Today is National HIV Testing Day, so we want to reflect on the history of AIDS and its impact on the Arts.
Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was diagnosed for the first time in 1981, and through government inaction and a disarming lack of knowledge, we lost some of our greatest visionaries. Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times wrote in 1989: "Art has confronted AIDS the way people confront AIDS -- with fear, anger, sorrow, defiance and confusion. In a country that idolizes youth and health, AIDS has struck at the very heart of the American self-image."
Decades later these words apply as much as ever. As Pride month comes to a close and as we celebrate the importance of the Stonewall riots, we would like to honor a small portion of the many artists whose lives were cut tragically short by this disease, which still claims close to two million across the world per year, and is the sixth leading cause of death for 25 - 44 year olds in the U.S. at the moment.
The artists below actively worked to make gay lives visible to a larger audience, creating unapologetic portraits of love and desire. When the media was looking away, art took the lead and and addressed the epidemic from a number of different angles -- ACT UP's iconic "SILENCE = DEATH" poster being the pièce de résistance. We cannot begin to imagine what the art world would be like today if so many brilliant spirits had not been lost.
Below are 11 artists who passed away of AIDS-related illnesses. Honor your favorite artists we missed in the comments section below.
David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992)
Wojnarowicz left his home and education at a young age and began living on the streets, hustling and hitchhiking in New York. He used his own personal experiences as well as stories from strangers along the way to build artworks that presented alternate histories from voices of those on the outskirts of society. Wojnarowicz was diagnosed with AIDS in the late 1980s and his work became entwined with political activism. His video piece "Fire in my Belly," a raw and disturbing commentary on AIDS, has repeatedly drawn controversy due to imagery of ants crawling over a crucifix. Its imagery was labelled pornographic by religious leaders in 1989 and again in 2010. Even after his death Wojnarowicz has shown art's powers to provoke, incite controversy and hopefully promote change. Image: David Wojnarowicz, film still from A Fire In My Belly (Film In Progress) and A Fire In My Belly Excerpt, 1986-87. Super 8mm film transferred to video (black and white and color, silent), 13:06 min. and 7:00 min. Courtesy of The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York and The Fales Library and Special Collections/ New York University
Peter Hujar (1934-1987)
Hujar moved from New Jersey to New York to pursue a career in fashion and advertising, yet his ideas of beauty did not fit the mold. His photographs of people and farm animals were stripped of flashy details allowing a personal connection between subject and viewer to emerge. His collection of black-and-white photographs, called "Portraits in Life and Death," depicts the resilience and spirit of Hujar's circle often in their final moments. Image: <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Hujar-Stephen-Sokolowski-Interviews-Lebowitz/dp/093434907X/ref=sr_1_11?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1340659202&sr=1-11&keywords=peter+hujar" target="_hplink">Amazon</a>
Keith Haring (1958-1990)
Haring was born in Pennsylvania and grew up inspired by the optimistic cartoons of Dr. Seuss and Walt Disney. He moved to New York and became a member of the city's pulsing street art scene alongside Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Haring adorned subway stations with his signature energetic graffiti, kid-friendly yet painfully cool combinations of color and shape. He remained devoted to AIDS activism and public service throughout his life. Image courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.
Barton Lidice Benes (1942-2012)
Benes lived and worked in New York City, creating "museums" out of shadow boxes and little artifacts of everyday life. After Benes tested positive for HIV, he began working with pills, intravenous tubes and even cremated human remains as materials. His raw works faced death unabashedly and were often too disturbing or physically dangerous to be shown in galleries. "Lethal Weapons," for example, was a collection of 30 vessels each filled with a person's HIV-infected blood. After a 25 year battle with AIDS he passed away from kidney failure.
Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1950-1989)
Fani-Kayode, born in Nigeria, fled to the U.K. with his family in the 1960s after a military coup. His artwork has always grappled with the feeling of being an outsider, as a political refugee, a gay man, and an artist in a traditional family. His work recalls Mapplethorpe's homoeroticism while incorporating Nigerian history its traditional perceptions of masculinity. Tribal rituals take on a Baroque strangeness with the repetition of fruit, blood, blindfolds and flesh. The artist also co-founded Autograph ABP (Association of Black Photographers) with Mark Sealy.
