Susanne Bartsch, a boutique owner and event planner, presented the 1989 Love Ball to New York elite at the Roseland Ballroom after a series of friends’ deaths, raising approximately $400,000 for Design Industries Foundation for AIDS, an organization dedicated to providing grants and raising awareness. Throughout the 1980s, celebrity guests and corporate funders of HIV care and research were instrumental in changing public acceptability.
Holding out his 8mm camera, Nelson Sullivan documented 1980s downtown New York, providing behind-the-scenes live narration as he bounced between interviews of club kids, drag queens, and fashion designers. Sullivan was friends with Bartsch and documented the Love Ball, filming his friends, guests, and performances.
Clifford Prince King photographs portraits of young Black queer men. His use of warm lighting, delicate posing, and objects signifying Black and queer identity create immersive narratives. The artist, who received his diagnosis in 2017, refers to these beautification practices as self-care, emphasizing their necessity, particularly for people who routinely experience discrimination.
This scene demonstrates the subtle joys of being able to depend on others. Safe spaces, where people can trust they won’t be discriminated against, are acts of resistance, and for HIV-positive folks, they can be a health measure: some studies have found connections between loneliness and increased symptoms and pain from HIV.
Safe Space depicts a room where three men break from rigid expectations of masculinity. While tasks like braiding hair could be performed alone, it is often a service from one to another—and one that requires trust. As the man sitting on the floor gets his hair braided, he reads James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956), a novel about David, an engaged, straight-presenting man who rediscovers his bisexuality because he sleeps with Giovanni, a gay bartender in a windowless Parisian bedroom. The hair product has made the stylist’s hands messy, so the third subject, laying on the bed, assists him in smoking. When facing hardships, masculinity sometimes pushes men to be “brave” on their own, but everyone, including those with HIV, deserve someone(s) to help look after them.
Excerpt from the portfolio To Survive on this Shore: Photographs and Interviews with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Older Adults:
I’d go [to] the clinic for my HIV, I would do stuff. I’d push patients, walk them to the car, sing church songs. I was just having a ball while I was waiting for my appointment. And a guy saw me one day that had an agency, and he said, “Miss Dee Dee, you work down here?” I said, “No.” He said, “I got a job for you.” And that was God just setting me in right there in that clinic with my own desk and I was my own boss. I could go to work as myself.
The first day I got on the train with my little briefcase and my little suit on with the other people that were going to work. And when I got to the front door of the clinic, the Spirit stopped me and said, “Look across the street.” I said, “Look across the street?” So I looked. Then I saw flashes of me jumping in and out of cars on that corner, and I remembered I used to run girls off that corner. That was my corner. He said, “Now look how long it took for you to cross the street.” I could have lapsed right there on that sidewalk. This had come full circle now.
— Dee Dee Ngozi, as told to Jess T. Dugan and Vanessa Fabbre
Excerpt from the book A Positive Life: Portraits of Women with HIV:
“I tested positive in 1991. When I worked the streets, I always used a condom. I wouldn’t go out on a date if people wouldn’t use it. It wasn’t about HIV as much as syphilis and gonorrhea.
When I used to get ready to go out, I would smoke angel dust. I would look in the mirror and say, ‘If you’re HIV, you can take care, you can live a long time.’ When I went to get the results, they asked, ‘How you gonna take it if you’re positive?’ but I knew I got it already, just from intuition. When she told me, I just wanted to take care of myself better. It didn’t really bother me then and don’t bother me now.
I take medication every day. I don’t think about it. Thinking too hard will kill you faster. All I do is thank God for another day of living.
I have been really healthy. I haven’t worked the streets for four to five years. I haven’t done drugs for two years because I want to live. My lover has custody of his two kids. Jessica is four and Joselyn is three. They call me mommy. I stopped because of these children. I want to be able to take care of them. My lover is positive. We both just happen to be HIV positive. If he was and I wasn’t, I would still be with him.”
