Hide/Seek: Raising Awareness of AIDS Through Art

On October 30, 2011, the National Portrait Gallery opened its first major museum exhibition to focus on themes of sexual differences in modern American portraiture. Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture brings together a wide range of media, including paintings, photographs, works on paper, film, and installation art. Hide/Seek takes a historical approach, beginning in the late nineteenth century to the present. The exhibition “considers such themes as the role of sexual difference in depicting modern America; how artists explored the fluidity of sexuality and gender; how major themes in modern art – especially abstraction were influenced by social marginalization; and how art reflected society’s evolving and changing attitudes toward sexuality, desire, gender norms, and romantic attachment.” [1]

Throughout the exhibition, the artists respond in powerful ways to the Stonewall Riots of 1969, the AIDS epidemic, and postmodern themes of identity. Hide/Seek does a phenomenal job in highlighting how art and identity are indistinguishably bound together, particularly in the genre of portraiture. The artwork during the AIDS epidemic brought the struggles of the gay community to the forefront, humanizing their loss and cementing their place in American society.

Set against the mass political protest movements of the 1960’s, the Stonewall riots of 1969 and its aftermath signaled the beginning of the LGBT community no longer remaining invisible in society. To “come out” was to take a personal and political stand, which held both cultural and artistic consequences. A change occurred in the culture so much so “that what had previously been hidden, coded, or omitted could now be openly expressed,” and artist such as Keith Herring during the time made it clear that we as a gay community are here to stay. [2]

Keith Haring/Keith Haring Foundation Ignorance = Fear, 1989
Keith Haring/Keith Haring Foundation Ignorance = Fear, 1989

The art that struck the strongest chord came out of one of the worst health crises in American history, the on-going AIDS/HIV global epidemic. The epidemic both devastated and transformed the gay community. Having AIDS was stigmatized to the gay community and  many believed that the afflicted deserved what they got for their immorality. [3] Yet, the epidemic yanked everybody awake and pushed gayness and queerness out of its subcultural and fully into the public realm. Many of the most compelling artworks of the late-80s and early-90s spawned from the AIDS crisis, creating an emotional record of resistance to those who exploited tragedy for political gain.

“Artistically, the response was elegiac, moving, and profound,” such as Keith Haring’s Unfinished Painting painted in the same year of his passing due to AIDS complications at thirty-one years of age in 1990. Haring was a graffiti artist and social activist whose unique style and response to New York City’s street culture of the 1980s boosted him to fame. Part of Haring’s importance as an artist was how his art raised awareness of AIDS. The incompleteness of Haring’s Unfinished Painting captures the viewers’ attention and demands them to confront the results of AIDS, especially under the weight of Haring’s death shortly after its completion.

Keith Haring (American, 1958–1990). Unfinished Painting, 1989. Courtesy of Katia Perlstein, Brussels, Belgium ©Keith Haring Foundation
Keith Haring (American, 1958–1990). Unfinished Painting, 1989. Courtesy of Katia Perlstein, Brussels, Belgium ©Keith Haring Foundation

Similar to Haring, Flexi Gonzales-Torres used art to highlight the totality of AIDS. In Portrait of Ross in L.A, Torres used a candy installation to bring attention to the loss of his partner Ross Laycock. The installation featured a mass of spilled candy that weighed 175 pounds, Ross’s weight when he was healthy. The artist invites the viewer to take away a candy until gradually the spill diminishes and disappears; it is then replenished, and the cycle of life continues. By inviting the visitor to take a piece of candy, the artist comments on how society itself is “abetting the continued martyrdom of those who suffered from AIDS.” [5]

"Untitled" (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991 © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation.
“Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991
© The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation.

According to the World Health Organization, “HIV is the world’s leading infectious killer, an estimated 39 million people have died since the first cases were reported in 1981 and 1.5 million people died of AIDS-related causes in 2013.” [6] AIDS is not a gay disease; it crosses all racial, social-economic, age, and sexual orientation lines. Nothing made this clearer than the AIDS Memorial Quilt of 1987. In an effort to document the lives of those many-feared history would neglect, a group from San Francisco created a memorial for those who had died of AIDS, to help people understand the devastating impact of the disease.

On October 11, 1987, the Quilt was displayed for the first time on the National Mall, during the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. The Quilt covered the space of a football field and included 1,920 panels. Half a million people visited the Quilt that weekend. Today the Quilt is a powerful visual reminder of the totality of the AIDS epidemic. [7]

AIDS Quilt
AIDS Quilt

Presenting issues surrounding LGBT themes may be one of the biggest challenges and opportunities mainstream cultural organizations face today. It is way past time for mainstream art history to acknowledge the shaping role of sexual difference in modern art. The challenge for art museums is not just to mount an occasional token show about LGBT issues; rather, it has to include an everyday understanding of gay or queer issues in its regular discourse. “Equally important is the need to assess the price that acceptance into history, and into the world, on mainstream terms may exact”, in culture institutions today. [8]

[1]  “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture”, National Portrait Gallery, http://npg.si.edu/exhibit/hideseek/.

[2] “Hide/Seek”, National Portrait Gallery, http://npg.si.edu/exhibit/hideseek/.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Global HIV/AIDS Overview,” AIDS, https://www.aids.gov/federal-resources/around-the-world/global-aids-overview/.

[7] “The AIDS Memorial Quilt, The Names Project, “http://www.aidsquilt.org/about/the-aids-memorial-quilt.

[8] Holland Cotter, “Sexuality in Modernism: The (Partial) History,”  New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/11/arts/design/11hide.html.

21 thoughts on “Hide/Seek: Raising Awareness of AIDS Through Art

  1. Kim, I like that you highlight that AIDs is not a gay disease, but that it has affected people of every class, race, and sexual orientation. The LGBT community have so much to be proud of, and it pains me when I hear comments about how AIDs/HIV is a punishment for their “choices.” It is important for museums to focus on the accomplishments of the LGBT community in spite of the harassment they have received and show how they have worked to overcome these prejudices. This is why Hide/Seek is such an important and moving exhibit.

  2. Kim, your blog post highlights how art can be a very powerful tool for the both the artist and the viewer to understand different identities and to grapple with issues like AIDS. Doing the reading for this week reminded me that I have seen “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in LA) at the Art Institute of Chicago. Even though I am not very knowledgable about art and it is not where my passion lies, this piece made a bigger impression on me than any other work I saw that day. I think it was because at first glance I thought it was fun, I got to interact with art and eat a piece of candy. But when I got up closer and read the label, I felt a little duped in a way, like “haha you’ve just unknowingly contributed to Ross’ death all over again!” I guess what I’m trying to say is that the piece was very powerful and its theme stuck with me well after my museum visit.

    1. Thank you, Carly! Before writing this post I could not remember seeing any of these works before, but your post jogged a memory of mine! I remember seeing Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in LA) at the Fort Worth Modern Museum of Art, my freshman year of high school. I visited the museum with my high school art club, and this was my first visit ever to a museum. I wish I had a stronger response to the work, but I only remember all of the candy was yellow, and the lady talked to use about how it represented something larger and they replaced it once the last piece was gone. Now, this work means so much more to me.

  3. I was fortunate to visit Hide/Seek with a dear friend of mine. One thing that struck me was the candy exhibit as it was replenished during my visit. The curator brought in the candy via a red bag. There was a discussion about the AIDS Ribbon color and how it came to symbolize AIDS.

    Either way, I was fascinated through change in time. You see the homoerotic nature in sports and military, basically in closed doors. Then, it was out in the open with a lot of oppression. AIDs and the reclaiming the openness. Hide/Seek does teach a lot about the intersection in identities and challenges of AIDS.

    1. Thank you, Matt for sharing that. The replenishing of the candy offers a great opportunity create dialogue around the larger message of the artwork.

  4. I liked the history of the gay community that you incorporated into the exhibits we learned about in this week’s readings. I would be interested to know if there have been any major exhibitions since Hide/Seek that focus on art and sexual difference, and how museums have reacted to the changing role and visibility that LGBT people and communities have in society..

    1. Thank you Meghan! You asked a great question and (there’s not much but) there are some interesting things going on in museums related to LGBTQ issues.

      I have possted some links below.

      The GLBT History Mueum: http://www.glbthistory.org/museum/
      The National LGBT Museum: https://nationallgbtmuseum.org/#/home/
      Gueering The Museum: http://queeringthemuseum.org/
      The Leslie + Lohman Musuem of Gay and Lesibian Art: http://www.leslielohman.org/calendar/exhibitions.html
      A Proud Day at American History Museum as LGBT Artifacts Enter the Collections: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/will-grace-affirms-role-american-history-180952400/#QLeCLl5XB7L0jBVD.99
      Levine Museum makes history with LGBT exhibit: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/article9142955.html

      Happening This Summer!
      LGBT Civil Rights anniversary exhibit to open this summer: http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/heardinthehall/LGBT-Civil-Rights-events-museum-exhibits-planned-for-this-summer.html#tbX5llbUaYdCFDi5.99

  5. I thought the Hide/Seek readings for this week were a unique way of looking at LGBT communities. I’ve seen history museums talk about LGBT stories, but I’ve never seen an art museum do the same. It’s only thing to read about the devastation of AIDS, but actually seeking the portraits of those who lived with and died from AIDS is an entirely different experience.

