The Last Days of Disco

The 1970s emerged as a distinctly sexual decade in reaction to the extreme militantism of the 1960s. Will the same happen in the 2020s?

Decadence and glamour at the Studio 54 1978 New Year’s Eve party, Credit: Robin Platzer:Twin Images — The LIFE Images Collection, via Getty Images

Maria Bastos-Stanek

We are advancing on a new sexual frontier. Like on any uncharted terrain, we face a different set of dilemmas than our predecessors. This is not a controversial statement. The Western legacy of sexual guilt has been receding for some time. A new, more expressive system for governing sexual behavior has replaced our puritanical prudishness. Once outlawed behavior is now celebrated. Self-congratulatory media on topics from sex positivity to queer politics has convinced us of our own liberation. Yet, we who feel differently know that chronology is not the same as progress. The loosening of social convention is more duplicitous than liberating and threatens to undermine our own radical potential. As artist Daniel Buren, champion of institutional critique, told the Times, “today everything is nice, everything is accepted . . . and nothing makes any sense.”

With the birth of social acceptance comes the death of culture. Now freed from the burden of historical consciousness (the crushing weight of history) we face a fiercer foe—our own collective self-consciousness. Despite feminist struggles and gay liberation, self-expression is our primary casualty. We’ve learned to represent ourselves as something apart from ourselves (because of the internet)—as signifier without referent. We learn to spin the smallest tufts of recognition into long lines of prized wool. This new system of governance breeds alienation, anxiety, and a self-awareness caught between self-aggrandizement and belittlement. The crisis of self-consciousness reveals just how little we’ve progressed. Lest we ignore the incels, our civilized society risks relapsing into the barbarism of sexual guilt.

Kate Julian, a journalist at The Atlantic, penned a cover story asking “Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?” Julian delivers a series of startling claims about what she calls the “sex recession.” Among them, young people are having less sex than previous generations, they’re waiting until later in their lives to start having sex, and once they do they often abstain for long periods of time. Julian blames a decline in couplehood (in favor of casual hookups), the advent of the internet (and its ability to gratify basic social and sexual needs), and to the rising agency in women who feel emboldened to refuse the piggish sexual entitlement of predatory men. The article reads like a blameless exposé, hopelessly trying to dissuade the typical boomer reaction of millennial-bashing, but naively also trying to pull the wool back over the babe’s eyes. Perhaps inadvertently, this approach proves cannily erudite about the bleakness of millennial life. Sex, which was once used as an endlessly generative resource for coming-of-age rebellion, is revealed as just another casualty in the broader reorganization of social, political, and economic life following the 2008 financial crisis. 

Has the sexual revolution taken a new form or has it simply broken down in the digital age? Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “knowledge is fatal. It is the unpredictability of human emotion that charms us.” The internet thrives on skepticism, cynical irony, wild conspiracy theories, and dramatic narrative—all of which can be generously understood as attempts to temper the tides of provocations that regularly flood the online reading environment (which regrettably includes Twitter) into manageable crystallizations of knowledge. It takes a shrewd reader to filter respected writers of authority from the purveyors of click-service journalism when they deliver the same opinions. All of which is to say: online optimism has never seemed more irresponsible. Yet, authenticity and transparency are championed as the greatest value in the digital world. Is the same true in real life? It may be too obvious to say, but online life only resembles reality, not the real thing. What happens on analog time is infinitely more compelling and more unpredictable. The more the digital world encroaches into everyday life, the more fraught the topic of sex gets. 

The integration of personality with viral marketability diminishes our capacity for real, impassioned self-expression. It does, however, make it easier to turn ourselves into brands. The personal matters we seek to streamline through the convenience of digital technology are always secondary to the prerogatives of the advertising economy. Today it seems that no one can go online without risking a part of themselves. As those feelings of unease multiply, dating websites and apps that favor the photogenic encourage strangers to find commonality in the straightforward matter of appearance. No longer just a novelty, these apps promise freedom from uncertainty. We are still in the early days of the internet and its tidal wave of consequences are just starting to reach our shores (goodbye, democracy!). Take away the risk of rejection and you also diminish the excitement of the pursuit. These concerns don’t stay within the tidy parameters of a phone screen; they spill out into reality. As dating services become more ubiquitous, once common in-person seduction or on-the-street cruising feel unthinkable today or downright predatory.

The dissatisfaction that many of us seem to feel about sex forces us to confront issues that once seemed behind us. If we have long since eradicated sexual guilt and stigma, why is sex still such a fraught topic? If dating is hard work now, where is the pleasure? Pleasure is the feeling of possibility. It’s the feeling of having a future. That future is not in technology, new devices, or startups. It’s in public life. It’s going out and meeting people. It’s the prospect of gratification that pulls us into the covert world of the night. Past our apartments, down the block, the steely shriek of the subway deliver us to the unmarked doors of bars and clubs in out-of-the-way neighborhoods, promising intimate pleasures far away from our humdrum lives and the prying eyes of instagram. I don’t mean to say we should abandon social media (participation on the internet has, ironically, allowed us to feel more human). However, there are other avenues for sex and dating. An entirely different social landscape once existed. The old model offers new ways for connection unencumbered by the social rules dictated by Silicon Valley. 

John Baldessari, Hands Framing New York Harbor, 1971, Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art

What makes the achievements of the past so endearing in the present is the shared now-ness of the events. The success of the young and of each new generation is their ability to break the stronghold of conservatism that grips the eternal past. What each generation shares is the pushing away of what came before them. The rebellious cultural norms of youth combined with the particularly American lack of historical memory makes the past an eager site for continual rediscovery. No better example of rule-breaking and pleasure-seeking exists than in the period following the social expansion of the cultural and sexual revolutions of the 1960s. The changes of that era were most enthusiastically welcomed in dense urban areas with already established cultures of tolerance. Chief among them was dark and decadent New York City.

