Radical Transformations: Art, AIDS, and Activism

maria j. bastos-stanek


Installation view, An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1940-2017
image courtesy | Whitney Museum of American Art

The Whitney Museum of American Art’s current exhibition, An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1940-2017 constitutes an encyclopedic walk-through of the history of protest art in the United States from the second half of the 20th century onwards. Past the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam draft dodgers, and the consciousness-raising feminist groups, lies a very different sort of protest art titled Mourning and Militancy. The artists that responded to the crisis of HIV/AIDS during its chaotic reign over the 1980s and early 1990s, banded together not on the basis of identity politics like earlier groups, but rather on the singular impulse to fight for survival at a time when death was unignorable and more than likely. Walking through the exhibition takes time due to the large amount of visual information available to the museum-goer. Art is literally wallpapered to the walls. Atop this wallpapering appears even more layers of art, invoking the race to get one’s message onto the streets and into the discourse. “Did you see Haring’s new chalk drawing at 72nd St. Station?,” “No, but I saw a new Gran Fury t-shirt in Queens.” The Whitney curatorial team manages to incite these probable conversations from the 80’s through their presentation of these powerful and derisive works.

Much like today, America in the 1980s was in a time of crisis. The conservative politics of the Reagan administration and the rise of the Christian Right sought to take back hard-won Civil Rights gains from the 1960s in favor of a gutted social welfare system deemed “family values.” At the same time, identity politics which formed the bedrock of civil rights activism had reached a turning point. Postmodernists broke away from the established cannon, the cult of the male genius, and began to create visual works that critiqued art institutions that legitimized their practice and centered the lives and experiences of marginalized groups. The art world, which at the same time that HIV/AIDS threatened the wellbeing of its own population, faced threats of censorship and cuts to public funding from a conservative U.S. government.

The 1980s and 1990s were a time when everyone understood the changing terrain of representation. Images, not words, television, not newspapers, held the power of representation, and the government took aim at art they considered obscene, such as Robert Mapplethorpe’s X, Y, and Z portfolios. In doing so, the government threatened to take down the entire structure of public funding for the arts in America through its most important institution, the Museum.

Artists of the AIDS crisis sought support and acceptance from outside traditional avenues of patronship, and in doing so rearticulated the power of activism for a national audience. Groups like Gran Fury, the artistic branch of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), incorporated art into its AIDS activism as fuel for the movement. Born by the movement, for the movement, Gran Fury’s iconic pink triangle, originally used in concentration camps to signify homosexual prisoners, appeared everywhere, littered around masses of protests, launched high into the air on wooden stakes, worn by protesters on screen-printed t-shirts, and plastered onto the walls of New York City. Constructing the AIDS crisis through images proved a compelling maneuver for activism—both invigorating and substantive for a culture saturated by images.


(fig. 1) Donald Moffett, He Kills Me, 1987, offset lithograph
image courtesy | Metropolitan Museum of Art

Consider He Kills Me (figure 1), a 1987 poster created by Donald Moffett, the founding member of Gran Fury. The poster visually represents the life and death circumstances that affected people living with HIV/AIDS at the time. He Kills Me concerns two images placed side by side. On the left we see the image of alternating black and orange concentric circles. On the right, a black and white portrait appears of former president Ronald Reagan in a suit and tie. On the bottom, the words “HE KILLS ME” are placed in capital orange block letters. In the same way that a hypnotist brings patients to a heightened state of focused attention, so too does Moffett with the concentric circles. His message is clear: Reagan’s inaction kills people with HIV/AIDS.

Reagan appears unflattering to say the least. Moffett depicts his face scrunched up with tightly pressed lips and squinting eyes, making the wrinkles around his mouth and neck particularly prominent. Could he be in the act of speech? Reagan famously did not publicly utter the word AIDS until 1987, six years after the epidemic began and 41,000 people had died. The poster, though, does talk, through the lens of an unnamed narrator, presumably HIV positive. “HE KILLS ME,” placed alongside a target, is meant to spirit the government into civic action, and test the limits of public sentiment along with it. While He Kills Me now hangs on the white walls of the Whitney Museum, at the time of its creation, would have been seen at protest rallies, ACT UP planning meetings, the homes of activists, and even strewn like garbage in the streets of New York—anything to get the images seen and the message across to as many people as possible. 


(fig. 2) Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled, 1989, screenprint
image courtesy | Whitney Museum of American Art

Artists did not wholly abandon the museum as a site for activist interventions. Another artist, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, considered himself an infiltrator rather than an agitator. He succeeded in bringing politically engaged art out of the streets and into the museum through formal innovation. For Gonzalez-Torres, a conceptualist, formal issues are not just a vacuous terrain of line or color from which to experiment with. Those aesthetic choices actively construct the work’s meaning. Form constructs notions of gender, race, and sexuality, as much a person’s interior understanding of “the self” does.

An Incomplete History of Protest includes Untitled, 1989 (figure 2), a small screen print commissioned along with a billboard project for the Public Art Fund of New York City meant to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots. In the larger version, Sheridan Square Billboard (figure 3), Gonzalez-Torres directly addresses the gay community by transforming the past into a potential site of collective intervention. The billboard consists of a black background and two lines of white text on the bottom. The text reads from left to right, People With AIDS Coalition 1985 Police Harassment 1969 Oscar Wilde 1895 Supreme Court 1986 Harvey Milk 1977 March on Washington 1987 Stonewall Rebellion 1969, referencing specific events in gay and lesbian history of both victory and loss. For example, “Stonewall Rebellion 1969” refers to the Stonewall riots which are popularly understood to have ignited the modern gay rights movement, while “Supreme Court 1986” references Bowers v. Hardwick, a Supreme Court ruling that upheld U.S. criminalization of sodomy, which was not overturned until Lawrence v. Texas in 2003. The billboard reaffirms the ongoing struggle, while geographically locating the center of that struggle. The text in both the screen-print and the billboard are meant to be read as a caption, encouraging the viewer to look around and engage with gay history.


(fig. 3) Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Billboard Poster), 1989, billboard
image courtesy | Public Art Fund

Gonzalez-Torres himself took up the politicized perspective of groups like Gran Fury and ACT UP. He described his work as a “virus” within art institutions, and alluded to the usage of art as a vehicle to “smuggle” AIDS-related content into a seemingly depoliticized institution.[1] In the early 1990s, access to HIV/AIDs preventative education was a contentious battleground. ACT UP infamously targeted the Catholic Church in their 1989 “Stop the Church” action in which they protested Cardinal John O’Connor’s disapproval of safe sex education. To have weathered an almost decade long battle over access to healthcare for people with HIV/AIDS, and to survive in a society which regarded gay men as disposable, defines the context in which Gonzalez-Torres created Untitled, 1989.

An Incomplete History of Protest attests to the power of artists to critically engage with political issues and play an active role in creating a future we can all benefit from. Mourning and Militancy is just one case study of many, and the Whitney showcases a dazzling array of activist strategies employed by artists. Selections from An Incomplete History of Protest will be on view between August 18, 2017 to August 27, 2018 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, New York.


[1] Peter Kalb, Art Since 1980: Charting the Contemporary (London: Pearson, 2013), 185.

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