‘Art is more important than life’Annie Howardon December 22, 2022 at 4:45 pm

When the COVID-19 pandemic began in the U.S. in earnest in March 2020, the legacies of HIV and AIDS were a clear reference point when trying to decipher the incomprehensible reality of a world overturned. Groups like the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, offered a vital historic touchstone, as their quest to discover lifesaving medicines and overhaul America’s for-profit health-care system, paired with a defiant queer pride that battled homophobic stereotypes, served as a reminder of the powers of collective action in the face of death.

But if AIDS served as a useful metaphor—a distant marker far removed from the daily reality of many people’s lives—it remains a material force for millions around the world, exposing HIV-positive people to greater danger in a new era of viral risk. Far from being relegated to the world’s poorest nations, as years of NGO-driven charitable activities would suggest, reporting from New York Times journalist Linda Villarosa showed that HIV-AIDS has decimated Black American gay and bisexual men, with upwards of half of this population at risk of HIV infection in their lifetimes. While advances in mRNA technology pushed ahead in pursuit of a COVID-19 vaccine have also raised the possibility of creating an HIV vaccine, one that could definitively end a half-century’s worth of cruel, senseless suffering, for many the daily reality of AIDS is relegated to an earlier era of queer life.

Thinking between two deadly viruses raises several questions: How do we consider a disease that has never left us, one with a political and social reality that slipped from view for many as soon as antiretroviral treatments first emerged in the mid-90s? Is the specter of HIV-AIDS something that still resonates in our world, and can we feel its significance today beyond the metaphoric parallels it offered in the pandemic’s opening moments?

These unresolved questions resonate in the unsteady presence of two works of art on view in Chicago, both created by queer men who died of AIDS decades ago: Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), on view at the Art Institute, and Keith Haring’s Self-Portrait, located at the newly opened AIDS Memorial Garden on the lakefront at Belmont. These works, intertwined in various states of missing context, commodification, and continued forgetting, suggest the difficulties of discussing HIV-AIDS in our times. Their radical potential teems just beneath the surface, but by existing in a compromised present, they remind us of troubled pasts and uncertain futures, ripe to teach us new lessons if we let them.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres. “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991. Gift of Donna and Howard Stone. © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation.

The omission, on its surface, scans as innocuous, a deep erasure cloaked by the norms of  institutional art-world rhetoric. “Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s work is characterized by a sense of quiet elegy,” the plaque affixed next to Portrait of Ross in L.A. read, adding that Gonzalez-Torres “possessed an uncanny ability to produce elegant and restrained sculptural forms out of common materials.” Those common objects—in this case a heaping pile of shimmering, multihued candies—have invited viewers to take a piece of the work with them since he first created it in 1991, five years before the artist died of AIDS-related complications.

Yet the description of this work offered by the Art Institute rankled viewers, who took to Twitter and the Windy City Timesin September to decry a fundamental erasure at play in the description. The plaque noted the work’s starting weight as 175 pounds, “correspond[ing] to the average body weight of an adult male.” Yet that weight was not some mere abstraction: as the title suggests, it represented Gonzalez-Torres’s partner Ross Laycock, whose death in 1991 inspired a work that implicates the viewer’s disappearance in Laycock’s body. A previous edition of the placard, on display until the work was deinstalled in 2017, described the work as “an allegoric portrait of the artist’s partner,” acknowledging the museum’s role in “choos[ing] to replenish the pile, metaphorically ensuring Laycock’s perpetual life, or let[ting] the pile disappear over time.” But the new version, briefly displayed in 2018 before returning this July, effaced all biographic information. (An audio description of the work posted on the museum’s website offers this fuller biographic information.) 

The erasure of Gonzalez-Torres’s queerness and HIV-AIDS experiences is not a new phenomenon. In 2017, an article inHIV-focused magazine Poz noted that a two-page press release from both the David Zwirner and Andrea Rosen galleries, who co-represent Gonzalez-Torres’s commercial distribution, made no references to HIV-AIDS, his relationship with Laycock, or even that the artist was an outspoken gay man. While the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation suggested that any singular interpretation of works like Portrait of Ross in L.A. should not be taken as “definitive,” the erasure of Laycock’s body weight, which a Zwirner representative said had “no correlation to Ross’s healthy weight,” pushes the artist’s specificity so far out of view as to make it unrecognizable.

