Review: A Brave Show on Art and AIDS

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Deborah Kass 'Still Here,' from 2007 now on view at the Bronx Museum of the Arts.

If you have never been to the Bronx Museum of the Arts, this is the time to ride the D train up to the Grand Concourse and look around.

The museum’s current exhibition, “Art AIDS America,” is a must-see event for anyone who cares about contemporary art. A big, bold, courageous group show, it offers the first comprehensive look at AIDS-related visual art, and the quality of the work is consistently high. Many of the artists are well-known. They range from sculptors (Robert Gober, Kiki Smith and Jenny Holzer) to photographers (Duane Michals, Annie Leibovitz, the inevitable Mapplethorpe) to the post-Pop painter Deborah Kass, whose entry is titled, pointedly, “STILL HERE.”

The AIDS crisis first entered public consciousness in the spring and summer of 1981, when the media began reporting on an outbreak of Kaposi sarcoma among otherwise healthy young men. The first artist to make a work that acknowledged AIDS — according to the exhibition — was Izhar Patkin, an Israeli-born New Yorker better-known for his decorative efforts. His “Unveiling of Modern Chastity” (1981) is a tall, mustardy-yellow painting whose surface appears to be flecked with sores. It is, technically, an abstract painting, but it brilliantly expands the borders of abstract painting to encompass the subject of HIV.

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In doing so, it captures the central drama of this show: How do you convey the sorrows of AIDS? How do retrofit Pop art and Minimalism and the lofty forms of abstract art to accommodate the heartbreak of a generation? The sculptor Robert Gober offers a sparely elegiac answer in his “Drains,” (1990), a 4-inch-wide pewter ring that resembles a bathtub drain; it evokes both the daily ritual of washing and the tragedy of lives that were washed away.

This is a deeply moving and sobering exhibition, not least because many of its participants died prematurely. (Keith Haring, incredibly, was only 31.) I was struck by the profusion of imagery that harked back to the Middle Ages, when the spread of the plague gave rise to morbid references in painting— pocked faces and body limbs, skulls and skeletons.

Put another way, the show is important art-historically, allowing us to see how the AIDS crisis exposed the limits of formalism and demanded a new visual language to express the experience of living and dying. To be sure, earlier artists had endured their own torments, and much has been written about the angst-ridden paintings of Jackson Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists who flourished in New York in the 1950s. But their paintings dealt in cosmic angst, in a one-size-fits-all sense of existential-style despair.

Here, in the Bronx Museum’s brave show, we see angst tied to a specific time and place, to a specific illness, and to a specific group of people who endured discrimination as a result. We see, in other words, the beginnings of the revolution that brought identity politics to the fore of contemporary art, and finally ended the century-long, modernist belief that one’s life is too small a subject for art.

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