1990: Already ten years into trickle down economics, a rise in cynicism, growing racial and class tension, and the widening gap between the very rich and the rest of us. L.A. before the riots of 1992. A time of defunding vital social programs, the abandonment of the ideals on which our country was supposedly founded. The erasure of history. The Savings and Loan bailout with our tax dollars. “The economic boom” of the Reagan Empire thanks to the tripling of the national deficit. The explosion of the information industry, and, at the same time the implosion of meaning. Meaning can only be formulated when we can compare, when we bring information to our daily level, to our ‘private’ sphere. Otherwise information just goes by.
This passage, written by Felix Gonzalez-Torres for a 1996 exhibition catalogue for artist Roni Horn, was published the month after his death from complications with AIDS. And yet, if you take away the nineties-specific cultural landmarks like Reagan and the L.A. riots, it is astonishing how foretelling it is about comments made about our current social landscape. “[T]he widening gap between the very rich and the rest of us… the abandonment of the ideals on which our country was founded.” It could easily have been written today.
Gonzalez-Torres is arguably the most important artist of the nineties. His practice of conjoining personal and political content through a language of Minimalist and Conceptual traditions so clearly defined what it meant to make art in the nineties. He merged the hot nature of identity politics and deeply personal events, like the death of his partner Ross Laycock from AIDS, with the systematic approaches employed by Conceptual artists. And he did so in a way that was designed to be as approachable as possible—so much so that his most famous bodies of work, like his piles of candy or offset prints, invited viewers to leave their experience of the work with something (physical) they could take with them, the way we hang on to a lost loved one’s ashes or an old t-shirt.
Much was taken from Gonzalez-Torres and others in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community in the 1980s and 1990s amid the rapidly worsening AIDS crisis. When federal and public indifference to the deaths of thousands of those with the disease made AIDS a political crisis, groups like ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, first emerged in New York to fight back. Queer artist-activist groups like fierce pussy and Gran Fury, which grew out of ACT UP meetings, formed in the late 1980s and early 1990s to arouse in the public both anger and action.
The tremendous—and tremendously trying—efforts of ACT UP, its organizers and its supporters are the subject of David France’s award-winning documentary “How to Survive a Plague” (2012). The film charts the organization’s efforts to force the Reagan and Bush administrations to acknowledge the crisis at hand, demand dignity for the lives of queer people, and force the FDA to approve the first HIV/AIDS medications after years of protest and constant death.
I hope you’ll join me for a screening of “How to Survive a Plague” at the Blanton Auditorium, Sunday April 17 at 1pm, preceded by brief lecture about the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres. This program is part of Screenings at the Blanton: Films of the 1990s, in conjunction with the current Blanton exhibition, Come as You Are: Art of the 1990s.
Blanton Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art