According to curator Jonathan Katz—who has shown Gonzalez-Torres’s work at several AIDS-focused shows, including the 2017 “Art AIDS America” exhibition in Chicago—Gonzalez-Torres, along with other artists of his generation, was deliberate about obscuring aspects of his queerness in a way that allowed him to break into the institutional art world. For Gonzalez-Torres, this strategy was directly informed by an understanding of how a virus captures its host, flipping the viral experience that would ultimately take his life into a practice of deliberate self-disguise. As he said in a 1993 interview, reproduced in the Art AIDS America catalog, “I want to be like a virus that belongs to the institution. . . . So if I function as a virus, an imposter, an infiltrator, I will always replicate myself together with those institutions.”

Queer artists in the 80s and 90s often had few other options, as right-wing forces targeted both individuals and institutions like the National Endowments for the Arts for supporting “deplorable, despicable display[s] of vulgarity.” Beginning as an attack on Piss Christ, a photograph by Catholic artist Andres Serrano in which a plastic crucifix was submerged in his own urine, right-wing politicians like North Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms called to defund the NEA entirely, fomenting deep hostilities that live on in fascist attacks on public library drag shows today. After first objecting to Piss Christ, Helms and others also attacked a 1989 retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe, who had passed away the year before from AIDS-related complications, for a handful of works that depicted BDSM themes, and the concerted attention led to the show’s cancellation.

These attacks undermined not only the art world but public health research around AIDS generally. Helms successfully amended a 1987 bill that funded AIDS research, adding language that “prohibit[ed] the use of any funds provided under this Act to the Centers for Disease Control [CDC] from being used to provide AIDS education, information, or prevention materials and activities that promote, encourage, or condone homosexual activities or the intravenous use of illegal drugs.” Attacking public health policies that kept vulnerable populations alive, coupled with backlash against artistic representations that challenged mainstream attitudes of queer sexuality, was a multipronged approach that fueled the rise of the religious right.

The controversy surrounding artists like Serrano and Mapplethorpe, amid a wider climate of derision, violence, and institutional neglect of HIV-positive communities, was undoubtedly felt by Gonzalez-Torres, whose first major work, Untitled (Perfect Lovers), debuted in 1987. The artist’s naming strategy—leaving each piece untitled, yet offering parentheticals that gave a sense of the work’s intentions—shows how he played with meaning, leaving enough openness to avoid the direct scrutiny that other HIV-positive artists experienced, while gesturing at his intentions. But while this strategy to infiltrate the institutional art world meant that Gonzalez-Torres sometimes hid certain interpretations of his work, he still created work about AIDS and the wider public’s implication in the deadly disease—an erasure, Katz says, that is still being perpetrated by Andrea Rosen’s misrepresentation of these biographic and strategic features.

“Andrea says he didn’t want to be talked about in an AIDS or queer context, but that is manifestly false,” Katz says. “It’s a subtle distinction, but what he didn’t want was for the work to be exclusively ghettoized to that context. He wanted it to enter the discourse broadly, to bring AIDS and queer politics into the mainstream.”

In addition to their joint role as Gonzalez-Torres’s commercial vendor, the Andrea Rosen Gallery is also in charge of the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, a relationship that Katz says is unusual within the art world. These dual responsibilities, he argues, have led to Rosen willfully misrepresenting the artist’s intentions, an insidious strategy that serves the artist’s enduring commercial appeal, rather than a well-rounded assessment of his work. While his foundation has promoted a multiplicity of interpretations of his work, the consistent minimization of AIDS-related readings suggests a betrayal of a truly open approach and strips away the artist’s own rejection of a sense of powerlessness in the face of a near-certain death.

In response to a request for comment on the Portrait of Ross in L.A. description change, a foundation representative sent the following statement: 

“Gonzalez-Torres often spoke about how his work set up possibilities for deep questioning, and audiences’ active roles of keeping his work in the present: As he told an interviewer in 1995, ‘We need our own space to think and digest what we see. And we also have to trust the viewer and trust the power of the object. And the power is in simple things. I like the kind of clarity that that brings to thought. It keeps thought from being opaque.’ In this way, we are always happy to see the work of Gonzalez-Torres inspiring impassioned discourse. The Art Institute’s conscientious choice to present diverse information simultaneously—in the wall label as well as the accessible audio guide—sets an example of trust in the viewer to take an active role in their experiences, interpretations, and contributions to the work.”

