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Above left: Known as the AIDS logo, this knock off of the famous LOVE painting by Robert Indiana was created in 1987 by Canada-based General Idea.

Above center: One day of AZT and One Year of AZT, which visualize the massive amounts of AZT pills once required to treat AIDS and HIV, is part of the General Idea exhibition now on view at The Warhol.

Above right: Each year for the
past 10 years, Visual AIDS has produced a poster for distribution across the United States. In many instances, the pinning up of the poster was a statement in and of itself.














An Artist Finds His Core

“ AIDS has totally colored my art and my life,” says Dennis Bergevin.

Photos: Lisa Kyle




A history of a disease and the arts campaign to stop it.

In 1981—often referred to as the birth of AIDS—a deadly disease with no name was first identified by physicians. About 300 people were diagnosed with the ailment that year, and 130 people died from it. One year later, researchers knew enough to understand that it was sexually transmitted (although, at the time, they thought only gay men were susceptible) and transmitted through the blood, which called the safety of America’s blood supply into question. And they gave it a name: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS.

By 1985, the numbers were shockingly higher: 12,000 Americans were known to have AIDS and 7,000 died from it that year.

“ I remember it just sort of started from there,” Sokolowski says. “There started to be articles in the paper about AIDS. I was living in the Village and, being a gay person and being involved in the art world, I’d read about this dancer or that singer dying of AIDS. And then, in 1989 and 1990, two of my dear friends died.”

Sokolowski’s friends were among the 60,000 people to die from the disease in 1989 and 1990. By then, the U.S. government had launched a national education campaign to inform the public about AIDS and researchers had pinpointed the virus that leads to full-blown AIDS—the HIV virus. They had also developed the first drug known to temper the disease, AZT.

But the public was still afraid to shake hands with AIDS patients. Kids infected with the disease—mostly hemophiliacs, such as 13-year-old Ryan White, who made national news—were still being barred from schools. And, because gay men were the most affected by the disease and the arts communities of California and New York had many gay members, the art world was still reeling from the loss of so many of its own.

The Cycle of Art
One night, at Sokolowski’s Manhattan apartment, a group of arts-community friends sat around a table for dinner and asked ‘what can we do?’ to bring AIDS into the general public’s consciousness. “We felt strongly that we had clout in the art world,” Sokolowski recalls.

The result of that dinner—and the monthly meetings that followed for years—was the 1989 formation of Visual AIDS, a group dedicated to using the arts to bring public attention to the AIDS crisis. The group would go on to found “Day Without Art.” And it would create perhaps the most universally recognizable symbol—the red ribbon—which stood for the clarity, unity, compassion, and determination that soon took over the fight against AIDS.

Visual AIDS’ first nationwide effort was a December 1st “Day Without Art,” when some of the nation’s museums shut their doors—symbolizing what would happen if AIDS wiped out the arts community—while others remained open but addressed the AIDS issue in other ways. The event, which would eventually foster World AIDS Day, received national media coverage, including calls to Sokolowski from network anchors Peter Jennings and Dan Rather. The next year, Visual AIDS came up with the idea of a “Night Without Light,” when 27 of New York City’s major skyscrapers, bridges, and many of the theater district’s marquees went dark.

But the culmination of Visual AIDS’ efforts was the creation of the little red ribbon on a gold safety pin. Sokolowski and his group managed to get presenters and awardees at the 1991 Tony Awards ceremony to wear them on national television throughout the evening. The rest is history. The ribbons are now a global symbol of the commitment to fight AIDS, which today is killing Third World populations of men, women, and children at the staggering rate of three
million annually.

“ Looking back on those years, I am so proud of what a group of committed young people could do,” Sokolowski says. “We never gave in; and, as a result, things got better. Now, the times require new blood infused with a new vigilence.”

A Year of AZT
About the same time the New York arts community began collaborating en masse to
give its own AIDS crisis a voice, a group of three artists who had been collaborating since 1969 came up with what would soon be known as the “AIDS logo.”

General Idea, a Canada-based art team formed by Jorge Zontal, Felix Partz, and AA Bronson, gained international attention in the ’70s for its contemporary work in video, photography, performance art, and installations. The three artists were pioneers of the alternative community, and the products of their personal and professional union became almost legendary, especially among young artists. In 1987, they created their most famous work, known as the AIDS logo, by transforming Pop artist Robert Indiana’s famous LOVE painting into AIDS.

