IT WAS VULGAR AND IT WAS BEAUTIFUL: How AIDS Activists Used Art to Fight a Pandemic
By Jack Lowery
When the ACT UP AIDS activist movement was at the height of its power, between 1987 and 1992, bold posters communicated its messages and shaped its public image. In the most famous, a pink triangle swims in a sea of black. The text: Silence=Death.
As Jack Lowery recounts in a thoughtful and compelling new story of their creation, it was the work of six gay men who had lost people to AIDS and began hosting potlucks to talk about feelings of loneliness and an increased awareness of mortality. In 1985, AIDS was associated in the public mind with homosexuals and people who inject drugs, and killed virtually everyone diagnosed. America shrugged – or worse. President Reagan’s press secretary closed AIDS questions with a joke; William F. Buckley proposed that people with AIDS get tattoos on their arms or buttocks.
The creators of Silence=Death were inspired by the simplicity of a Vietnam-era anti-war poster. Buckley’s proposal evoked the Holocaust, and one member of the group suggested they use the pink triangle top that the Nazis forced gay people to wear. He misremembered it as pointing up – a mistake later turned into an intentional signal of empowerment. For the motto, the group compressed a line that fellow member Avram Finkelstein had written in his diary: “Gay silence is deafening.” The poster had two purposes: to call on gay people to speak out and to warn the rest of society that a new movement had begun.
In February 1987, the poster was plastered on construction sites in Manhattan. Shortly after news broke that an AIDS vaccine was unlikely, writer and activist Larry Kramer called for a new, more combative political organization, which eventually became ACT UP. The creators of Silence=Death donated the image to the new organization, whose members soon wore it at protests and wore it in interviews.
The New Museum commissioned a window installation from ACT UP, which precipitated a second art collective. At the center was a charismatic and unpredictable man named Mark Simpson, the son of a Texas preacher turned painter and construction worker in New York. He was joined by Finkelstein, a couple of graphic designers (including the only straight woman in the group), an artist, a descendant of Rockefeller, the manager of an AIDS drug buying club (the only person of color in the group), filmmaker Tom Kalin and a taxi driver turned AIDS nurse. The group took the name Gran Fury after the artist passed by patrol cars of this model parked in front of a police station.
In Gran Fury’s most iconic poster, from 1988, two sharp-cut men in sailor uniforms hug and kiss. Mark Harrington, later one of ACT UP’s leaders in drug research, had found the black-and-white photo in a film archive. In the original, the men’s pants are unbuttoned, all their glory provocatively strolling in the foreground. Even the cropped image surprised. It evoked Victor Jorgensen’s August 1945 kiss in Times Square, but also, says Lowery, “kissing was an integral part of ACT UP culture,” a way to bridge the gap of fear with which society isolates people with AIDS. A sexual accusation ran through ACT UP; according to Kramer, the meetings became “the best cruising ground in New York”. The poster’s caption, “Read my lips,” was picked up a few months later by a campaigning George HW Bush, and the irony seemed all the more acute.
Gran Fury then designed fake currency that was distributed on Wall Street to protest a pharmaceutical company’s profits; bloody handprints meant to symbolize the New York mayor’s culpable unwillingness to act; and posters for the Venice Biennale that juxtaposed the pope and an erect phallus. The group also coined the slogan “Women don’t get AIDS, they just die of it” to pressure the CDC to update the official definition of AIDS, giving women access to support. of the government.
Some Gran Fury artwork was missing. Indeed, the members of the collective themselves rejected an almost illegible piece as “the eye map”, and in Lowery’s account, such criticisms were common. One member compared the sniping to that of “The Boys in the Band”; of the band’s eventual demise, another joked that “he died because no one wanted to be in the same room anymore.”
The breakup was accompanied by tensions within ACT UP, which kept together for as long as possible two opposing impulses: indignation against an establishment ready to let social outcasts die, and a desire to understand and repair , which required collaboration with the same establishment. In 1991, Harrington led an exodus from ACT UP of members who had become experts in the science and bureaucracy of drug research and were impatient to be told not to work too closely with the authorities – a story told in greater detail by David France and by Sarah Schulman, books with markedly different perspectives that suggest the split may well be recapitulated in historiography.
The last great work of Gran Fury was born, in 1993, from a series of political funerals (including one in which a friend of mine, David Robinson, threw his partner’s ashes on the White House lawn) and Simpson’s awareness of his own impending death. . Inspired by the Passover Seder liturgy, the understated graphic work echoes and responds to the command printed at the bottom of the original Silence=Death poster: “Turn anger, fear, grief into action.” As Simpson told a friend, before his death, “Art can’t do much.”
IT WAS GROSS AND IT WAS BEAUTIFUL: How AIDS activists used art to fight a pandemic
By Jack Lowery
423 pages. Bold type books. $35.
Caleb Crain is the author of “Necessary Errors” and “Overthrow”.