The liberation decade has its roots in the 1960s. Not since our current period has the world felt so many profound cultural, social, and economic changes than in the anti-establishment youth-oriented counterculture of the 1960s. During a time when nearly every aspect of American culture was exploding in some way, young people rallied around the most damaged zones of human activity: war, civil rights, free speech, women’s rights, and sex. On the precipice of great change, grassroots social movements advocated for the protection of all people; equality for the benefit of all populations; non-discrimination for the betterment of all communities. The fraught topic of sex and sexuality made fertile ground for a social revolution. When all sex outside of marriage was considered taboo, nearly everyone was culpable or presumed culpable. A larger range of populations risked the danger of sexuality for its immense power. 

The 1970s also represented the first decade of full-scale women’s sexual liberation. Women enjoyed gains garnered in laws and governance of the previous decade starting when the US Food and Drug Administration approved the first oral contraceptive in 1960. The Supreme Court granted married women the legal right to use birth control in 1965 and later legalized birth control for all citizens in 1972. One year later, Roe v. Wade gave women the legal right to abortion. The pill and abortion did more than allow women to easily and safely manage their reproductive lives. Reproductive autonomy gave married and unmarried women alike the freedom to participate in all aspects of society. Legal access to birth control remains the single most influential factor in enabling women to enroll and matriculate from college to this day.

The wanton, sometimes depraved edge of the 1970s came only after the totalizing violation of the idealism that came at the end of the 1960’s. An especially sinister end came to the political protests that galvanized American youth. On May 4, 1970, members of the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a group of unarmed students protesting the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War at Kent State University, killing four students and injuring nine others. The United States Armed Forces’ shocking indifference to human life both at home and abroad did little to unclench fists and forced many to question the ability of American leaders to steward the nation into a new era of lost innocence. Watergate would soon begin in 1972, making visible the corrupt stain of American governance and marking the beginning of a long deterioration of propriety in American politics.

The 1970s emerged as a distantly sexual decade in part because it occupied a brief window of time between the invention of the pill and the advent of HIV/AIDS. The “pill” separated sex from reproduction, and thus rendered heterosexuality obsolete, or at least, obsolete as a tool of social control that organized nearly all aspects life as in the past. The gay liberation movement that followed wrought dramatic changes to the availability of sex and in the creation of institutions for the protection and appreciation of sexual minorities. Unlike today, no one could satisfy their most basic need for connection on the internet; they were compelled to live a public life. Then, more than ever before, one felt the possibility of casual self-indulgence. A new culture of promiscuity became possible, one that involved non-monogamy, experimentation, and encouraged men and women to value being both the sexual agent and object; being desired and desirable.

Much of the decadence and glamour associated with the era stemmed from a reaction against the counter-cultural militantism of the 1960s, which in time had come to represent the youth culture itself. Activists felt freer to loosen the grip of their radicalism just as their groups were starting to fall apart. The broad-based social movements of the 1960s fractured into the narrow identity-based formations that still persist today, ushering in a partly reactionary nostalgia for the high-gloss glamour of 1930s and the golden age of Hollywood. Likewise, the city of New York fared poorly during a decades-long economic disenfranchisement in the post-war era and almost went bankrupt in the middle of the decade. What resulted for a brief period of time in the 1970s was more discerning culture, greater promiscuity, and wide-open (and affordable!) city to enjoy. 

Leon Levinstein, Street Scene- Woman in Shorts Leaning into Window of Parked Car, New York City, 1970s, Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art

What would you risk for freedom? In another era when an entrenched sexual hierarchy seemed less likely to budge but was nevertheless slowly beginning to crack open, sexual subcultures tolerated higher rates of the kinds of abuses that have fanned the flames of #MeToo. This sense of danger can give sexual encounters an erotic thrill. The more extreme the prohibitions are, the greater the pull. Sexual intent thrives in exactly this type of environment, yet there is a tendency in the #MeToo era to dismiss sexual advances as predatory if those advances involve even mild forms of inequalities. Unequal sexual contact is not all equally or necessarily horrible, unimaginable, shameful. In a culture of sexual openness, one may encourage handsiness, invite touching, groping, and initiate frank sexual approaches. This is sex for the sake of sex. Sexual freedom does not always align with a sense of shared security.

Any yet, what is good for a culture may be bad for its people. Sex does not burden men the way it does women. Sex, we say, is imposed on women. When it involves a man, it can never be sex for the sake of sex. It’s either a declaration of power or biological, and as such is too serious to be made casual. It can seldom be enjoyed, not while it clings to a puritan morality. An invitation for sex must be carefully negotiated. Otherwise a woman’s refusal invites retribution. While most people may not actually think in this maladroit way, the public debates sparked by the #MeToo movement disallow nuance. The sex-positive movement may enjoy over-representation in the media, but the same media tells us the risks have not abated. They say women are turning to desperate measures. Some have taken to wearing Apple AirPods at all hours, which go for upwards of $199, in an effort to curb the attention of street harassers (because predators are so deterred by the status symbols of the upwardly mobile). There may be legal protections, but the cultural scaffolding that allows women to enjoy sexual autonomy is still stuck in a pre-liberation mindset, leaving sex today in a contrarian position. 

The #MeToo movement breaks down the debate about progress and circumscribes the limits of organizing around sex. We’re still stuck on the most basic question: have things gotten better or worse for women? How much better? No one can decide, yet we still alternate between two extremes of oppression and liberation. The reality is more complicated. These days it may be easier to ruin a man’s career, but abuses go on as before. Powerful men continue to exploit, demoralize, and dehumanize others, especially women, in profoundly damaging ways that have nothing to do with sex and go unchecked because their crimes do not involve deeply perverse sexual habits. The infamy of a sexual degenerate has as much to do with public fascination as it does the crimes themselves. In the workplace as on the street, the roles of the abuser and the victim are contextual. The power changes the person.