Their prolific partnership ended in 1994, when both Zontal and Partz died of AIDS.

General Idea Editions: 1967-1995, showing at The Warhol through December 31, is the first complete retrospective of General Idea’s mass-produced articles. It features more than 200 prints, postcards, posters, photo-based projects, series publications, flags, and crests produced by General Idea between 1967 and 1995. Created and first exhibited by the Blackwood Gallery of the University of Toronto, the exhibition at The Warhol was doubled in size to include the group’s two AIDS-related installations from 1991: One Day of AZT and One Year of AZT.

The first features five giant-sized pills on the floor, representing the daily dose of AZT medication taken early on by people with HIV. The companion installation features 1,825 oversized pills stuck, in calendar form, on the room’s four walls, representing the annual dose of AZT that people with HIV had to take in the ’80s to ward off full-blown AIDS.

“ They have an enormous physical presence as well as an enormous historical and emotional presence,” says John Smith, assistant director for collections and research at The Warhol, of the AZT installations. They also represent the chilling tone of much of the AIDS-related art in the early days of the epidemic.

“ Much of that art work was made by people who are dead now from AIDS—and a lot of the art was in response to the sheer quantity of people dying in the arts community,” says AA Bronson.

“ Now that the death rate is lower (in the United States), I think there’s a much less visceral response,” he notes. “I also think there’s the burnout factor from fighting so hard for so many years. It’s sort of hard to keep that going.”

The year of his partners’ deaths, 52,000 people died of AIDS. That would prove to be the peak of the death rate in the United States, and in the years that followed, the number of people diagnosed with AIDS and HIV began to level off. Today, about 18,000 people still die of AIDS annually in the United States.

Following the deaths of his partners, says Bronson, “it took me five years before I could make anything again.” To this day, Bronson adds, he finds it emotionally difficult to help re-install General Idea’s works at museums around the world.

A Continental Divide
In the 25 years since AIDS whispered its way into the national psyche, the entire epidemic, how it’s treated, and how it’s portrayed has changed. For starters, AIDS began in the United States as a crisis affecting predominantly white, middle-class gay men and intravenous drug users. And in the beginning, an HIV or AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence because the daily mix of hundreds of pills wasn’t enough to stave off death.

But with the introduction in 1996 of anti-retroviral drugs, HIV and AIDS can now essentially be managed—assuming a person can afford them. And therein lies the crux: the inequitable access to those life-prolonging drugs is one reason the AIDS epidemic in the United States is expanding disproportionately to the African-American community and the poor. Similarly, the disease is decimating the populations of many countries in Africa, Southeast Asia, and parts of China.

Since HIV and AIDS are now survivable in the United States, activists worry that complacency could set in.

Los Angeles-based art/activist group Ultra-red is working to make sure that doesn’t happen.
The group brought its anti-complacency “SILENT/LISTEN” presentation to The Andy Warhol Museum on November 30, in honor of this year’s World AIDS Day. The event invited local AIDS activists, service providers, people living with HIV/AIDS, and all members of the community to help the group build an audio record of AIDS in North America.

Ultra-red, General Idea, and The Warhol are among the artists and arts organizations still giving voice to AIDS in the new millennium. Their mission, says The Warhol’s John Smith, is to make sure the message of General Idea’s AZT installation isn’t lost on a U.S. population no longer
panicked by the disease.

Of the General Idea AIDS installations, Smith notes that they should have as much meaning today as they did when they were created 14 years ago.

“ Retroviral drugs changed the life expectancy and whole face of the disease (in the United States), but I don’t think the work in the show is anachronistic because of that,” he says. “The focus has perhaps shifted, but the AIDS epidemic hasn’t diminished.

“ I hope that people leave the show not with a sense of having seen a historical representation of something, but perhaps still angry that, 20 years after this imagery was created, we’re still in an AIDS crisis.”

General Idea Editions: 1967-1995 has received generous financial assistance from the Ontario Arts Council, the Canada Council for the Arts, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the support of Foreign Affairs Canada. Additional support was provided by the Canadian Consulate General. The exhibition is organized and circulated by the Blackwood Gallery, University of Toronto at Mississauga. This exhibition and related programs are presented in remembrance of the late Dr. Samuel W. Golden.

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