featured gallery for July 2017

Towards an AIDS Archive

“We knew that there were stories that needed to be preserved and retold—not about ‘victims’ but about the universes these artists inhabited; not about their illness, but about its irrelevance to their deepest life-affirming gift” – Frank Moore (1996b, 23).

In a sketchbook from the early 1990s artist Frank Moore articulates a vision for what would become The Archive Project. Moore concludes in bright red pen with four simple words, “Towards an AIDS ARCHIVE” (Moore 1993-1995). This gallery is a visual response to the vision of creating an archive to preserve and honor the works of HIV-positive artists. It charts through the work of its founders and early contributors the creation and development of The Archive Project and its digital counterpart the Artist+ Registry as a form of cure. Cure is both a noun and a verb. Its Latin roots are “cura” meaning “care” (Krysa 2015, 116) and “curare” meaning “to care for” (Glannon 2004, 71; Krysa 2015, 116). Its meaning extends to providing relief from a disease or ailment, naming a recovery to health, a preservation process for meats, and more abstractly, finding a solution to a problem. The Archive Project, a community-based archive that documents, makes accessible, preserves, and cares for the work of artists with HIV/AIDS, is a cure that combines relief, preservation, and solution to fight an ongoing epidemic. In preventing the loss of artists’ works it offers a means for healing and survival.

“For it is not right that there should be lamentation in the house of those who serve the Muses. That would not be fitting for us,” was Sappho’s advice for her daughter as she lay upon her deathbed. These words form the epigraph to curator and then Visual AIDS Executive Director Nick Debs’ opening essay in Arts Communities/ AIDS Communities: Realizing the Archive Project. This was a 1996 exhibition showcasing work by over one hundred artists who had contributed to the Archive Project in its first two years. Debs jumps quickly to the present conditions of the epidemic. He writes, “We are all too familiar with the grief and suffering caused by AIDS. We can’t help but cry, especially when we think of those we have lost, and ‘what might have been.’ But the normal human reaction to death, lamentation, can get out of hand. The tears we shed for the dead too often turn into tears for the facts of life, a desire to wish the facts of life away…AIDS is a fact: it is a disease caused by a physical agent, it causes death, it has killed many, and will continue to kill more. Cry for those who are in pain, but know crying won’t effect a cure(Ibid, 21). Visual representations of such pain and mourning abound, they include Lucretia Crichlow’s arresting drawing “Self-Portrait: Grief.” Turning to Visual AIDS’ role Debs continues, “‘Work for a cure:’ that has always been the philosophy of Visual AIDS, and it will continue to be so” (Ibid). When Arts Communities/AIDS Communities opened in early 1996 the prospect of a biomedical “cure” for HIV/AIDS, even in the limited sense of an effective treatment protocol, was unrealized. Yet, Visual AIDS’ vision of a cure was already expansive and holistic. As Debs explains, “And by cure we do not mean a medicine that will stop the mechanism of HIV within the human body. We mean a cure for the human impulses, which lead to such things as the destruction of the books of Sappho…these impulses are the same as those which cause the evisceration of social service agencies for those living with AIDS, the censoring of life by the religious right and the theory-obsessed left, and the material impoverishment of the majority of humankind” (1996, 21). He powerfully concludes, “We mean a cure of cruelty and fear” (Ibid). Since its inception the Archive Project has been a crucial component of Visual AIDS’ efforts to enact a cure for the stigma, cruelty, and discrimination faced by those living with HIV and AIDS.

The problem of documenting and preserving the work of artists living with HIV/AIDS was urgent and acute. In 1994 the New York City Department of Public Health estimates that thirteen percent of the arts world was living with HIV/AIDS (Hoot 1996, 15). The Archive Committee began as a conversation between Moore and art critic David Hirsh in January 1994 (Moore 1996a, 21). They invited to Moore’s SoHo loft a group of artists and community members to join in envisioning and constructing an AIDS archive. Early members included Moore, Hirsh, David Cabrera, Geoffrey Hendricks, Roberto Juarez, David Nelson, Eric Rhein, Charles Richardson, and Sur Rodney (Sur) as well as honorary members John DugdaleMartin Wong, and Lyle Ashton Harris. Their motivations for archiving crossed the affective and the intellectual, the personal and the professional. The Committee was concerned that for many artists living with HIV/AIDS two deaths were immanent. The first was a death of the physical body and, the second, the death of an artistic practice and career. It was for the second type that the archive could provide a fix (Visual AIDS 2012). Much as Peter Cherone’s pair who look as done as the “No Mores” that surround them and the figure in “Enough!” captured mid-shout, the sounds of “No More!” and “Enough!” seem reverberate still, encapsulating the Project’s stance against the epidemic.