Ray Navarro (1964-1990)
Navarro studied art at CalArts before moving to New York to continue his learning at the Whitney. He soon became an activist for ACT UP/ DIVA TV, which stood for "Damned Interfering Video Activist Television." He starred in "Like A Prayer," a work protesting the church's stance on AIDS and contraception. Navarro narrated the event while dressed up as Jesus. Navarro tested positive for AIDS and later lost his vision and hearing. He continued to make art, using his friend Zoe Leonard to function as his eyes. His work continued to spark debate on the complexity of AIDS and its relation to race and class. Image: Still from "Like A Prayer" (1991)
Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989)
Mapplethorpe grew up in a Roman Catholic and Irish neighborhood in Queens. He studied graphic arts at the Pratt institute but dropped out before getting his degree. He lived with punk icon Patti Smith before realizing he was gay; the two remained close friends for the rest of Mapplethorpe's life. Beginning his photographic career working in polaroids, he soon became known for sculpture-sharp black and white prints, mostly of nude men. Mapplethorpe photos feature cropped close-ups of muscles and glowing flesh, at once homoerotic and too matter of fact to be suggestive. In 1989 Mapplethorpe's traveling solo exhibition faced controversy when it was deemed too obscene by one of its host museums, raising questions of authority, censorship and funding in the arts. Mapplethorpe passed away at 42 years old of an AIDS related illness. CREDIT: Lee Black Childers, Redferns / Getty Images UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01: Photo of Robert MAPPLETHORPE (Photo by Leee Black Childers/Redferns)
Herb Ritts (1952-2002)
Ritts was born in Los Angeles, soaking up the city's obsession with beauty and style while helping define it himself. He first became interested in photography while shooting his friend RIchard Gere in front of an old Buick. He later photographed an onslaught of iconic celebrities and even worked on music videos for Madonna and Michael Jackson. His sleek black-and-white photos conjure imagery of ancient Greek perfection. While they are commercially friendly boundaries of gender and race become slippery under the surface of the perfect bodies. Ritts passed away at 50 years old of pneumonia, not HIV/AIDS. Yet <a href="http://www.windycitymediagroup.com/ARTICLE.php?AID=1990" target="_hplink">those close to him believed</a> his immune system was compromised by the disease. Image courtesy of the Getty Center.
Carlos Almaraz (1941-1989)
Almaraz was born in Mexico City and moved to a multicultural neighborhood in Illinois as a young child where he quickly became entranced with the attractive and repulsive properties of art, calling it magical. Almaraz eventually moved to California where he organized Los Four, a group that gained critical attention for the Chicano street arts movement. Teaming up with Cesar Chavez, Almaraz created murals for the United Farm Workers movement. Constantly trying tom balance his individual artistic identity and the community he represented, Almaraz struggled to represent both Hispanic art and his own. Eventually he gained mainstream success with his dreamy images of beaches, highways and other Los Angeles sun-induced hallucinations. Image: Crash in Phthalo Green, 1984, Courtesy of LACMA and Elsa Almaraz
Frank C. Moore (1953-2002)
Moore was born in Manhattan and grew up upstate, serving as class president in high school. After attending Yale he begam working as a set designer for a modern dance choreographer. He soon began painting on his own, taking visual cues from Surrealism yet staying attached to real-life issues involving politics, the environment and AIDS activism. He played a key role in conceiving the overlapping red ribbon as a symbol of AIDS awareness. Image: Frank Moore Patient, 1997-98 oil on canvas on wood panel with red pine frame 49 1/2 x 65 1/2 x 3 1/2 inches (125,7 x 166,4 x 8,9 cm) Private collection Courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York
Crawford Barton (1943-1993)
Barton was raised in a fundamentalist community in rural Georgia where he grew up shy and interested in art. He first began exploring the gay scene during his time at art school in Atlanta, where he would photograph the city's bars and clubs. He then moved to San Francisco where he captured the pleasure and pride of the emerging gay movement in the 1960s. He captured many of the icons of openly gay culture for the first time, from Pride parades to cross-dressing to leather garb. Image: <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Days-Hope-Crawford-Barton/dp/0854491740" target="_hplink">Amazon</a>
Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-1996)
Gonzalez-Torres was born in Cuba before moving to an orphanage in Madrid. He moved to New York City in 1979 where he became involved in the art scene and postmodern theory. He created quiet but emotionally overwhelming installations often addressing his experience with AIDS. His works, all labeled "Untitled," often used unexpected and replaceable materials like beads, light bulbs and candy. Additionally many of works contain only directions, making each installation only a manifestation of the idea of the piece. Poetically addressing matters both private and public, intimate and universal, Gonzalez-Torres shows that great hope can be found in small places. Image: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, "Untitled" (Perfect Lovers), 1987-1990. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. Gift of the Norton Family Foundation. © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation. Photo: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY.