and the world of media studies.

4. "Untitled" (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1991)

I first learned about this work in the book "The $12 Million Stuffed Shark" by art economist Don Thompson. While Thompson did a lot of great research and I have learned a lot so far (I'm a bit over halfway done with reading it) he doesn't really get it when it comes to the value of contemporary art. He's too preoccupied with the art market when really he should understand that prices are irrelevant to the value (cultural, artistic, historical, individual, etc) of the work.

With this piece, Gonzalez-Torres, a Cuban artist like my uncle, sought to create an abstracted portrait of his friend who was suffering from AIDS. At first glance, the piece recalls "Fat Corner" by Joseph Beuys and gnawed chocolate and lard pieces of Janine Antoni, but the "portrait" nature of the work recalls Dan Flavin's neon tubing portraits and Frank Stella's minimalist portrait of Carl Andre. There is a rich history evoked in this work, and while fat and chocolate have deeply ingrained connotations, the colorful candies create a beautiful mosaic for such a troubling subject. It treats a heavy topic with an aesthetically pleasing hand. The candy, which weighed in total 175 lbs, the weight of Gonzalez-Torres' partner Ross Laycock (d. 1991) was meant to be consumed by visitors, illustrating a continuous participatory art event that metaphorically expressed the wasting away of the body due to AIDS. Once fully consumed, the pile is replaced, symbolic of continuous life and the struggle to carry on in the face of adversity. It's rare to see a moving work constructed of things we typically overlook, like junk food, which is one reason this piece is so fantastic. Gonzalez-Torres himself died of AIDS in 1996. See some of his other works here.


  1. Very nice post. I liked David Wojnarowicz's video. Thank you for always introducing me to new art! I think your uncle would be proud.

  2. That's so sweet of you, thank you so much!

  3. excellent list of works dedicated to the topic of AIDS! this is probably art at one of its best: raising questions about non-mainstream topics and marginalized groups. that's the contemporary goal for art: clearing or telling untold stories.

  4. And that's what I'd like to do through writing/curating! :)


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I love to read about linguistics, behavioral economics, theory and philosophy. I listen to music some might call outdated, write satirical and high testosterone plays, consume too much caffeine and ruthlessly defend modern and contemporary art.