Katz says, “An AIDS diagnosis in dominant culture entailed paralysis and the abandonment of any effort, an idea that you’re going to die, which for many straight people was not just acceptable but preferable. For Felix to create a work where you put the infected body in your mouth, it forced viewers to recognize their role in the diminishment of Ross’s body, creating a sense of responsibility in an AIDS-phobic society.”

That omission has consequences. In an era of “museums” dedicated to ice cream and selfies, mere excuses for visitors to capture the same superficial images within their feeds, Portrait of Ross in L.A.’s shimmering invitation lulls the unsuspecting into an act of disappearance. While an updated placard installed on September 29 now discusses Gonzalez-Torres’s relationship with Laycock, it maintains a frustrating sense of ambiguity, still referring to the “average” adult male weight, rather than restoring the previous placard that implicates viewers in the pile’s shrinking size. Standing near the work on a recent Sunday afternoon, I witnessed multiple unsuspecting viewers take it in before reading the description; upon explaining the recent controversy, they expressed a sense of shock at the erasure, feeling that they lacked vital context to the work. For Spider B. Perry, a trans artist and writer who wrote a poem in response to the misleading placard, witnessing the erasure felt like someone “spit on the grave of a loved one,” saying that their work as an artist has been inspired by Gonzalez-Torres’s artistry. 

“Without that context, all of that beautiful tension, all the pain, all of the deliberate intention of the work is gone, and it’s just a pile of free candy,” Perry says. “I think the new card is nonsense, [and] an attempt not to fully admit that a mistake was made. They’re trying to have their commercially-palatable cake and eat their queer sadness too, and it’s pretty obvious.”

Keith Haring, painting backdrop of Palladium night club, New York City, May 1985 Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Bernard Gotfryd Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Bernard Gotfryd

If the controversy surrounding Portrait of Ross in L.A. shows how easily AIDS is effaced from the narratives of artists like Gonzalez-Torres, Keith Haring’s 30-foot Self-Portrait, originally completed in maquette form in 1989,presents different challenges. As with Gonzalez-Torres, Haring’s queer identity, so integral to his life and art, has often been subsumed since his death in 1990. Today, Haring’s work is readily available for consumption: whether through Uniqlo T-shirts, Pandora jewelry, or countless other brand partnerships, you don’t have to look far to see the visual legacy that he left behind, becoming in death one of the 20th century’s most recognizable and iconic artists. While Haring himself pursued multiple commercial projects during his lifetime, creating original art for brands like Absolut Vodka and Swatch watches, his ubiquity today feels far removed from other work created in his lifetime that challenged racist violence, apartheid, drug abuse, and, unsurprisingly, HIV-AIDS. 

In that sense, the appearance of Haring’s work at AIDS Memorial Garden is a welcome return, an opportunity to reconnect the artist’s distinct style to a space of contemplation and reflection. Yet Haring’s commercial legacy never strays far from view: immediately upon opening the Garden’s website, one encounters a pop-up window inviting viewers to purchase Haring-branded tote bags, hats, hoodies, and even tree ornaments. The website describes the Garden as a “park with a purpose,” yet this swift commercialization suggests that financial concerns are always at play.

The creation of Chicago’s AIDS Memorial Garden was years in the making, and its location is also rooted in legacies of queer life that were transformed by the AIDS crisis. Located just south of Belmont Harbor, the 2.5-acre park sits adjacent to the former home of the Belmont Rocks, a popular site for gay cruising and camaraderie for more than 30 years. Hand-painted limestone rocks spoke to a sense of ownership by the gay men who populated the site on warm days, and the open use of public space for sexual activity spoke to a burgeoning sense of liberation within the community. Yet by the time the Rocks were removed in 2003 as part of a shoreline erosion prevention program, these activities had largely disappeared from the area, as years of HIV-AIDS withered the bodies of those who had once flaunted inherited social norms on the rocky coastline.

For Owen Keehnen, a queer historian who has chronicled the impact of the Belmont Rocks on countless people’s lives, the move to create an AIDS garden in the shadow of the Trump administration was a vital reminder of queer resilience and its ability to survive under duress.

“For me, the AIDS Garden is a symbol of oneness, a reminder that we survived things much worse when we banded together as a community,” Keehnen says. 