In the 1970s, loose-livered libertines of all stripes were fighting the same war in a different theater—the public theater of the night. The Nixon administration’s full-frontal assault on the political idealism of the 1960s had people longing for relief. Disco promised deliverance from the suffering of political concerns in the form of a good night out. In the early days of movement, considered by esteemed ambassadors like David Mancuso and Vince Aletti to be just that, the music retained the peace and love ethos of the 1960s. Early DJs envisioned themselves as a unifying force. They played records as elements of a continuous whole rather than as discrete stand-ins for a live performance. They understood their audience and catered to the dynamics of the dance floor. Clubs like the Loft, 12 West, and Paradise Garage placed a high priority on freedom and were naturally attended by majority black and gay audiences. Not until the mid-1970s did Disco cross over into its short-lived era of hyper-commerciality, bringing attention to sex, decadence, and, later, the ire of white men. 

It was more than music. DJs crafted an environment impossible to experience anywhere else. Writing in his memoir Before Pictures, critic and curator Douglas Crimp writes about going to clubs in the 1970s, “what all of these places had in common are traits of pariah culture: they were located in out-of-the-way neighborhoods in quickly refurbished spaces with the palpable feeling of being susceptible to a bust at any moment.” Here again, the erotic pull of extreme prohibitions enables a culture of promiscuity. Extreme inequalities metamorphosize into life-affirming qualities vis-a-vis the democracy of the dance floor. In the novel Dancer from the Dance, writer Andrew Holleran writes of these possibilities for communion wrought by dramatic imbalances: “the boy passed out on the sofa from an overdose of Tuinols was a Puerto Rican who washed dishes in the employee’s cafeteria at CBS, but the doctor bending over him had treated presidents.”

Bill Bernstein, GG’s Barnum Room, Ava #2, 1979, Credit: Aperture Foundation

Andrew Holleran’s epochal novel, Dancer from the Dance, published in 1978, chronicles gay life in 1970s New York and the decade of disco. The book charts the life of handsome Malone, a mid-Western lawyer who makes a break in his life, moves to New York, and embarks on a decade-long journey into the suddenly not-so-underground gay culture. As Malone sheds his former self and descends into gay life, he experiences more in a single decade than most do in a lifetime. Burned by a love gone wrong, he vows “to sleep with everyone just once” and eventually turns to hustling, pimped by the distinguished Sutherland, a drag queen and face about town, who arranges to “marry” Malone off to a wealthy and reserved Princeton graduate. The plan dissolves one summer night on Fire Island when Sutherland dies of a drug overdose and Malone mysteriously vanishes. Who better to chronicle his life than an unnamed narrator who frequents the same bars, clubs, and parks as Malone, seduced by his handsome features and disarming charm, rebuffed by an aura of inscrutability, and forced into the role of a spectator—the perspective from which legends are made.

Holleran claims the book to be a satire on gay life in the 1970s. The exaggerated emotions and extreme lifestyles all lend to a melodramatic form. He describes a group of men ruled by aesthetic values whose goals include getting laid, dancing, summering on Fire Island, and not much else. Malone flies head-long into drug-fueled encounters on the dance floor. Malone and Sutherland move deftly between New York high society and a delinquent underground—rubbing shoulders with Halston and his model muses at the opening of a new club and provoking a gun wielding lunatic in a seedy East Village cinema in the same night.

Satire is perhaps one of the few literary genres which is written for an intended audience. This poses a problem for Dancer from the Dance in the post-AIDS era. The substance of the character’s lives and the places Holleran writes about are nearly unrecognizable to a young reader. Writer Fran Lebowitz has spoken on the devastation of AIDS on the arts culture in an interview with Francesco Clemente, saying “the first people who died of AIDS were artists . . . It decimated not just artists but knowledge. Knowledge of a culture. There’s a huge gap in what people know, and there’s no context for it anymore.” Holleran may have written the book as satire, but the quality of life the novel speaks to has been so thoroughly wiped out that, at least at first reading, the novel appears as something more like a historical document. 

This lack of context cannot extinguish what Walter Benjamin calls the “poetic significance” of a work of art, which is less about the meaning of a work and more about the idea or feelings that the words invoke. Lives lived on the margins often escape the confines of convention. Combined with the high stakes of surviving everyday life, those lives start to appear more like melodrama. But at a time when living a gay life meant being thrown out of your existing life, or of having to make a break with the familiar world it’s no surprise that upon landing in New York some might live their lives with such an intense singular focus that it radiates from the novel to this day. Gay lives were not easy-going lives. Disco disseminates the potential of gay life lived off the grid, so to speak. Holleran writes of men who, at great economic sacrifice, leave their former lives behind and disappear into economically and culturally dead zones of lower Manhattan that harbor a secret vitality for those in the know. Only once they abandoned their reputations did a secret world of opportunity begin to blossom, chiefly in bars, clubs, and parks. Holleran invites us to step into this perspective. When we do so, we do so without the risk, but stand to gain the energy. Illuminating the fervor for the dance floor, Holleran discloses in an interview:

Everybody who got to New York in the ‘60s and ‘70s was coming out of a really, really repressive, witch hunting cultural climate . . . So it’s understandable that everybody went a little crazy. They just were suddenly free and New York was kind of empty then; nobody cared what was going on.

Gay people in America enjoyed an expansive downtown that existed in both literal space and in the collective imaginary. Downtown was, of course, downtown New York City, which during the 1970s barely registered culturally as a deindustrialized, pre-gentrified wasteland with an exacerbated criminal element. The city in crisis cast the anonymity, invisibility, and indifference needed for a gay subculture to flourish. I don’t want to downplay the risk or the danger that gay people faced in the 1970s. But there comes a certain energy with the boldness of putting your own body and sometimes life on the line. It also speaks to the fun of going against the grain; of a love for the illicit and forbidden.

