In the early 1980s America felt the shocking and devastating force of the AIDS epidemic as it spread ruthlessly through the gay community. Art made during that time was deeply affected by the outbreak of the disease, not only because artists were afflicted personally, but because art can be, according to art critic Holland Carter, useful to “broadcast messages into the larger culture, embody complex truths, absorb fear, preserve memory.”

It is astonishing to think that in the 36 years since the outbreak no mainstream museum has ever attempted a historical survey or brought together work made during and in response to that hideous era before. This has all changed with a spate of new exhibitions opening in New York—the most high-profile of which being at The Bronx Museum of the Arts. The exhibition “Art AIDS America” traces how the cultural expression has been influenced by HIV and AIDS and explores the manner in which artists have responded to its emergence and its continued insidious presence.

Included in the exhibition is Drains, 1990 by Robert Gober, a haunting sculpture cast from pewter that evokes a feeling of despair and powerlessness as young lives were simply washed away. Also Keith Haring’s sense of mourning is palpable, conveyed in his bronze and white, gold-leafed Altar Piece, its silhouette reminiscent of medieval religious art. With over 125 works dating from 1981 to the present, the exhibition boasts a stellar list of artists including Ross Bleckner, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, Jasper Johns, Annie Leibovitz and Felix Gonzalez-Torres.

Left: David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (Buffalo), 1988–89, gelatin silver print. Right: Installation view of Art AIDS

The exhibition captures the despair, rage, and unbelievably sense of loss that afflicted the community when the epidemic was at its height. At the time the public’s response to the AIDS epidemic was a complex one, owing to the fears not just over the disease itself but from homophobia as well as the then government’s containment of information. But the repercussions of the outbreak helped galvanize a generation into activism and this movement continues to reverberate through contemporary culture.

Holly Block, the Executive Director of The Bronx Museum of the Arts has remarked “These artists give voice to perspectives that are too often suppressed, and the exhibition reveals how they have changed both the history of art in America and the response to this disease.”

Kia Labeija, Kia and Mommy, 2014, Inkjet print

Although the worst days of the epidemic are over in America, there are still 1.2 million now living with the disease, on top of this 40,000 new cases are being diagnosed each year. Around the world funding to help educate and fight against the disease is tailing off, a result of growing indifference from the public who feel detached from the disease, despite the fact that in areas of Africa AIDS is rampant and on the increase. However, one of the few uplifting results of the exhibition is how long-term survivors and communities have come together, strong and united in the face of the disease. This is wonderfully illustrated by Deborah Kass’s painting Still Here, 2007, quoting a song from Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, the bold lettering of the phrase is a poignant celebration of resilience.  

The exhibition “Art AIDS America” runs through to the 23rd of October 2016.

To view artworks by Jasper Johns available now on fineartmultiple, please click here.