Keehnen also says that he’s grateful that the Garden ended up where decades of queer life once flourished. While AIDS commemoration cannot help but include a sense of solemnity in recognition of the countless lives lost to the disease, putting the project at the once-beloved cruising site also serves as a vital reminder of the liberatory potential of queer joy and its necessity in the face of the many threats the community still faces.

“The celebration of those lives in a place where they lived happily is as important as remembering the loss,” Keehnen says. “The Belmont Rocks were so full of activity, relaxation, and carefree days, and they provided such a welcome memory in a way that a lot of other memories from that period were not.”

In its current form, the site largely eschews significant physical materials related to the HIV-AIDS crisis, instead using small signs with embedded QR codes that direct viewers to a collection of archived digital stories, modeled after the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Long-term, the garden will feature a timeline to tell a deeper story about the AIDS crisis, and the planting of ginkgo trees will demarcate the space from the surrounding area. For the Chicago Parks Foundation, a nonprofit that collaborated with the Chicago Parks District to realize the site, the eventual goal is to hand over stewardship of the garden to members of the queer community to ensure that it serves the interests of those most invested in reflecting on the ongoing toll of HIV-AIDS.

“When we opened the Garden, having the storytelling was something that was authentic and delivered from the point of view of people who are living with HIV-AIDS today,” Chicago Parks Foundation Executive Director Willa Lang says. “That was a good start, but now the rest of the project needs to be carried out by the community, and as we move forward, we want the next generation to really take it on and add their touch and their relevance to it as well.”

COVID denialism—both in the government’s organized abandonment of the sick and vulnerable, as well as the general public’s deep-felt apathy to public health concerns around the disease—has obvious roots in the AIDS crisis. The birth of antiretroviral treatments in the mid-90s, much like the introduction of vaccines in early 2021, brought an illusory end to both viruses, a refusal to accept responsibility for communal care, especially for at-risk populations. Compounded with a for-profit medical system that prioritizes windfall revenues for pharmaceutical companies over basic human needs, we’re now in a moment where every new infection leaves us all more exposed. The idea of a “viral underclass,” a population of medically-vulnerable, stigmatized people, was first introduced by queer activist Sean Strub to describe the criminalization of HIV-positive people; today, it marks innumerable others, “a population harmed not simply by microscopic organisms but by the societal structures that make viral transmission possible,” queer writer and academic Steven Thrasher argues in a new book.

“COVID vaccines are subject to the same restrictions as HIV medications, which is that global pharma’s profit impulse determines distribution, generic manufacture, and access,” says writer and activist Sarah Schulman, whose most recent work Let the Record Show documents the impact that ACT UP New York had in battling HIV-AIDS. “We do know that cataclysms reveal racial and economic disparities and impact the poor in more brutal and intense ways, and in America, without a coherent health care system, most people are at risk.”

The pandemic is not over. AIDS and COVID, two sides of the same traumatic coin, both live among us, our defenses weakened by collective indifference to human suffering. In their lifetimes, Gonzalez-Torres and Haring recognized these insidious forces, creating art that, while tactically and formally different, challenged an apathetic public to take better care of one another. While their work lives on today as multimillion-dollar commodities, this dissimulation has accomplished much more, ensuring that their messages remain potent in the public eye. 

Haring and Gonzalez-Torres have long since lost their physical forms, felled by a virus that replicated through queer intimacies, becoming two more tallies in an unending registry of the dead. But the ongoing presence of both artists—beloved in the hearts of those still living and resisting the malicious disregard for human life—extends well beyond the limits that the commercial art world puts upon their creativity. Aware of their premature deaths, each worked hard to get their message across while they still had time. As Gonzalez-Torres said in a 1993 interview, “It is about leaving a mark that I existed: I was here. . . . I had an idea and I had a good purpose, and that’s why I made works of art.” Sensing himself slipping toward an early death, Haring knew his purpose: to make art that allowed him to continue resonating well after his passing.

“I’m sure that what will live on after I die is important enough to make sacrifices of my personal luxury and leisure time now,” Haring wrote on March 28, 1987. “Work is all I have and art is more important than life.

The Belmont Rocks was one of the city’s most significant public LGBTQ destinations from the 1970s through the ’90s. Now author Owen Keehnen is assembling an oral history, soliciting stories and photographs from the former denizens of the dearly departed lakeside cruising spot.

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