In 1994 Moore described living as an HIV positive artist. Even as a “sort of lucky” one in regards to his health, Moore felt keenly a “background anxiety” and the quotidian, time consuming processes of maintaining such health—seeing multiple doctors, taking daily pills (33), just keeping up (Moore 1996a, 19). Moore’s painting “Everything I Own” represents for me that careful and complex balancing act. Many artists were spending thirty or forty percent of their time dealing with HIV/AIDS related concerns (Ibid). The toxic combination of health and financial issues meant that many stopped creating new works, and, as they were dying and after their deaths the work they had accomplished was lost, thrown out, or forgotten (Ibid). In the darkly funny, “The Archive Project (zine),” on a page titled “Mindful/Landfill” its anonymous creator illustrated this phenomenon. The page features a trashcan complete with an accompanying sewer rat. The text across the can spells out “life’s work.” It is captioned, “His name was Robert, cutest boy in the East Village—someone said. Molto Talento (Great Animal Sculpture) Now Landfill.” The experience of loss was and remains visceral. Roberto Juarez’s voice broke as he described for me how AIDS had “decimated” the lives of so many in his community. “I didn’t know what to do,” he said, “I thought that [the Archive Project] was the most amazing idea because there were so many people that were losing their lives, and had to worry that their artwork, their life’s work would not continue would not be cared for. I saw it over and over again. People’s families would come and just throw things out…it was real. It was terrifying…it just broke my heart” (Ibid).

Moore, affiliated both with Visual AIDS and The Archive Committee, proposed joining them to form The Archive Project in the fall of 1994 (Visual AIDS 2012). The archives became an important directive for Visual AIDS, a position it still occupies as the organization’s “heart” and “backbone” (McGowan 2016; Santos 2016). Photographer John Dugdale’s experiences were significant to the archives’ form. Dugdale was rapidly losing his eyesight from cytomegalovirus, yet with assistance he was able to continue to make, show, and document his photographs (Moore 1996a, 21). The Archive Project sought to make such assistance broadly accessible. The Archive Project thus began to focus on providing photo documentation of artists’ works, a literal process of fixing. They recruited professional photographers to donate a few hours of their time to shoot artists’ work at their studios or homes. In this pre-digital era documenting artworks had been previously out of reach for many. The Archive Project provided the artist copies of the slides, and kept one for the archives. The Archive Project came to house slides as well as press clippings, artist statements, printed invitations, small artworks, papers, and other ephemera. The stakes of documentation were high, for as Juarez put it, “if you don’t document things they just disappear.”

From the start outreach was central to The Archive Project’s work for a cure. The particularities of artistic practice mean many work alone, posing challenges in bringing The Archive Project to wide attention. These issues were, Moore said, “even more difficult when you are dealing with minority communities, communities that are, for the most part, cut of from much of the arts activities that go on in Manhattan”(1996a). Volunteers traveled across the city visiting arts organizations and seeking out artists within and beyond their networks. Their bodies moved across the City as vibrant and changing as that depicted in works from Martin Wong’s “Stanton Near Forsyth Street” to Jose Luis Cortes’ “Eros1.” As artists some also used their talents to draw in others. In 1995 Juarez created a recruitment poster. Its headline reads, “WANTED DEAD or ALIVE. ARTISTS and ART BY PEOPLE WITH HIV/AIDS FOR ARCHIVE AND EXHIBITIONS.” The poster’s text echoes its floral imagery, “We need you all: foxgloves, innocences, eyebrights. BE PART OF HISTORY, BE PART OF HERSTORY” (Juarez 1995). The opening line was “very provocative I thought,” Juarez said, “you don’t have to dead to be in the Archive Project, if you had HIV and were living with AIDS it was something that could help organize your life and help you with your work” (2016). Reading aloud for me the text he continued, “these are just names of flowers, we need all the foxgloves…I thought it was romantic” (Ibid).

Within the first year seventy-five artists had their work documented, and had donated their slides and other materials to The Archive Project (Pines 1996, 6). The first ten artists represented were Peter CheroneJose Luis CortesLucretia CrichlowWilliam Cullum, Leonard Davis, Garland Eliason-French, Anselmo Figueiredo, David Knudsvig, Rick Martinez, and Eric Rhein. Cure and curate are traceable to the same root, “cura” (Acevedo-Yates 2014, 13). Enabling the curatorial exposure of Artist Members’ work has always been central to The Archive Project’s vision of a cure. The work of those first contributors was the inspiration for a 1995 exhibition at PS 122, The First 10. Their work can be seen again in this gallery.

