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After AIDS

A collection of essays on artists who've died from AIDS discusses the disease's effects on gay culture


Loss Within Loss: Artists in the Age of AIDS is a collection of 23 essays concerned with the lives and work of artists who died of HIV/AIDS between 1984 and 1996. In many ways, the book acts as a defense against the historical determinism and statistical reductionism that characterize our public discourse about AIDS. That discourse increasingly relies upon a fossilized sequence of events, beginning with the June 1981 publication of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report about a rare pneumonia appearing among gay men ("Pneumocystis: Los Angeles"). One month later, a New York Times article reported on the increasing incidence of Kaposi's Sarcoma, an obscure cancer, among gay men in New York and California. Two years later, the mysterious "Gay Related Immune Deficiency" (GRID)-later renamed Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS)--had claimed thousands of lives, mostly those of gay men. Twenty-three years later, 22 million people are dead. Currently, 900,000 people in the United States and 37 million people around the world are infected with the virus that causes AIDS.

Loss Within Loss defies this familiar AIDS narrative of inevitability because the collected pieces together provide a digressive perspective on the effects of the epidemic on the contributors and artists they profile. The collection rejects the organizing principles of chronology and epidemiology--diagnosis, distress, and death--which partly explains the absence of a unifying perspective. This lack of coherence, whether intentional or not, emphasizes the collection's diversity and its artless unevenness. The book's editor, Edmund White, solicited the essays with the assistance of Patrick Moore and Randall Bourscheidt, director and president of the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS, which sponsored the project. The Estate Project is a national archival organization that seeks to forestall the bleak but not uncommon scenario sketched by art critic Holland Cotter in an 1997 issue of Art in America: "An artist dies, an apartment has to be emptied, personal effects get bundled into an attic, a basement, a trash compactor. The work of a lifetime vanishes."

The essays exhibit varying degrees of critical distance on the people, events and artwork they discuss. They are tender and embittered in turn: laudatory, angry and often beautifully written. As personal reminiscences, the essays reflect distinctive approaches to mourning, yet they all mourn the losses of the artists and their (often-unrealized) aesthetic gifts. Alexander Chee writes poetically of this double dispossession: "It is more than nothing that we have left, loss larger than nothingness; the something undone, the something that won't ever be done, remains unendurable to consider."

It would be contrary to the impulses behind this project to dutifully catalog each essay and artist and fall prey to the logic of the list. It's possible, however, to identify several themes within this heterogeneous group of portraits of the artist. The first theme resonates with the collection's episodic structure: Many contributors reconsider the design of history in a period marked by rupture rather than sequence. The essays chronicle a heightened sense of before and after as well as a sense that time itself changes form under the weight of cataclysm. Many of the contributors witnessed not only the tragic deaths of many friends, but also the disappearance of a community of artists and the collapse of a way of life. As Sarah Schulman writes, "the world before protease inhibitors is clearly The Past; in the age of AIDS, life ceases to function as a continuum."

Contributors question notions of chronology and descent as they relate to gay culture and to the production of art. In his introduction, Edmund White claims as the province of the '70s generation of gay artists a distinctive and joyous vision of "the old bohemian ideal ... a spirit that seems to have vanished from the world for good now." The '70s generation courted and inherited that bohemian vision but was unable to pass it on. One of the casualties of AIDS is, according to White, a "sense of artistic vocation." White mourns the current "new queer Puritanism" and the "stylistic blandness ... a sort of steroid injected sex-shop conformism, [that] has replaced the old transgressiveness of gay art." White's disaffection is echoed by contributors who also diagnose a troubling conformism in contemporary gay life and art. William Berger, discussing his relationship with composer Chris DeBlasio, situates their open relationship "before gay men worried about being paragons of American monogamous virtue." In a piece on writer Robert Ferro, Felice Picano disparages "post-Gay" desires "to marry, to have families, to serve in the military, to be just like all the rest of the dreary straight world."

The relationship between art and gay culture is another prominent theme--in terms of both the particular moment that was the '70s and a tradition of gay art that defines itself in opposition to the mainstream. Brad Gooch admits that "it's hard to name one person from that time without naming another, because we were so chummy and elitist and given to 'We are a family' utopian fantasies. And it's hard for those names not to be the names of poets, painters, and other creative types because art was politics in that era before PAC committees and openly gay candidates." In other words, art was life was politics. Philip Yenawine writes that David Wojnarowicz "saw common ground between his sexual nature and that of one who stepped further out of line ... ." After learning he was infected with HIV, Wojnarowicz's "stream of sex stories and his images about gay sexual experience continued defiantly. He implied that sex would redeem us because it brought us together; we should not abstain."

Finally, the collection is a profound study of memory, loss, and accountability that comprises personal and public dimensions. Several subjects enjoyed prominence during their lives (the poet James Merrill, filmmaker Derek Jarman, visual artist-writer David Wojnarowicz, landscape architect Bruce Kelly) and are thus guaranteed what passes for immortality these days (a New York Times obituary, as White wryly notes). The work of other artists remains less well-known, but no less valued by the friends, acquaintances, and lovers. And Sarah Schulman writes about her friend Stan Leventhal in order to dispel the myth of the dead genius. "His death is just as horrible even though he never wrote a great book and possibly never would have."

In grappling with public recognition and private memories, several contributors face challenges associated with the ephemeral art forms their subjects practiced (Joah Lowe's dance or Robert Anton's puppetry, for example). Almost all admit they are thwarted by the impetus to forget; as critic Douglas Dreishpoon wrote in a 1995 issue of Art Journal, art must "[revenge] itself on death as an act of survival." In one of the most complex essays, "Remembrance of Things Past," Jonathan Weinberg contemplates Marc Lida's extraordinary Proust watercolors, the difficulties associated with preserving the art, and the dissipating memories of his friend. "To confront Lida's and Proust's work," Weinberg writes, "is to grapple with the question of how works of art help us or fail to help us remember." "As Proust suggested," he concludes, "we cannot summon the past. The most powerful memories come through to us at the most unlikely times and through what otherwise might be the most trivial experiences--if we are lucky." The work of this collection--and of the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS--is to stir our own powerful memories and to help us understand the joy and creativity lost behind the statistics. EndBlock

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