The 12th annual Visual AIDS Vanguard Awards (VAVA Voom) recognize the contributions of individuals who, through their work, talent and dedication, strengthen our communities and reinforce the mission of Visual AIDS. This year Visual AIDS is proud to honor Zoe Leonard, Sur Rodney (Sur) and Eric Rhein and recognize Brice Brown.
Sur is an archivist, writer and curator most renown for his position as co-director of the Gracie Mansion Gallery from 1983-88. The gallery was central to establishing Lower Manhattan's East Village scene as an internationally recognized viable art district actively historicized for cultivating a host of young and emerging artists to international acclaim.
His work with artists estates, at cause to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, led him to help establish Visual AIDS Frank Moore Archive Project while serving as a member of the organization's board for more than a decade. Along with his longtime partner Geoffrey Hendricks (a queer artist associated with FLUXUS) he collaborated on a series of curatorial projects and exhibitions relating to art and AIDS. Sur's writing on AIDS related exhibitions is published in the catalog for the current traveling exhibition Art AIDS America. In 2013, Sur and Kris Nuzzi curated Visual AIDS' 25th anniversary exhibition NOT OVER. Here, Visual AIDS interviews Nuzzi about their time together and Sur's commitment to art, AIDS and activism.
Visual AIDS: You co-curated the Visual AIDS exhibition NOT OVER with Sur Rodney (Sur). Can you tell us about NOT OVER and describe your process of curating the show together?
Kris Nuzzi: When Visual AIDS Executive Director Nelson Santos first asked me to co-curate the 25th anniversary exhibition with Sur Rodney (Sur), I was as nervous as I was honored. We started by discussing our own experiences and quickly realized that our diverse relationships to Visual AIDS were at the core of what we wanted the exhibition to explore. We knew right away we were an unlikely, but perfectly matched duo.
Not only did we want to look back at the history of Visual AIDS, which was vital for an anniversary exhibition, we also knew we had to address what was happening today. We began to link artists of a generation born after 1970 to an earlier generation of artists that were active in the 1980s. Between Sur's lived experiences and my work with the archive, we had a good idea which historical artists we wanted to include. So, we began to focus on studio visits with living artists, who worked in the 1980s as well as artists of a younger generation.
That was where the real fun began—especially for Sur. I soon found out that his passion for the project was in finding out what kinds of work were being created today, while my focus was learning about the artists I'd sadly never get the chance to meet. It seemed to bring him back to the days in the East Village curating shows at Gracie Mansion Gallery, where he worked directly with artists throughout the creative process to create an exhibit. Sur was really great at being part of an artist's process from conception to completion. By creating these layered connections and showcasing work by both historical and contemporary artists, the exhibition became a cross-generational dialogue, which not surprisingly mirrored our budding friendship.
For almost a year, Sur and I would travel to studios in every borough, even via Skype from the comfort of his Greenwich Street abode. Not surprisingly, some of the contents of his home would serve as inspiration for the exhibition. If you want a crash course in curatorial studies, save your money and curate a show with Visual AIDS and Sur. It was one of the most formative exhibitions I've worked on to date; would do it again in a heartbeat.
VA: What did you learn from Sur about the work of HIV+ artists and the cultural legacy of the AIDS movement over the course of curating NOT OVER?
KN: I think Sur is a keeper of much of the cultural legacy of the AIDS movement in the East Village. The breadth of his knowledge about the cultural production of that time is unlike that of any other person I've met. Both as the co-director of Gracie Mansion Gallery, championing the careers of so many incredible artists, and as a friend—physically rescuing many of his fellow artist's works from being discarded or destroyed.
What is great for us is that he is generous with these experiences and a natural storyteller. Because of this, he has been able to place many incredible artists back into the conversation and continue to preserve their legacies. He made me a lifelong fan of artists like Nicolas Moufarrege (1948–85), Andreas Senser (1942–89), Brian Weil (1951-1999), Bern Boyle (1951–92) and Tim Greathouse (1950-1998). He knew all of them. He cared for them and curated their work into exhibitions. Going through pictures, ephemera and artworks in his apartment, which often felt like opening a time capsule, I began to feel like I knew these artists personally, and to this day I have a deeper appreciation for their life and work.
VA: Describe Sur’s process of talking to artists and conducting studio visits.
