Tacoma Art Museum's extraordinary new exhibit, Art AIDS America, underscores how AIDS ferociously impacted not only an entire population, but American art as well.
The show presents some 125 works from all over the country, including pieces from big names such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Keith Haring and Annie Leibovitz. TAM’s chief curator, Rock Hushka, who co-curated the exhibit with scholar Jonathan Katz from the University of Buffalo, says the exhibit tries to capture all that was felt during the AIDS epidemic: terror, rage, grief, hope.
While some of the works are sexually explicit or unflinching in their portrayal of suffering and dying, others reference what it’s like to be an artist burdened by HIV or the memory of loss.
Hushka says the show is unquestionably personal for him, as well as the gay/lesbian community, the artists and everyone else who has lent work. “I grew up watching this crisis unfold and watching people get sick and die,” Hushka said in a recent interview, "and that’s something unknown to American culture except for in times of war."
Some of the first AIDS art—work that railed against the silence of the government during the first years of the crisis—was, in fact, work that saved Hushka, he explained. “Because of the awareness and the politics and the organizing and the way people coalesced around the AIDS crisis, it made me aware of what I had to do to save myself and my peer group.”
Not too long ago, Hushka recalled, he toured the Museum of Modern Art in New York and saw a quartet of works by Haring, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and David Wojnarowicz (all of whom are represented in the TAM show). “And in none of the labels did they mention AIDS and I was annoyed,” he said.
Hushka left the museum, went over to The Strand bookstore and inquired where the AIDS section was. “They pointed me to a section that was downstairs and underneath a table. And I thought, ‘Such little interest in the epidemic.’ That’s when I got enraged and that’s when I knew I had to do this project.”
The show, which will eventually travel to Georgia and then to the Bronx, is a reminder, brutal and poignant, for anyone who lived through the crisis as well as a survey shedding light on the topic for those too young to remember.
We asked Hushka to pick five works from the exhibit and explain their significance. Here's his response: