If you’re going to the galleries next Friday, you’ll walk through darkened rooms and see blank walls. If you’re meeting someone at the Art Institute, the lions may be draped with black cloth. And if you happen to be in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, you won’t see Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein. In its place will be a small placard announcing that across the nation that day is “A Day Without Art.”
Friday, December 1, is also the World Health Organization’s “World AIDS Day,” and by shrouding or just plain taking down their art, galleries and museums are dramatizing the impact of AIDS on the art world. Catherine Edelman, owner of a River North photography gallery, is one of the event’s two local organizers. “Artists are dropping every day,” she says. “I don’t know any gallery which doesn’t have at least one artist who is dying.”
Artists felled by the disease include the famous, such as Robert Mapplethorpe, and countless others with smaller followings: Peter Hujar, Cookie Mueller, and Chicago’s Gabor, to name but a smattering of the dead. Then there are those who, though still living, are sick, such as Keith Haring, whose graffiti-inspired work remains exuberant despite his diagnosis. And finally there are those artists who are part of the estimated two million Americans who are infected with HIV but still asymptomatic.
Different institutions will observe the day in different ways, but the essential act is “obstructing the viewer from looking at art that day, to show what could happen in the art world if this epidemic is not taken care of,” says Edelman. “When you are going out for the day with your friend to look at art, and you can’t look at anything, it’s a strong message. I think it’s going to be a very emotional experience for those who are walking around the district.”
According to Jeff Abell, assistant director of the Randolph Street Gallery and the event’s other Chicago organizer, political circumstances have given the act of obscuring art another layer of significance. “People such as Robert Mapplethorpe–who even after his death is extremely controversial because of the fact that he would openly deal with homoerotic material–are subject to censorship. The right wing is trying to suppress him and many other artists dealing with issues surrounding AIDS, especially homosexuality.” AIDS politics as well as the AIDS virus threaten the art world.
Artist David Wojnarowicz was threatened by those politics. According to the New York Times, it was his politically explosive catalogue essay that caused the National Endowment for the Arts to announce that it was withdrawing a grant from a New York AIDS exhibition. That decision sparked a fire storm of protest, and the NEA reversed itself the following week–with the qualification that no money go to the catalogue containing Wojnarowicz’s essay.
Even though his work remains censored–or at least unfunded–Wojnarowicz sees the issue as much larger than artistic freedom. The issue, he says, is gay people’s “legislated silence, and the legislated invisibility and silence of people with AIDS.”
Wojnarowicz–who also lives under the other threat, that of an AIDS diagnosis–voices a similar caveat for “A Day Without Art.” “Again, to bring AIDS into an art-world context and leave it there would be a mistake,” he says. “Raising the issues of AIDS in the art world should, as far as I’m concerned, be connected to the issues of AIDS across the nation and around the world.”
For the organizers, those connections are a large part of what “A Day Without Art” is all about. “Art has always taken a role to commemorate, to be activist, to be political, to weep, to remember,” insists Thomas Sokolowski, a member of the event’s steering committee and the director of New York University’s Grey Art Gallery and Study Center. “If this can in some way make a palpable effect on someone’s consciousness, then I think the next steps for fund-raising, for political action, for general humanistic enlightenment, are very strong.”
Edelman agrees. “The action is just like civil disobedience,” she says. “Anybody who’s going around the district that day is going to constantly be going into all these empty, dark places. And they’re going to have to ask themselves, what is going on here? And that question is going to force them to get educated as to what is going on in the world as far as the AIDS crisis is concerned.”
Ironically, given all the concern about a global perspective, the second city was almost passed over. Edelman says she found out about the event “really late in the game,” through a chance conversation with another gallery owner. When she called Visual AIDS, the New York-based group organizing the event, Edelman says she “discovered there was a huge planning effort already under way throughout the United States. And Chicago was left out.”
Why? “There’s really no good reason,” she says. “I think we were left out because we’re the midwest, and people forget about us a lot.”
Despite the late start, Edelman and Abell have managed to enlist more than 50 galleries and museums in the city–an “insane” task, according to Edelman. But they had their motivations. “Not only is my closest friend dying of AIDS,” says Edelman, “but one of the gallery artists is very, very close to death at this point.”
When that artist dies, long before his time, both a life and a lifetime of creation will be blacked out. And that’s the point.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.