Art AIDS America tackles some hard subjects—sex, disease, stigma—while rewriting four decades of history that have been swept under the rug. The exhibit is the brainchild of Rock Hushka, curator of Contemporary and Northwest Art at the Tacoma Art Museum, where the show opened in October. Curated by Hushka and Jonathan David Katz, it features 127 works, with pieces from icons such as Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe and Barbara Kruger alongside works by lesser-known artists, local artists and Millennial artists living with HIV today. As we walked through the exhibit, Hushka, who came of age at the height of the crisis, explained why it’s so important now.
What was the impact of AIDS on American art? Was it the genesis of a new kind of personal narrative in art?
That’s absolutely at the core of it. These artists unapologetically found ways to build on artistic precedents, drawing from feminist art, Latino art or Native American art made in the ’60s and ’70s. Artists were appropriating these works to make personal and political statements.
[The narrative] becomes fairly intense in the late ’80s and ’90s, then becomes diffused as we get away from the epicenter of the crisis. Though to say the crisis has diminished in any way is a misnomer, because 1.2 million Americans are currently HIV positive and another American becomes HIV positive every 10.5 minutes. All these things continue to inform American art whether or not people are conscious of it, whether or not they absorb those lessons in art school.
There’s no chapter in art history books on AIDS art.
There will be now! That’s our hope.
You’ve been working on this for 10 years?
Even long before that, in school I wrote my thesis on Gran Fury [the 1980s AIDS activist collective based in New York City] and AIDS activism graphics.
What goes into 10 years of assembling and designing an exhibit like this?
Mostly reaching a point of understanding of what AIDS art is and what the impact was. This is really the first reconsideration of the subject in a broad, bold way. It’s a weird thing: When we started 10 years ago, the material wasn’t contemporary enough and it wasn’t historical enough, so it was in this weird nether-moment. I think what happened was that the generation of activists who were on the front line began to turn into senior citizens. [Giggles nervously] So they began thinking about their legacy.
A section of the exhibit is labeled “Memento Mori.” It brings into focus how in American culture we just don’t talk much about death.
In the 20th century there was the flu epidemic, WWI, WWII, the Vietnam War—and the focus is always on medicine fixing everything, not on mourning or the precarious preciousness of life. The Vietnam War Memorial was a shattering revelation, to see all the names in one place and grapple with how to deal with that sense of loss. But with the AIDS crisis, by ’87 nearly 26,000 Americans had died and no one was talking about it.
The culture wars were in full swing and federal laws were passed banning any representation of AIDS in art.
So artists found these ways to take minimalist tropes—appropriating the Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, textbook stuff that people were taught in art school—and make them about AIDS, but not overtly about AIDS. It became a tool for people to insert conversations and ideas about the AIDS crisis into the gallery system, into the museums, circumventing federal requirements that prevented artists from talking about homosexuality. Like Adam Rolston’s stack of Trojan condom boxes. It’s funny and riffing on Warhol’s Brillo Boxes. And a little humor is sometimes very much needed.
Did finally seeing the work together under one roof shed new light on this chapter of art history?
There are a couple of things I realized as we installed the show. The things I understand about art happened because of the AIDS crisis: The materiality of this kind of stuff, the subject matter, the urgency, this idea that art could be something bigger and more important than an individual—all those ideas coalesced around the art that was being made when I was a student. That was part of the revelation, and the fact that these people changed America. They changed lives, they made the government act, and by and large they made things happen. They did that because of art.
Art AIDS America runs through Jan. 10 at Tacoma Art Museum.
Editor’s note, Dec. 28: This Q&A appears in the print edition of our January issue. In the days since it went to press, significant action and conversation have been taking place—led by the Tacoma Action Collective, artist/curator Christopher Paul Jordan and other artists and activists—around the representation of black artists in the exhibition and the impact of the epidemic on the black community, neither of which we addressed by the questions we posed in this interview.