Cover of Dancer from the Dance

What’s at stake regarding the future of Dancer from the Dance is the issue of representation. As told by Craig Owens in his essay “Representation, Appropriation, and Power,” post-structuralism emerged in France in the aftermath of the 1968 student riots and grew out of a growing distrust of humanist discourse, which proposed a “universal” Western European man as the center of culture (to the marginalization of other cultures, races, and women). In the 1970s and 1980s post-structuralism emerged as a framework to speak of the ways in which representation could be used as a weapon of domination and control. Owens writes that, unlike humanist Erwin Panofsky, who proposed the purpose of the humanities is to reconstruct and reanimate the past, post-structuralists are less interested in subject matter than they are with truth content. This constant state of asking questions, of critical self-reflection, is the hallmark of post-structuralism. 

Holleran’s account of gay life in the 1970s goes far beyond a literary stand-in for lives that have already been lived. Perhaps Dancer has an allegorical structure. Unlike, say, metaphor, which requires no or very little interpretation, an allegory must be explained. One is reminded of Lebowitz’s words. Holleran’s world needs context in order for it to be meaningful for an audience beyond the people it satirizes. What’s more, the allegorical structure conceals as much as it tries to represent. 

The unique structure of Dancer—that it is bookended by a series of first-person letters, while the narrative story is told in the third-person—engages in two distinct modes of representation. Craig Owens writes about these two modes. First is the artist as the viewer—one who stands before the pictured or written world. In this “window” view, the artist represents things as he seems them. The window is authoritative; it establishes truth. Second is the artist who describes the world as he sees it, known as the “mirrored view.” This intertwined view reveals the representation apparatus by confusing the subject from the scene of representation.

A post-structuralist critique of representation contests the epistemological value or truth value of art. It’s subject matter exposes reality as fiction but lays claim to the history. Dancer fits within a post-structuralist mode even with a coherent narrative structure precisely to bring attention to its own illegitimacy. Post-modernists exploit the value of truth telling. Images come to mind. In the works of Cindy Sherman, for example, she exploits the cinematic modes of photography to expose their apparatus for creating an idealized image of femininity. 

The letters which introduce and conclude the novel occur between two friends reflecting on the decade, one of whom retreats to the South to pursue honest work among the dirt and dogwood. But few can so easily break with the sexual liberalism of the 1970s and he goes on to write the very novel contained within the pages of Dancer. Private letters sent between two friends can be otherwise interpreted through a literal mode, if we are to take what the two write to each other as having truth content. Holleran exploits the truth value of the letter format to compete with the other dominant mode of representation in his novel, the narrative structure. The story is told as a fiction, an unwritten manuscript, set within the pages of a literary work of fiction. The novel secures a rarefied position in literature, mainly that it is impossible to forget the novel is a novel.

The letters also render visible invisible mechanisms that control the legend making apparatus of Malone’s life. Holleran merges specular images of homosexuality and their symbolic meaning with the literal. For example, Malone’s virtue comes from, at least in part, his incredible success in the downtown scene, his dazzling dancing abilities, and his excessive handsomeness. Dancing may be a ripe activity for satirization, and yet to do so would diminish the poetic significance of Malone. Holleran positions Malone as new to the gay scene, though in time he becomes an indispensable figure. Malone functions much like the “dancer from the dance,” indistinguishable from the other dancers, and in his anonymity he lays outside the point of reference. He remains outside of reference because he literally disposes with identification with his former life. When he arrives into gay life, he has nothing to identify himself with besides his own beauty. The life Malone is reluctant to claim is a trope, an image, an aesthetic. That he eventually does claim it forces him into the role of a sand-in for many gay men of the decade. But Malone is not happy in this position. He mimics a subculture he can never fully commit to in part because of his outsider status, as reference in his notorious reputation for being hard to get and even harder to know on an elemental level. 

The only pitfall of this strategy, as Owens remarks, is the complicity of mimicry. The strategy in which the denunciation is made necessarily means that one must participate in the culture in order to denounce it. But in order for deconstruction to work, one must come from inside the frame, so to speak. Malone frequently expresses disappointment in what he sees as a gay tendency to value asethetic over substance. Yet, he commits to the subculture for over a decade before vanishing. 

If it seems strange that a gay author might denounce his own people, especially one he spent some time living in, Holleran is less interested in what representation says than in what it does. Malone rarely speaks for himself. An unnamed narrator tells his story in a supposed manuscript whose author is quickly identified as of the same social circles, but is no longer within it, having decamped to the South. Malone is as neutral as a person can be. It is frequently the feeling while reading that we cannot generally come to know Malone in his subjective, unique voice. Perhaps because his life is documented through the eyes of an anonymous viewer. But also because of an undercurrent of melancholy that always threatens to reach the surface until the tension evaporates just as he does. We cannot know that he is truly happy in his life, even though we know what he has sacrificed for participation in that subculture. 

Just as Malone never feels exactly at home in his life or happy with his choices, we may never feel satisfied with the progress of sexual liberation. Better it should be this way, so the power of sexuality can continue to propel us into new directions. The culture of promiscuity that rode a crest in the second-half of the last century may have landed in muddy waters just as the tides of the new millennium begin to rise. To remember and to learn from the underground gay culture of the 1970s is to understand that even in the ruins, a great vitality runs just below the surface.

Bibliography

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. 1955. Edited by Hannah Arendt. Translated by Harry Zohn. Reprint, Boston: Mariner Books, 2019.

Brewster, Bill, and Frank Broughton. Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: the History of the Disc Jockey. London: Headline, 1999.

Colacello, Bob. Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up. 1990. Reprint, New York: Vintage, 2014.

