Paintings and Pandemics - Part II, AIDS

April 5, 2020
Hugh Steers, Bath Curtain, 1992
Hugh Steers, Bath Curtain, 1992

This is the second of three blogs looking at how major pandemics have influenced the world of art. Last week we looked at the Black Death, this week we look at AIDS and the dramatic impact this terrible had on the art world.


Human immunodeficiency virus infection and acquired immune deficiency syndrome, better known as HIV/AIDS, was first identified in 1981. Since then, more than 30 million people are estimated to have died around the world from its complications, including more than 700,000 last year alone.


Despite this, AIDS is perceived as a crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, and rarely makes the news today. It’s perhaps because in the West, effective, but expensive, treatment is now available and AIDS is no longer the automatic death sentence it used to be. However, it is still a major killer in Africa, where more than half of the fatalities occur, and there are still tens of millions of people living with the condition, of whom nearly one million die every year.


For those of us who remember the decade between around 1985 and 1995, AIDS was one of the defining issues of the time. It was so for a number of reasons. First, this was an era when mass, global communication began its rapid expansion. Second, AIDS was initially literally a death sentence – if you caught it, you would die. Third, and perhaps most important to its profile, was who it principally affected. The virus, passed most commonly by unprotected sex, became rife in the homosexual community, and its profile was highest in the US, particularly in New York.


This was a community which at the time was marginalised, struggling for acceptance. In the UK, homosexuality had only been decriminalised 14 years prior to AIDS being discovered. The struggle for LGBT acceptance in society coincided with a disease which seemed to disproportionately affect members of this community. In the US in particular, it caused a clash of cultures amongst conservative, religious traditionalists and those seeking greater acceptance and tolerance, and AIDS became known as the “Gay Plague”. 


This all influenced the arts scene profoundly. A number of hugely famous stars died of the disease, and this placed AIDS front and centre in the public consciousness. Rock Hudson became the first celebrity to succumb to the new disease, in 1985. A heartthrob in the golden age of Hollywood cinema, it was not widely known that Hudson was gay. Others to succumb to the disease included Arthur Ashe, the first black winner of the Men’s Wimbledon Title, Liberace, the flamboyant entertainer, and most famously in the UK Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen. After Mercury died in 1991, the remaining band members of Queen organised a tribute concert which raised significant sums for AIDS research, and the profile of the disease.


In Hollywood, the most high profile film to deal with AIDS was Philadelphia, a 1993 global box office smash starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. In 2013 the issue was brought back into the public eye with the release of Dallas Buyers Club, for which Matthew McConaughey won the Best Actor Oscar.


In the music industry, the issue was equally high profile. Bruce Springsteen wrote the theme song for Philadelphia, becoming a No1 hit in 9 countries and reaching No2 in the UK and the US. The Pet Shop Boys, one of the 1980s biggest bands, released the song Being Boring, including the haunting lines: “Now I sit with different faces / In rented rooms and foreign places / All the people I was kissing / Some are here and some are missing / In the nineteen-nineties.


In the UK however the moment that led to changing attitudes towards AIDS was a simple act by Lady Diana. In 1987, she visited an AIDS patient in a London hospital and shook his hand without wearing gloves. This helped allay fears that the disease could be spread simply by touch, and went a long way to changing attitudes to the disease.


The explosion of creativity in film and music also took place in art. The influence of abstract expressionism and pop art from the 1950s and 1960s had given rise to movements such as minimalism and even to conceptual art (where the idea, planning, and production are more important than the result itself). All of these movements however were somehow detached from the artist, and traditional figurative art was moribund.


This all changed with the onset of AIDS, as artists dealt with the crisis in deeply moving, and personal ways. There were essentially two types of art which developed in response to the crisis – what one could describe as protest, and personal.


One of the most prominent practitioners of the protest movement in art at the time was Keith Haring. He had developed growing popularity for his pop-art/graffiti style work, after originally being noticed through his drawings in New York subways. However, once he became diagnosed with AIDS in 1988 (eventually dying of AIDS related complications in 1990), his later work took on strongly political themes. Perhaps his most famous work is Ignorance = Fear. Tim Smith-Laing wrote a piece in the Economist in 2019 entitled How Keith Haring’s Art forced us to talk about AIDS, in which he wrote:


Keith Haring’s work screams fun. Or rather, it is fun but it is also screaming: an alarm call saying that life is good but terrible things conspire against it. Ignore the words and Ignorance = Fear looks fun: Haring’s trademark simple lines, the three primary colours with a dash of pink, three figures, jumping, perhaps dancing. Take in the words, and you hear the scream. By the late 1980s, AIDS felt like the most visible threat to life in America. When Haring (above left) created Ignorance = Fear, one American was being diagnosed with HIV every minute. Four people were dying of AIDS every hour. By 1991 the epidemic had claimed the lives of 100,000 Americans.” Ignorance = Fear sold at Christie’s in 2019 for more than $5.5m.


However, it is from the more intensely personal paintings that I’ve chosen the title picture for this blog. The AIDS epidemic affected many in the art community, including the artist Hugh Steers. His body of work is not extensive, he sadly died of AIDS in 1993 at the age of only 32. Nor is it expensive, in fact the highest price at auction recorded for a Steers painting in only just over $10,000. However, it is important, and moving and there have been a number of recent exhibitions of his work, as his importance to the art world slowly grows.  Steers was a figurative painter, whose work is often ambiguous, but always very personal.


The painting I have chosen to represent the way art responded to the AIDS crisis is one by Steers, a life sized painting entitled Bath Curtain, created not long before his death in 1992. In a 2017 exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York entitled AIDS at Home: Art and Everyday Activism, the painting was referred to thus:


 “Bath Curtain depicts an intimate moment between two young men. One of them lies prostrate in a bathtub, while the other sits on the toilet and gently massages the palm of his hand. The painting has a dual effect: It documents a domestic moment that embodies vulnerability, tenderness and gentleness, and at the same time it is also a political critique of the unavailability of medical treatment and the fear at that time of many to get close to carriers, still less touch them.”


To me, the most powerful part of the painting is that the face of the figure in the bathtub cannot be seen, obscured behind the curtain. It sums up in one image the nature of the crisis - the impact it had on sufferers, their friends and their lovers, and how it was a difficult disease for society at the time to confront.


Steers himself described his work in a beautiful summary, which encapsulates why I believe art is so important:


“I think I'm in the tradition of a certain kind of American artist — artists whose work embodies a certain gorgeous bleakness. Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline — they all had this austere beauty to them. They found beauty in the most brutal forms.”


Gorgeous bleakness indeed – the perfect expression.


About the author

Richard Pulford

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