Currently on display at the Loeb’s Focus Gallery is an exhibition entitled “Apocalypse Sky,” an assemblage of about 20 works of art made in reaction to the HIV/AIDS crisis of the ’80s and ’90s. The embryonic idea behind the show came about over three years ago, before COVID-19, with the prospect of building an exhibition around the “Apocalypse Series” (1988)—10 plates made by Keith Haring in collaboration with beat poet William S. Burroughs, who provided an accompaniment of prose poetry and audio recording from his own “Dead City Radio,” an album dedicated to Haring after his death in 1990.
Elizabeth Nogrady, who was the Loeb’s Curator of Academic Programs until 2023, had compiled works in the Loeb’s archives for a senior’s thesis on HIV/AIDS and art. She then came into dialogue with Professor of English Hiram Perez. “[Elizabeth’s] idea was that I could use the substance and structure of my Queer Studies seminar (WFQS 381) as a means for conceptualizing the shape and scope of the collection,” Perez told me. Perez and Nogrady worked to co-curate this show and slightly adjusted the footing of this exhibition, shifting the center of the exhibition from Haring’s work to art in reaction to HIV/AIDS in general.
Visually, Haring’s plates and Burroughs’ partnered prose are declarative—they express the anxieties, fear and outrage present in the moment they were made. The plates take inspiration from Burroughs’ “cut-up” technique—a random rearranging of found text into a new text (sometimes called a cento). “Mona Lisa” is defiled among phallic imagery; sperm mutate devilishly and grow horns; nuclear destruction litters the picture plane. It’s an impressive lexicon of disorder; it’s apocalyptic in imagery; a mirror of the chaotic 20th century—but with a keen sense of nonconformity and political critique. The wall-text for the fourth plate reads: “The mundane apparatus of middle-class domesticity—vacuum cleaners and electric toothbrushes—are animated into violent revolt.” The prints were made in 1988, the year of Haring’s AIDS diagnosis, which would take his life only two years later. Thus, there is a sense of immediacy or urgency that permeates from the screen prints and text. Compounding Haring’s realization of his own approaching death is the urgency of getting the public to react to the HIV/AIDS crisis in time to save lives. As Perez put it, “[There is] political urgency that the artists and activists felt in fighting to save lives, sometimes lives of loved ones or even their very own.”
Urgency/immediacy is a thread that runs through many of the other works on display, especially in the various ephemera that lie on a central table. “Part of the reason we wanted to include the ephemera was to show that much of the activism was happening outside of fine art circles,” Nogrady explained. We talked about how a whole militia of activists, from graphic designers to poets, were deployed to use visual and artistic terms in order to bring attention to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. “[From stickers to pins to posters to zines,] we wanted to show the layers of imagery that were being disseminated in the service of activism,” Nograndy told me as we talked about ephemera in youth culture.
Immediacy continues in the exhibition as we reach text-based work done by Jenny Holzer and the activist group ACT UP. The strikingly infamous poster made by ACT UP contains two words done in white, boxy, capitalized letters: “SILENCE=DEATH.” There is no room for aloof contemplation, a patient waiting for some content to surface from abstract form. This use of text is striking: Crisis is at hand!
I was especially fascinated by the affinity between artists and poets in the exhibition. Photographer Duane Michals’ visually lyric photographic series “The Dream of Flowers” recalls lines from Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”: “And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves./ Tenderly will I use you curling grass,/ It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men.”; the placard for Robert Mapplethorpe’s work references his love of radical French poet Arthur Ribuad; the Haring and Burroughs collaboration, which Timothy Leary would call “like Dante and Titian getting together”. There is some clear rapport between art and writing. When I raised this connection with Perez, he pointed me to an upcoming talk on campus which will be given by Professor Ricardo Montez from The New School on Feb. 23. He will be speaking to a queer genealogy that connects Haring’s writing-as-art practice to his collaborators and predecessors. “[The correlation between poetry and art comes from] an urgent need for queer storytelling to counteract the falsehoods and biases disseminated by the state, corporate media, and mainstream cultural production,” Perez explained.
Returning to this sense of urgency/immediacy that emanated from the artworks, I wondered if I could draw this feeling into the present. After all, an exhibition is more than a reflection on artwork of the past; it is a restaging of artwork for our own time, and we may have a lot to learn from the art at hand. I asked Perez: “Is there a sense of immediacy in the curation of this show? That is, does our present moment, in any way, immediately necessitate a revisiting or re-exhibiting of this work and the historical moment from which it came? Essentially, why this, why now?” “Absolutely,” he began, “I hope that the sense of immediacy so palpable to you and hopefully other visitors awakens similar feelings of urgency in regard to the present-day struggle to eradicate HIV/AIDS.” Perez wants to remind us that there is an ongoing fight to eradicate HIV/AIDS and ask why HIV/AIDS has seemingly vanished from the agenda of various national organizations. Additionally, there are still huge health related disparities between privileged and marginalized communities, disparities that are made clear by the varying levels of devastation COVID has caused amongst different communities. The exhibition’s work is being extended via the creation of a WordPress website, which will act as a jumping off point for people learning about HIV/AIDS. Specifically, the website hopes to probe how race, class and gender also played a role in the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic (and all health and mental health crises). So as much as this exhibit is a retrospective look at art and activism in the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the ’80s and ’90s, the questions it raises are equally relevant to our own time.
Apocalypse Sky: Art, AIDS, and Activism in New York City, 1982–1992, is open through Aug. 20, 2023 at the Focus Gallery in the Loeb.