Love and Death

VISUAL AIDS for World AIDS Awareness Day

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, December 14, 1990)

On December 1, World AIDS Awareness Day ‑‑ a national day of action and mourning in response to the AIDS crisis ‑‑ hundreds of people in the Boston arts community participated in Visual AIDS by exhibiting art and passing out information about AIDS in galleries, museums, schools, and arts organizations.

The Photographic Resource Center exhibited Nan Goldin‘s The Cookie Portfolio 1977 ‑ 1989 ‑‑ fifteen photographs that Goldin took of her friend Cookie Mueller, an actress who died of AIDS last year.

Goldin’s intense, sensual photographs reveal a woman whose face expresses a wide range of feeling, and a heightened, passionate sense of life. Cookie looks pensive, sitting alone in the harsh yellow light of a New York bar. Holding her son in her lap, his Batman mask echoing her big, black‑rimmed eyes, she is warm and dreamy. At her wedding to Vittorio Scarpiti, she seems suspicious and guarded, in an incredibly sexy wedding dress. With her arm around a devastated, vulnerable‑looking Goldin after she was beaten by her lover, she is protective and angry. Sitting on a stone bench in a garden at Ciro‘s in Provincetown, tiny lights shimmering in the trees, she is simply happy. Then, in a room overgrown with glimmering blue and green leafy wallpaper, she is suddenly haggard. At Vittorio’s funeral, she is scared and ravaged. One of the last pictures shows her having an X‑ray. The picture is black, except for a small square of yellow light that shines on her beautiful face, criss‑crossed by the dark shadows of the machine.

Goldin distills so much experience and emotion into these few scenes that when you see Cookie lying dead in her coffin ‑‑ drowning in flowers, her face covered by a thin black veil ‑‑ you feel that you, too, have lost a friend.

“I used to think I couldn’t lose anyone or anything if I photographed them enough,” wrote Goldin. “I put together this series of pictures of Cookie from over the years I knew her in order to keep her with me. In fact it shows me how much I’ve lost.”

At the Fogg Art Museum, J.‑A.‑D. Ingres‘s 1812 painting, Raphael and the Fornarina, was exhibited with a black‑rimmed wall text in memory of a Fogg conservator who died recently of AIDS‑related illness.

Ingres’s painting shows Raphael embracing the voluptuous model who was the great love of his life. (Ingres’s own wife was the model for the Fornarina.) She has risen from the red velvet chair where she was posing for a Madonna, and is sitting on his lap. Still holding his paintbrush, dipped in dark red paint, Raphael clasps her in his arms, but continues to gaze at his unfinished painting, which he knows will survive long after the lovers are dead. Ingres’s painting is relevant on another level, too: Raphael died young, from one of the venereal diseases that haunted 16th century Rome.

At the Museum of Fine Arts, the long white wall opposite the gift shop was covered with posters by artists collectives Gran Fury, the Silence = Death Project, and ACT‑UP. One of the posters showed lots of different kinds of people kissing, with the words “KISSING DOESN’T KILL. GREED AND INDIFFERENCE DO. Corporate greed, government inaction, and public indifference make AIDS a political crisis.”

At the Space gallery on South Street was Meditations on AIDS, a group show guest‑curated by Ron Platt. Lillian Hsu‑Flanders covered a wall with little plastic bags full of ash, and tally marks that seem to grow and multiply and darken the wall with their relentless count. Mags Harries with her Public Art Class from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts created an installation called Fill a Condom ‑‑  hundreds of condoms, filled with marbles, dried beans, paint, sand, sugar, an American flag, a Kewpie doll, paint brushes, plastic birds, crosses, and candy kisses.

At the Howard Yezerski Gallery, hundreds of paper prayers fluttered on the walls, like leaves. The prayers, inspired by a Japanese tradition of offering paper prayers as wishes for healing the sick, were donated by artists and art students to be given away in exchange for a donation to the Boston Pediatric AIDS Project.

The prayers were long, thin strips of paper or canvas, newsprint, photographs, or tinsel, embellished with drawings, paint, cut‑outs, dried roses, gold leaf, buttons, beads. Some were abstract; some had words; others had musical notations written on them.

One prayer was made from a piece of old, paint‑splattered blue jeans, with a peace symbol and love beads. Another was a small nineteenth century cyanotype showing the head of a Greek god, glued to a page of personals ad. One ad read “Looking for You. SWM 30 5’10” 160 pounds. Dark hair and eyes. handsome Mediterranean type. Seeking romance, intimacy, and more...” Another prayer was three black circles floating on a sheet of translucent, pale grey paper. Another prayer was a delicate piece of handmade paper with part of a poem in French and English that began “My hands feel for your hands. Your lips kiss mine and soon…

Now in its second year, Visual AIDS began as a day of mourning, but it has become a day of healing ‑‑ a way for the Boston arts community to come together and share their feelings of fear and loss and grief.

by Rebecca Nemser  for

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