Crimp, Douglas. Before Pictures. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Holleran, Andrew. Dancer from the Dance. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1978.

Holleran, Andrew. “Interview: Dancer from the Dance Author Andrew Holleran.” Interview by Ali Gitlow. Red Bull Music Academy Daily, November 9, 2015.

Julian, Kate. “The Sex Recession.” The Atlantic, December 2018

Lebowitz, Fran. “The Voice: Fran Lebowitz.” Interview by Francesco Clemente. Interview Magazine, March 11, 2016.

Owens, Craig. Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. 

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. 1890. Reprint, Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.

Yablonsky, Linda. “The Guggenheim Outcast Who Laughed Last.” The New York Times, 20 March 2005.

Sex, Drugs, and . . . Activism?

maria j. bastos-stanek

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(fig. 1) Nan Goldin, view of protest against the Sackler Family at the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

If you’re inspired by Nan Goldin’s snapshots of her friends and lovers in New York in the late 1970s and 1980s like me, you might attempt to go looking for the evidence of Goldin’s New York; those undeniably cool cafes, bars, and clubs that cultivated the creative underground; artist-run galleries at the forefront of the Culture Wars; cheap rent. For an outsider looking in, there is little context for Goldin’s bohemian roots. If you’re lucky, though, you might just catch her leading a demonstration with her new group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) at major museums in protest of the Sackler family and their disproportionate influence over the direction of arts funding in the U.S and Europe. Goldin’s turn towards activism allows us as an audience to discover new meaning and significance in her world and her work, specifically her 1985 slideshow exhibition, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.

“I survived the opioid crisis” writes Nan Goldin in an op-ed in Artforum. Goldin founded P.A.I.N in response to her personal experience with addiction. P.A.I.N. takes aim at the Sackler family, whose name is now synonymous with the opioid crisis. The Sacklers built their fortune by developing the highly addictive prescription painkiller OxyContin, and used that money to fund arts institutions across the U.S. and Europe. P.A.I.N. carries out their demands—that the Sacklers use their fortune to fund drug treatment and rehabilitation—using direct action tactics inspired by the legacy of ACT UP.

Long before P.A.I.N., Goldin documented drug use in her slideshow, exhibition, and photobook, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, created between 1978 and 1986. The projects consist of a series of snap-shot style photographs of Goldin and her various friends, lovers, and family in and around downtown Manhattan. We see Goldin at parties and bars; inside taxi cabs and bathroom stalls. Goldin’s world of restaurant booths and after-hours bars oozes of anticipation and eroticism.

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(fig. 2) Nan Goldin, Rise and Monty Kissing, New York City, 1980
image courtesy | Museum of Modern Art

The Ballad of Sexual Dependency illustrates a culture of promiscuity operating in New York during the 1970s and 1980s. By photographing scenes of drug use, sexual encounters, and other intimacies, Goldin captures her subjects emotional and physical vulnerabilities, their hopes and disappointments, along with her own. When discussing the improvisational qualities of the photographs, Goldin states “I was in the exact same state that I was recording. These were the people I lived with, these were my friends, these were my family, this was myself. . . there was no separation between me and what I was photographing.”[1] Goldin narrates her own life—domestic violence and drug abuse included—and the difficulties she endured in order to live her life with freedom. To mobilize that sort of sensibility into political action, even thirty years later, speaks to the political power of the artist.

Goldin photographs with an aim towards documentation that may seem similar to the practice of live-blogging and other technological exploits of the digital age. What separates Ballad from the deluge of middlebrow ironic images on social media is the sense of sincerity bred from the risk and danger which Goldin and her friends engage in. Goldin’s subjects live their lives in front of the camera, not for the camera. Goldin captures her friends in actions of self-expression or self-destruction. Rarely are Goldin’s subjects without vice—alcohol, cigarettes, and sex. Take, for example, Rise and Monty Kissing, New York City (1980) (fig. 2). Goldin captures a pair of lovers. Monty embraces Rise with the strong arms of pathos. Deep black space and oceanic blues sooth the viewer’s gaze. A porcelain white hand grips sensuously dark hair. Desire mixes with vice. Eroticism surpasses impropriety.

In Susan Sontag’s famous essay, “Against Interpretation,” she writes, “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” [2] Instead of a criticism of art which is primarily concerned with interpretation, Sontag argues that we should seek the pleasures of experiencing art as an autonomous form. Pleasure, she says, doesn’t take a stand. It is not an object for consideration, but rather, a subject.

In an age when art-making veers towards the didactic, Goldin’s photography curiously resists interpretation. Goldin captures a lifestyle that by moral convention would seem perverse or decadent, but which she subdues all judgement. She fully submits to the pull of pleasure, making her photographs seem sincere and normal; the natural outcome of living a life with freedom of action. Goldin’s concern for spontaneity, of capturing fleeting emotions, and the sincerity of a visual diary, eschews a moral response.

It would, though, be a mistake to consider Goldin’s photographs unplanned or overly casual. Goldin employs several techniques to direct the viewer’s gaze. Among them are framing and her expert use of color. Goldin largely photographs indoors under artificial lighting, lending to an intimate atmosphere of unguarded sincerity.

Goldin, Trixie

(fig. 3) Nan Goldin, Trixie on the Cot, New York City, 1979
image courtesy | Museum of Modern Art

Of course, Goldin isn’t the only artist to identify with the perverse. Diane Arbus, too, with her interest in misfits and outcasts, was also fascinated by those who live in the margins of society. Arbus photographed circus performers, nudists, interracial couples, transgender and sexual outlaws, and strangers made so by her alienating photographic techniques. Arbus’s photographs, too, feature an aurora of melancholy caused by the knowledge of Arbus’s troubled life which ended in suicide in 1971. However, Arbus has enjoyed major critical and commercial success both during her lifetime and after her death, having become the first American photographer to show at the Venice Biennale.