Since its founding The Archive Project has welcomed all artists living with HIV and the estates of artists who have died of AIDS to contribute. There has never been, Eric Rhein told me, “any kind of hierarchy or criteria of how known somebody was, or references required, any kind of accreditation in terms of what makes somebody an artist” (Ibid). Addressing the import of this unjuried collecting Debs wrote, “In documenting the work of all artists with HIV/AIDS, we preserve the wisdom of those who serve the Muses, and stop, for the moment, our sobbing. We follow Sappho’s command: we see the beauty such artists have made, whether that beauty be a representation, an object, or the very act of making…in collecting thousands of versions of the world, all different, we engage in a healthy blindness to so-called ‘quality.’ Knowing, somehow, that the ways up and down are at least similar, we document what we can get our hands on as quickly as possible. Time is of the essence, for all people, so let the future decide what is ‘worthwhile’…We must try to document everything, including the kitchen sink. And we must remember that the kitchen sink is beautiful” (Ibid). Building an archive around serostatus means that it includes a disparate range of work, materials, and artists. The archive’s openness to all artists with HIV/AIDS “corresponds with the theme of…HIV as a non-discriminating virus” Rhein noted. Members include canonized artists, well established but lesser known artists, emerging artists, and artists who come from outside art schools or commercial art systems. Director Esther McGowan points out that in the online Artist+ Registry, “If someone’s last name is Marston, they show up right next to Robert Mapplethorpe and that’s an amazing thing. When you look at who is represented in the Registry, you have Keith Haring and then someone who makes a living as a hairstylist in Kentucky who also creates beautiful photographs” (Ibid). Some of the featured works were made in response to the crisis and its consequences (Eric Rhein’s “Artistic Heritage” and Keith Haring’s “Stop AIDS”), but the archive also includes pieces that are not necessarily about or in response to HIV/AIDS (Garland Eliason-French’s “Graduation Day” and Lucretia Crichlow’s “Untitled” ). It is only by showcasing such a full breadth of work that the archives can, as former Executive Director Nelson Santos said, “break the stigma of who is living with HIV/AIDS” both the “variety, but also how people express themselves that way” (Ibid).

“The goal,” Sur Rodney (Sur) said, “was to collect the work of as many artists that we could that were working, that had either died or were still living. Just to see what it would look like. Period. Just to see what we could find. We didn’t want it to look a certain way, we didn’t know how it would look…” Community members founded The Archive Project as a cure for the neglect, loss, and destruction of the lives and the work of their fellow artists with HIV and AIDS. From the beginning the archive has provided a form of cure, one that intertwined art and activism in fight against the multiplicities of stigma, fear, and cruelty experienced by those living with HIV and AIDS. As the epidemic has evolved so has it archives, and Visual AIDS remains committed to deploying its materials and Artist Members to draw needed attention to contemporary concerns. The Archive Project and the Artist+ Registry now contain the work of more than 700 artists from across the globe, forming the largest registry of artists with HIV/AIDS all while keeping the vision of its founders for an AIDS archive alive. In Frank Moore’s painting “Dawn” the rooster crows out “tolerance! compassion!” and, finally, “survival!” The Archive Project is an answer to its call utilizing documentation, preservation, access, and care to work towards a cure in the present and for the future.

References

Acevedo-Yates, Carla. “Curating is a Double Game: Curare as an Alternative Model of Institutional Critique.” Master’s Thesis, Curatorial Studies, Bard College, 2014.

Debs, Nick. “Essay.” Arts Communities, AIDS Communities: Realizing the Archive Project, 20-21.New York: Visual AIDS, 1996.

Glannon, W. “Transcendence and Healing.” Journal of Medical Ethics 30 (2004): 70–73. doi: 10.1136/jmh.2002.000145.

Hoot, W.E. Scott. Estate Planning for Artists: Will Your Art Survive?. Columbia-VLA Journal of Law and the Arts. V. 1, no. 1 (Fall 1996), 15-46. Frank Moore Papers, MSS 135, Box 8, Folder 278, Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University.

Krysa, Joasia. “The Politics of Contemporary Curating: A Network Perspective.” In The Routledge Companion to Art and Politics, edited by Randy Martin, 121-144. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Juarez, Roberto. Interview with Marika Cifor. New York City, May 23, 2016.

McGowan, Esther. Interview with Marika Cifor. May 27, 2016.

Moore, Frank. “FM Notebook #82, 1993-1995.” Frank Moore Papers, MSS 135, Box 5, Folder 138, Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University.

---. “Frank Moore.” In Hoot, W.E. Scott. “Estate Planning for Artists: Will Your Art Survive?” Columbia-VLA Journal of Law and the Arts 1, no. 1 (Fall 1996a).

---. “The Archive Project: A Larger Vision.” Arts Communities, AIDS Communities: Realizing the Archive Project. New York: Visual AIDS, 1996b, pp. 22-23.

Pines, Lisa. “Forward.” Arts Communities, AIDS Communities: Realizing the Archive Project. New York: Visual AIDS, 1996.

Rhein, Eric. Interview with Marika Cifor. Jersey City, May 26, 2016.

Santos, Nelson. Interview with Marika Cifor. New York City, May 25, 2016.

Sur, Rodney (Sur). Interview by Marika Cifor. New York City, May 19, 2016.

Visual AIDS. “The Multitudes of Frank Moore.” Visual AIDS Web Gallery (November 2012), https://www.visualaids.org/gallery/detail/104.