    I think you really got to the heart of the matter when you wrote “The challenge for art museums is not just to mount an occasional token show about LGBT issues; rather, it has to include an everyday understanding of gay or queer issues in its regular discourse.” It’s not enough to do an exhibit about LGBT issues; those issues and themes have to be incorporated into other exhibits and programs. LGBT history is part of our history, not separate.

    1. I was thinking the same thing Emily. I feel like when we look at and discuss LGBT communities we do so in a historical context or through dialogue. I don’t necessarily see art museums opening the discussion. That’s not to say that art doesn’t sexualize these relationships, but I am not sure that I have seen a lot of art exhibits that send a powerful message like “Portrait of Loss, L.A.”. It was moving to read about these art pieces.

    2. Thank you, Emily and Malissa! LGBT history is American history, and again I strongly agree that museums need to tell these stories. I am all for creating discussion around these issues (life goal) and I have not seen this exhibition in person, but from what I have seen I’m not sure if the museum did anything to promote dialogue. However, this exhibit presented an excellent opportunity to do programming and discussion sessions.

  6. This is a great post! Thank you for highlighting the impact art can have on a community and how it can raise awareness about a certain issue. I think the AIDS Quilt is so effective because it works on a micro and a macro level. You can examine squares dedicated to AIDS victims and think about people on an individual level, and then you can draw back and look at the quilt as a whole to get a sense of the devastating losses that AIDS has caused. It highlights both individuals and community.

    1. Thank you!! I agree with you and I think you said it best. The quilt hits on all levels and it’s a powerful humanizing work of art.

    2. Miranda I had the same thought when considering the AIDS quilt! It has a powerful message no matter if you’re looking at an individual square or the quilt as whole.

  7. One part of Hide/Seek that really struck me was the information provided about Bill T. Jones’s art: “This exclusion—the refusal to see, even if to condemn—marked more than the simple quarantining of the gay presence in American life, a quarantine that was proposed during the AIDS epidemic.” I think exhibits like Hide/Seek lift that quarantine and show LGBT people for what they really are, people. It is tragic that horrific episodes like the AIDS epidemic come to define a community/communities even though they are much richer. More exhibits like Hide/Seek would allow more people to see and to understand a more complete story.

    1. Thank you!! I agree that we need more exhbits like Hide/Seek and more discussion around these issues. Another quote that struck me was: “In the midst of the AIDS crisis, the English poet Thom Gunn said he never thought there was a ‘gay community’…until the thing was vanishing.”

  8. Hide/Seek is a unique exhibit that discusses so many critical themes. I believe that museums should talk about issues like AIDS and work on creating dialogue to debunk stereotypes about gay and transgender issues. I really like the fact that Hide/Seek is an interdisciplinary exhibit and covers the history and diverse experiences of the gay community. People need to be aware of the different experiences and stories so they are no longer ignorant to these stories and are more accepting of everyone. After all sexuality is one aspect of someone’s identity and not all encompassing of what makes up their identity.

    1. Thank you Falica!! You make a great point. Sexuality is only one apsect of someone’s idenity and we as a socity should not place judgement on others because of that one side of them.

  9. “It is way past time for mainstream art history to acknowledge the shaping role of sexual difference in modern art. The challenge for art museums is not just to mount an occasional token show about LGBT issues; rather, it has to include an everyday understanding of gay or queer issues in its regular discourse.” I think these words are spot on, Kim. I have distinct memories of seeing the AIDS quilt on display in Detroit when I was pretty young and just marveled at the sheer size and number of people affected. That coupled with Magic Johnson’s very public announcement and embracing of his celebrity to address HIV/AIDS issues helped me to understand its significance at a very young age. I was lucky to be in the right place and time to learn about this when I was so young, but not everyone has that benefit. Museums can do so much more to raise awareness about how this affects communities, particularly in art museums as artistic expression and sexuality are so intertwined.

    1. Thank you Noah!!! Thank you also for sharing your experience, I agree that museums (especially art museums) need to do a lot more to raise awareness about these issues.

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