Goldin, on the other hand, is left with the aftermath of social alienation. As drug habits turn into drug addictions, Goldin lays claim to the casualties of a life lived in the margins. In Goldin’s Trixie on the Cot, New York City (1979) (fig. 3), flashes of red dance around the composition, centrally on the floral embroidery of Trixie’s dress, and among a red-hued filter haphazardly fixed onto the studio light hanging above Trixie’s head. This sensuous red contrasts with her ghostly white skin. Affixed to her is a flowing dress, with one arm strap falling below her shoulder. She crosses her legs, drawing attention to her tattered black shoes that highlights the disjunction between figure and environment. The destitute interior and Trixie’s passive demeanor anticipates the drug overdoses that would eventually curtail the scene. As such, Goldin’s work embraces a retrospective mourning that accommodates her incipient political activism.

The ramifications of drug abuse are suggested rather than expressed, however, allowing viewers to discern for themselves a link between Goldin’s past exploits and her current activism. The improvisational aesthetic of Ballad belies to some degree the possibility of consequences. Goldin does not romanticize drug use. She documents her reality, like a diary. And now, with P.A.I.N., she cautions against its aftermath. Rather than erasing the evidence of disorder in a narrative punctuated by the pleasures of parties and love affairs, Goldin incorporates the trauma and violence’s that she and her friends faced. Goldin’s friends risk danger for connection. Even a successful artist can’t escape the grip of her past.

Nan Goldin, Nan and Brian in Bed, 1983

(fig. 4) Nan Goldin, Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City, 1983
image courtesy | Museum of Modern Art

Goldin’s political transformation invests The Ballad of Sexual Dependency with relevance and allows the old to flourish with new meaning. Consider Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City (1983) (fig. 4). Nan lounges with her then lover, Brian. A calm yellow light filters through the window, covering the two figures in the warm hues of a setting sun. The figures lie in a characteristically destitute interior. Brian sits in profile looking out the window with a cigarette locked between his lips. Gentle wisps of smoke spill out around him. A single print hangs tacked to the wall above the bed frame. It is of Brian, cigarette again dangling from his lips. This time he stares directly at the viewer. What else can the audience think, but of that menacing stare, of Goldin’s crumpled body huddled at the opposite end of the bed, and therefore of Brian’s eventual betrayal? In the months after Goldin published Ballad, Brian battered Goldin. She would later document her injuries through the camera, as a way of preventing herself from returning to him.

Unlike Goldin’s early photography, her politics take a sharp stand. Therefore, the theme of transformation can be interpreted through Goldin’s leap from photography towards activism. While photography as an art form is meant to be taken as autonomous form, activism, as it rests in the realm of the political rather than the cultural, is didactic. If Goldin’s art produces an aesthetic response, then her activism produces an ethical one. Goldin engages in a form of auto-didacticism in which she interprets her past for a new generation at the forefront of a new epidemic.


endnotes

[1] Nan Goldin, “Nan Goldin by Stephen Westfall,” interview by Stephen Westfall, BOMB Magazine, October 1, 1991, https://bombmagazine.org/articles/nan-goldin/.

[2] Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation (New York: Picador, 1966), 14.

The Specter of Humanity: Sally Mann Photographs the South

maria j. bastos-stanek

Sally Mann, Jessie Bites, 1985(fig. 1) Sally Mann, Jessie Bites, 1985, Gelatin Silver Print
image courtesy | Guggenheim Museum

Consider the precarious uncertainties of childhood life. Many children grow up in the security of their parent’s loving embrace, vigilance, and care. But even among the most ideal family relationships, the primal struggle between a child who desires autonomy and a parent who desires to keep their children safe play out in everyday life. The emotional difficulties of growing up and the unique family relationships that inform them is one of the themes that American photographer Sally Mann explores in her most recent exhibition, Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings. Now on view at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, co-organized with the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the exhibition presents the work of her over forty-year career. Mann combines experimental techniques with challenging subjects to create photographs which are deeply in tune with the history of photography and challenge the limits of spectatorship.

Those visiting A Thousand Crossings expecting to see the works that made her famous—images of her childrenwill encounter them in the first few rooms of the large exhibition. Only by advancing through the show will viewers discover Mann’s own transformation, one marked by her growing awareness of the racial divisions in the South. Curators Sarah Greenough and Sarah Kennel divide the exhibition into three sections: photographs of Mann’s children in their remote home in Virginia, landscapes that capture the Southern Gothic obsession with tradition and history, and photographs that mine Mann’s personal history and identity to explore the public complexity of race. Mann allows her audience access into her own process of introspection. In doing so, she asks her audience to consider the complex factors that inform how we see the world.

Mann has received both praise and criticism for her series Immediate Family, produced between 1984 and 1991. In the series, Mann’s photographs her three small children at their family farm in rural Virginia—a picturesque setting along a river in the Shenandoah Valley. Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia play, sleep, and swim at their leisure, often nude. While the works depict with sometimes unsettling candor the innocence of childhood, anyone who has participated in family life is likely to be familiar with the scenes in Immediate Family. Indeed, it is this feeling of familiarity—of the universal qualities of childhood—and Mann’s unseen presence from behind the camera which lend to the disarming honesty of the series, even when many of the photographs are carefully composed. No child is ever truly independent, or is rarely left alone. Mann acts as a an unseen presence among her children. She infuses what may otherwise be straightforward photography with a subjective framework rifled with emotional intent.