— Sugar, as told to River Huston
Activist and playwright Larry Kramer is sometimes remembered for ballistic confrontations and explicit vocabulary against the “despondent” institutions that watched a plague devour the world. He started and left both the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC; founded in 1982, left the following year) and ACT UP (founded in 1987, left in 1990). He received his own HIV diagnosis in 1988.
Kramer created the organizations because he saw power in numbers. His public berating of politicians made it nearly impossible to ignore the HIV-positive community. In this portrait, one of more than 600 Robert Giard made of gay and lesbian writers, Kramer’s sweatshirt features ACT UP’s provocative slogan “SILENCE=DEATH,“ complete with the pink triangle, a reference to the badges Nazi concentration camps forced gay men to wear.
Both GMHC and ACT UP are still active. ACT UP is a direct-action group aimed at combating an alleged indifference toward AIDS by other activists, the public, and the government. Their heavy-handed approach—which included demonstrations at Wall Street and shutting down the FDA for a day—was successful: ACT UP is credited with lowering drug costs and changing public perception and health policies in the United States.
Mercy uses a small, all-caps, light-serif font on top of a white rose to beg for attention, help, and for the world to have mercy on people dying of HIV/AIDS. White roses have historically represented purity in Western culture: they are used in weddings to symbolize new beginnings and in funerals to indicate respect for the dead. Mercy uses a white rose to show the innocence of those lost to HIV/AIDS.
Moffett is a founding member of Gran Fury, a visual artist subgroup of ACT UP (founded by Larry Kramer) and has spent his life advocating to promote information about HIV and incite anger against a neglectful government. Moffett lost a devastating portion of his community to HIV/AIDS. The work was first displayed in the 1991 New Museum exhibition The Interrupted Life, where 100 editions of the light box were hung in a tight grid—each representing 1,000 deaths in the United States from HIV/AIDS. By the start of 1993, the death count would double.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres asks the viewer to create their own narratives with his series of Untitled works. In this work, two toys—Snoopy (from Charlie Brown) and Bamm-Bamm Rubble (from the Flintstones)—lie together in a white bed, at first glance seemingly innocent. Gonzalez-Torres is an artist who often discusses loss, grief, and political violence, and the white bed becomes a signifier the viewer is left to decode.
After Gonzalez-Torres’s partner, Ross Laycock, died from complications of HIV/AIDS, the artist started to collect discarded small rubber and plastic toys from flea markets. Grief over a loved one can feel like an insatiable void begging to be filled. The artist spoke about the collection in a 1994 issue of Artforum: “I thought, Well, if I get more, perhaps I’ll get happier. Then they became an obsession. Last time I counted I had 1,500.” Is this work a portrait depicting the artist’s grief through rigid plastic that is unable to respond to the world, or is it a portrait of two lovers in bed, happily together and cozy?
Wheat-pasting posters, a relatively inexpensive and fast process, has long been a consciousness-raising and education method of activist artists. Since the 1980s, AIDS activists have staged poster bombings to share their messages en masse. Posters were displayed on walls and scaffolding in places the public could not easily ignore.
The tone of AIDS awareness posters has shifted since the 1980s, when visibility in spite of government disregard, was vital. Posters no longer prioritize words like “death” and “murder.” Today, while many still reflect on mortality, AIDS awareness posters contain messages of emotional support or offer information on access to medication. One may wonder: does this shift reflect progress in healthcare and prevention or a political shortcoming and acceptance of AIDS?
Systemic class and racial marginalization exacerbates health problems, and HIV has always affected Black Americans at higher rates than any other racial group. In some areas, Black churches have recognized the role as community centers and providers of community health programs. Advocates like Archbishop Carl Bean (center in clergy robes) led some Black churches to have HIV prevention, intervention, and service programming.
