Burning the Candle at Both Ends
Curatorial statement for Visual AIDS web gallery, November 2009
In the documentary Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis the luminary New York artist and filmmaker, interviewed shortly before his death in 1989, provocatively proclaimed that AIDS was the most glamorous way to die. He stated that he intentionally engaged in bareback sex in order to be infected with HIV, asking, "Why should only blacks and Puerto-Ricans be dying of AIDS and not me?"
Unlike most of his colleagues who struggled with the stigma and consequences of this awful virus, Jack Smith embraced it, going as far as to glorify it. He happily exchanged his underground celebrity status for a patient's bed in an AIDS care hospice where he was fed three hearty meals a day, up until the day when he could no longer eat.
Commenting on Smith's revelation, Thomas Kraemer, an independent researcher from Corvallis, Oregon, writes, "Today, I suspect people would be less charitable if they knew HIV 'gift giving' or 'bug chasing' was involved. However, [Smith] was clearly a pioneer in recognizing that the mythology around the heroic deaths from AIDS in the 1980s was 'glamorous' in an artistic way, if not in a rational way. Today, an AIDS death is no longer glamorous because there is no theatre of the absurd surrounding it. You get put in a standard nursing home to die with heterosexual geriatric patients."
Was it a coincidence that AIDS wiped out some of the most radical and experimental artists of the 80s? And was it a coincidence that they were just as radical and experimental in their private lives as in their art, "burning the candle at both ends"?
Everyone loves dead artists. Just try to imagine what the contemporary art world would be if Jack Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, Keith Haring, Paul Thek, Félix González-Torres, Marc Morrisroe, Peter Hujar and David Wojnarowicz—to name just a few most iconic AIDS casualties—were still among us.
Would they be as radical if they didn't know that their days were numbered? Or would they, too, end up doing Levi's and Gap commercials? How much did their chemical and hormonal imbalances contribute to their radicalism, their vision and practice? And would they be as celebrated now if they hadn't burnt their candles too soon?
These were the questions that went through my mind while I spent hours going through the immense Visual AIDS archives and looking for clues and answers in thousands of slides, folder after folder, page after page.
I couldn't help using the work of David Wojnarowicz as a starting point for my selection. I read his first Russian translations back as a teenager in Moscow and it was the most powerful and overwhelming introduction to the pain and agony of the AIDS epidemic in Reagan-era America. His work became a major inspiration for my own writings, art and activism.
Focusing on lesser known names, I discovered an array of great artists-both fallen soldiers, such as Robert Blanchon, Jimmy DeSana and Frank Moore, and our contemporaries Rene Capone, David King, Rogelio Mendoza, Gregory Veney, and Frederick Weston.
Yes, everyone loves dead artists. But that's exactly why Visual AIDS plays such an important role in archiving and publicizing the work of those who are still among us, living and struggling with the virus that defaced and distorted the entire course and history of contemporary art.