2001.199_ph_web-1(fig. 2) Sally Mann, Emmett and the White Boy, 1990, Gelatin Silver Print
image courtesy | Guggenheim Museum

Mann’s presence from behind the camera shapes how her subjects react to being photographed. In Emmett and the White Boy, 1990, (fig. 2) two young boys seem to suspend their play in order to accommodate Mann and her camera. Leaning against a tree with his arm stretched high above, Emmett seems to wait confrontationally like a child who is vigorously at home in his surroundings. The other boy identified only by skin color looks on at Mann hesitantly. With his hand covering his mouth, he seems uncomfortable posing in front of a camera (despite a bicep tattoo that suggests otherwise), while Emmett boldly asserts himself despite the intrusion of his mother’s advances. Even in photographs that convey a deeper sense of anxiety or melancholy about growing up, such as in Jessie Bites, 1985, (fig. 1), Mann’s presence is never far away.

Once her children reached adolescence, Mann turned her attention to issues of identity and place. In Lexington, Virginia, the site of the memorial of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, the pastoral landscapes of her own childhood harbor half-hidden histories of the Antebellum South. In the series, Battlefields, Mann utilizes vintage cameras with damaged lenses to capture the locations of Civil War battles in an antiquated style. Using a soft-focus or out-of-focus rendering of otherwise innocuous woodland territories, Mann imitates the pictorialist style of the nineteenth-century. The resulting photographs do not so much render the past as they do render Mann’s own personal connection and exploration of that past.

Sally Mann, Battlefields, 2003(fig. 3) Sally Mann, Battlefields, Cold Harbor (Battle), 2003, Gelatin Silver Print
image courtesy | National Gallery of Art, Washington

In her Battlefields series, Mann returns to an early theme in the history of American photography. One of the first wars to be photographed in the United States was the Civil War.[1] Photographers of the nineteenth-century were prohibited from depicting battle scenes by the laborious process and long exposure time it took to produce collodion-on-wet negatives. Instead, they avoided the chaos of a dangerous battlefield and created carefully staged images of camp scenes, empty battlefields, and even dead soldiers.

Like the war photographers, Mann utilizes the nineteenth-century equipment. In Battlefields: Cold Harbor (Battle), 2003 (fig. 3), Mann intentionally photographs the landscape with flawed lenses that create an extra layer of marks, scratches, and blurry corners. These imperfections lend the photograph an aura of antiquity. Mann turns back the clock at Mechanicsville, Virginia to the 1864 Battle of Cold Harbor. Although we can’t see any uniformed soldiers outfitted with rifles and bayonets, the white marks that dot the landscape fly by like whizzing bullets across the length of the print. The chaos of battle may be taking place not far beyond the edges of the photograph—and Mann places the viewer in the center of the action. The chaos of the battlefield unsettles an otherwise undisturbed, if not eerie, land. In doing so, Mann attempts to unearth the suppressed histories of the Antebellum South.

Mann attempts to understand the racial trauma embedded in the land that many Southerners, and indeed, the rest of America, may try to forget. In Deep South, Untitled (Bridge on Tallahatchie), 1998, (fig. 4), Mann photographed the Tallahatchie River, the site of a Civil Rights-era hate crime. In 1955, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered while visiting family in Mississippi by a group of white men after being accused of flirting with a married white woman. His attackers were acquitted, sold their confession to Look Magazine, and the woman who originated the claims later confessed to fabricating crucial details about the event. Till’s mother held an open-casket funeral for her son to expose the world to the epidemic of lynching in the South and the culture of racism that fueled it.

Sally Mann, Deep South, 1998(fig. 4) Sally Mann, Deep South, Untitled (Bridge of Tallahatchie), 1998, Gelatin Silver Print
image courtesy | National Gallery of Art, Washington

The murder of Emmett Till presents a doubly difficult event to photograph because his death has already been politicized through a visual narrative. Till’s mother allowed his body to be photographed and those images to be distributed among black-run newspapers and magazines to bear witness to the racial violence that killed her son. To depict the body of Emmett Till would likely distort and misinterpret the photograph’s original intent. Those who have previously done so have been met with harsh criticism.

In Mann’s landscape of the Tallahatchie, the viewer will find no body. Mann engages with the hate crime through her personal connection to the land. She infuses the Tallahatchie landscape with a narrative, one that cannot be seen as evidence on the land itself—but one in which every Southerner knows and may feel a personal relationship to. The enveloping darkness around the edges of the photograph seem to slowly encroach across the breadth of the river, engulfing every tree, branch, and leaf in the stillness of contemplation. The raindrops that dot the surface of the water highlight the loneliness of the encounter. As Mann takes to the camera in an attempt to understand an event that shaped her experience of living as a white woman in the South, she does so on a solitary journey.

A Thousand Crossings succeeds at immersing the audience into Mann’s world. We as an audience bear witness to her introspection, and in turn feel compelled to turn inwards and examine our own relationship to race, history, and the power of the land we call home. Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA through September 23, 2018, and will be traveling to several other venues across the U.S. and Europe throughout the next year.


endnotes

[1] Department of Photographs. “Photography and the Civil War, 1861–65.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2004).

An Outsider on the Inside: David Wojnarowicz at the Whitney

DW, Self-Portrait
David Wojnarowicz with Tom Warren, Self-Portrait of David Wojnarowicz, 1983–84, acrylic and collaged paper on gelatin silver print, detail
image courtesy | Whitney Museum of American Art

Maria Bastos-Stanek

On July 13, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York staged a posthumous retrospective of the New York-based artist and writer David Wojnarowicz. “David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night” chronicles the artistic life of a self-taught artist who mined his personal life to create formally innovative and deeply moving works of art. Known to many as an extreme polemicist of the Reagan administration and outspoken AIDS activist, much of Wojnarowicz’s art often gets overlooked in favor of his AIDS activism and anti-censorship battles. The Whitney honors Wojnarowicz by compiling the development of his art in the context in which it was created: the Downtown scene, an art scene and cultural explosion that evolved around lower Manhattan in the decades of the 1970s and 1980s. The Whitney presents a portrait of the venerated activist as how he most intimately saw himself, an artist.