After a successful Motown career with 1977 chart topper “I Was Born this Way,” Bean founded the Unity Fellowship Church Movement, a liberal Protestant denomination affirming and welcoming Black LGBTQ persons. In 1985, he continued his advocacy with the Minority AIDS Project (MAP), the first community-based HIV/AIDS organization managed by and for people of color in the United States. Serving south and central Los Angeles, MAP focuses its outreach on African American and Latinx populations.
POZ has been a resource for learning about HIV-positivity, health, politics, and as a space for people to openly discuss their infections. The magazine, started by Sean Strub, an art activist and member of ACT UP, was intended as a platform for self-empowerment in the HIV-positive community. He saw the void of agency that HIV-positive people had over their media narratives and recognized the need for accurate news, including on how contemporary political decisions could affect them and their peers. Writers like River Huston and Mark Leydorf provide columns to help people understand their own illnesses. This sharing of information helps to create unity and encourages readers to recognize common goals.
Unlike the magazines that addressed HIV/AIDS as a part of counterculture, POZ announced itself as part of the mainstream. Celebrity and activist portraiture covers remind the general population that anyone could be HIV-positive, and that the HIV-positive community is not just those who live with infections, but also includes those fighting for their friends and family.
Displayed here are Kory Montoya, Eileen Mitzman, and Mykki Blanco. Montoya was an Apache man from New Mexico. He traveled to share his story and sat on councils for Native Americans with HIV. Montoya was gay and diagnosed with HIV in the early 1990s and passed away from complications in 2010. After Mitzman’s daughter was diagnosed with HIV in the late 1980s, she joined Concerned Parents for AIDS Research and continued to advocate long after Marni’s death in 1991. Mitzman passed away from COVID-19 in 2020. Blanco is a rapper and performance artist whose lyrical conviction has trailblazed queer rap. The influential transgender artist has been HIV-positive since 2011 and has used their platform to challenge stigma.
Strub, the founder, himself is an activist: he participated in putting a giant condom over representative Jesse Helms’s home and was one of the first openly poz candidates to run for public office. He is currently the mayor of his hometown, Milford, Pennsylvania. In a world where being HIV-positive can feel lonely, POZ magazine keeps people connected and aware.
Feliciano Centurión was born in Paraguay under the Stroessner dictatorship. After moving to Buenos Aires (a way to expand artistic opportunities), Centurión joined El Rojas, a revolutionary group of artists who centered self-expression and kitsch. In El Rojas, Centurión could be openly queer, and his works integrated his needlework skills—a traditionally feminine technique—to emphasize queer aesthetics. His designs featured painted imagery of flora and fauna and short phrases or single words embroidered on pillowcases, aprons, and patterned blankets purchased at inexpensive markets.
As he faced HIV complications, the artist’s works became smaller, and he used phrases that emphasized his declining health. Estoy Vivo (Spanish for “I am alive”) was created two years before Centurión’s death. Who is he speaking to? Is he pleading for his existence as an HIV-positive person to be recognized? Or is he proudly declaring that, as someone who is dying from a disease, he is living and still creating?
Since 1981, over 700,000 Americans have died from complications with HIV/AIDS. Globally, upward of 36 million have died. Today, many people have access to treatment options but over the last ten years, between 690,000 and more than 1 million people continue to die each year from AIDS and AIDS-related complications. HIV/AIDS is a leading cause of death worldwide. In America, HIV/AIDS continues to affect Black and Latino people at drastically higher rates than white people with a disproportionate affect on people who are transgender. Advocates are constantly working on prevention and awareness that this epidemic is far from over. Many artists and participants in this exhibition have passed away from HIV/AIDS complications since the works were produced. Their profound impact on art, activism, their communities, and new generations, is celebrated and remembered.
Larry Kramer (1935–2020)
Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957–1996)
Feliciano Centurión (1962–1996)
Teddy Sandoval (1949–1995)
Kory Montoya (1965–2010)
Many subjects of Nelson Sullivan’s Love Ball, Susanne Bartsch at Roseland video have also since passed away.