KN: He is the most engaged person I've ever attended a studio visit with. He offered advice when needed, but really just listened and absorbed everything the artist was saying. I remember one particular visit with playwright and video artist Hayat Hyatt very well. Hayat brought us to a studio space in Williamsburg. The space was dimly lit and empty, except his computer and three stools. I would later find out he rented the space for our visit. I remember the visit being magical. We sat for what felt like hours talking about Marlon Riggs, villanelle poetic form, and watching numerous short films together. Afterwards, Sur even invited Hayat to attend a writing workshop with Other Countries, a writers’ collective by and for Black gay men, who were featured in Riggs' ground breaking film Tongues Untied. That kind of generosity is the power of Sur.
VA: Do you remember any particularly noteworthy anecdotes about Sur’s time in the East Village at Gracie Mansion Gallery and elsewhere from your conversations?
KN: I honestly wish I walked around with a tape recorder. Luckily, we have a shared email account that archives almost 1,000 emails with artists and each other discussing our process (that we still use from time to time to this day). One story that always stuck out to me is when Sur and Gracie rented a stretch limo and parked in front of Leo Castelli Gallery and invited gallery goers to come into the back seat to view the work of Buster Cleveland. Sur stood on the sidewalk offering cherries to those who walked by, while Gracie did her magic selling work from the back seat. The ingenious idea became known as the “Limousine Show”... only in the East Village and in the 80s! How I wish I was there to be greeted by Sur with a plate of cherries.
He also talked about his decision to leave the gallery in 1988. After the deaths of Nicolas Moufarrege, Timothy Greathouse, and many other artists and collaborators, Sur made the difficult decision to leave the gallery to take care of his friends and organize numerous estates. That story always stuck with me. It puts a lot of what was happening at the time into perspective.
VA: Sur served as a member of the Visual AIDS board for more than a decade and helped establish the Visual AIDS Frank Moore Archive Project. As a curator from a younger generation engaging the work of Visual AIDS in part through the legacy of these projects stewarded by Sur, what has Visual AIDS meant to your career over the years?
KN: To say Visual AIDS has been a lifeline for me is an understatement. When I first became involved with the organization over 10 years ago, I was studying art history at Pratt and working on a qualifying paper about Gran Fury. I don't think I really knew at the time how important this organization would become to me. I also was a dancer and teaching. The dance community was hit hard by the AIDS epidemic, especially as the practice relies so much on your own body and mentorship. This was something that the community was still very much discussing and feeling in the early 2000s (still today). It wasn't until after the deaths of a close friend and my mother that I realized how much this community of people really meant to me.
I was surrounded by people who not only knew what I was going through (they themselves losing numerous friends and family members), but were tirelessly working towards preserving the legacies of loved ones. Sur being a huge part of that, helping establish the Frank Moore Archive Project with Geoffrey Hendricks, Frank Moore and others in 1996, which paved the way for how we know and remember many of the lives we've lost.
When I think about it, my entire career trajectory can be traced back to one organization—Visual AIDS. I am now the Associate Director of Pavel Zoubok Gallery. Pavel is also a former board member and represents the estate of archive member Barton Lidice Benes. After we consigned one of Barton's works from Pavel for NOT OVER, Sur randomly bumped into Pavel on the street; shortly after, my phone rang and Pavel asked if I was looking for a job. Coincidentally, I was, and the rest is history. Now, I'm lucky to be able to continue some of the work we started with this exhibition. I have a feeling there will be more to come from the two of us. That, in a nutshell, is the power of Sur and Visual AIDS.
VA: Describe Sur Rodney (Sur) in one sentence.
KN: Sur Rodney (Sur) is a connector and fierce organizer—he's simply magical.
Kris Nuzzi is a Brooklyn based independent curator and is currently the Associate Director at Pavel Zoubok Gallery. She received her BA in Art History from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and her MA from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. She was the recipient of the 2012 Lori Ledis Curatorial Fellowship at the BRIC Rotunda Gallery and the 2008 Curatorial Fellow at Artists Space. As an independent curator, she has organized exhibitions at Pavel Zoubok Gallery, La MaMa Galleria, BRIC Rotunda Gallery, Radiator Gallery, Terminal Warehouse, among others. She was a panelist for (re)Presenting AIDS: Culture and Accountability at CUNY Graduate Center, New York as well as Making Sense of Paper, Glitter and Life, a curator discussion at La MaMa Galleria, New York. In 2013, Kris co-curated NOT OVER: 25 Years of Visual AIDS with Sur Rodney (Sur).