Before Wojnarowicz aspired to be an artist, he aspired to be a writer. He published his first book, Sounds in the Distance, a collection of transcribed interviews with his friends and neighbors, in 1982. The Whitney’s retrospective includes early works which merge his literary inspirations with his artistic ambitions. In his first commercially successful works of art, a series of photographs titled Rimbaud in New York from 1978–1979, Wojnarowicz photographed three of his friends around New York wearing a life-size mask of the face of Arthur Rimbaud, a nineteenth-century French poet. Wojnarowicz may have felt a connection with the young iconoclast, who openly proclaimed himself as an outsider and engaged in tumultuous romances with other men. In Rimbaud in New York, Wojnarowicz updates Rimbaud’s significance for 1970’s New York. In one photograph, Wojnarowicz depicts Rimbaud wearing the standard DIY punk outfit, a denim vest and white t-shirt standing outside of the Times Square-42nd street subway station (figure 1). Across the street, a line of movie house marquees recede into the distance, recalling the notorious era when Times Square was home to another class of outsiders—hustlers and drug dealers; pimps and sex workers.

Other works in the show emphasize Wojnarowicz’s participation in the Downtown arts scene. The show’s curators David Khiel and David Breslin re-staged his 1984 exhibition at the East Village gallery Civilian Warfare (figure 2). Wojnarowicz created a group of twenty-three personalized plaster-cast heads as a post-colonial critique of conflicts raging in Central and South America at the time. Wojnarowicz created the heads as allegorical representations of the outsider. He originally displayed the heads along a wall below a painted bull’s-eye. At the Whitney, the curators set the heads on podiums of different heights, in rows, receding into the corner of a black-walled space. With the added depth, the plaster heads resemble less of the foreigner than that of the ancient Greek herm—stone pillars topped with carved heads used as boundary markers or milestones. Indeed, as a viewer, the further you cross into the receded space, the fewer the visitors surround you, and the further you travel into Wojnarowicz’s world.

While it is tempting to consider Wojnarowicz a standalone, if not anomalous figure in the art world—as much of an outsider as the subjects of his art and writing—Wojnarowicz established himself among a rich network of artists, intellectuals, and activists that made up the Downtown scene. Much like the axiom of equality, a concept in mathematics that states a number is always equal to itself, so too does Wojnarowicz possess this reflexive quality. No matter the injustices he faced as a gay man and later as a person with AIDS, Wojnarowicz was met with success in his career. The curators remark:

Wojnarowicz’s work documents and illuminates a desperate period of American history: that of the AIDS crisis and culture wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s. But his rightful place is also among the raging and haunting iconoclastic voices, from Walt Whitman to William S. Burroughs, who explore American myths, their perpetuation, their repercussions, and their violence.[1]

Wojnarowicz survived an abusive father, an absentee mother, homelessness, welfare hotels, child hustling in Times Square, cross-country freight hopping, anonymous men with hostile intentions. During that same time, Wojnarowicz achieved an alternative education through the writings of Jean Genet and Arthur Rimbaud, moved to Paris for a time to pursue a career in writing, showed his art at East Village galleries, published a memoir, and exhibited a survey of his work all during his short lifetime. Wojnarowicz understood the potential of his unconventional life, and built a political persona around his perceived differences to smack people in the face, to assault their senses, and get them to accept the Truth as he saw it.

What was the Truth as Wojnarowicz saw it? Towards the end of his career Wojnarowicz gained notoriety for his direct, potent, and militant AIDS activism—but much of the work he created during this late period in his life carries a deep ambiguity about AIDS in the gay community. The demands of his public persona as an activist did not allow him to express his feelings of isolation from within the community that he aligned himself with. Wojnarowicz would have felt ostracized from the gay community due to his HIV positive status. His art allowed him to express his feelings of vulnerability and of tensions towards the gay community, while allowing him to remain a strong and uncompromising figure in the fight to end AIDS.

Perhaps Wojnarowicz revealed his vulnerability most strikingly in his Sex Series (For Marion Scemama), a series of eight black-and-white photomontages, or composite photographs, created between 1988–1989 (figure 3). Each untitled image consists of two components: a large pictorial field in which smaller circular images are set. Large images of man-made structures mix with small images culled from pornographic magazines or newspaper photographs. Many of the smaller images are difficult to identify. Far more discernible than images of intimacy are those of police brutality, such as in Untitled (train) (figure 4). Wojnarowicz resists the dominant ideology which positioned gay men as sick and dying, victims of their own promiscuous lifestyle, but he does not wholly celebrate his sexuality either. He politicizes his grief and makes public his personal desires—not using his noted anger, but through the layers of complexity of his lived reality. So too does the Whitney give rise to these tensions. Wojnarowicz embodies the spirit of resistance precisely because of unique perspective as an artist.

Wojnarowicz became an artist to feel less isolated, and in viewing his retrospective, so do we as an audience. “David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night” is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, New York through September 30, 2018.

DW, Rimbaud in New York
(fig. 1) David Wojnarowicz, Rimbaud in New York, 1978-1979, gelatin sliver print
image courtesy | Whitney Museum of American Art
IMG_5785
(fig. 2) David Wojnarowicz, exhibition view of Metamorphosis series, 1984, collage paper and acrylic on plaster image taken by author
IMG_5787
(fig. 3) David Wojnarowicz, exhibition view of Sex Series (For Marion Scemama), 1988–1989, eight gelatin silver prints image taken by author
DW, Sex Series, Train
(fig. 4) David Wojnarowicz, Untitled, from Sex Series (For Marion Scemama), 1989, gelatin silver print image courtesy | New York Magazine

endnotes

[1] Museum label for David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night, Jul. 12–Sept. 30, 2018, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Radical Transformations: Art, AIDS, and Activism

maria j. bastos-stanek

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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.

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(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. 

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(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.

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(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.


endnotes

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