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From AIDS to Art

An exhibition explores the visual legacy of ACT UP’s campaign to galvanize action against a new epidemic.

November-December 2009

The iconic <i>Silence=Death</i> neon sign, 1987, by the Silence=Death Project, appropriated (and inverted) the pink triangle used by Nazis to identify known homosexuals; the message, in poster form, preceded the formation of ACT UP. This is a copy of the original from the collection of the New Museum, New York.

The iconic Silence=Death neon sign, 1987, by the Silence=Death Project, appropriated (and inverted) the pink triangle used by Nazis to identify known homosexuals; the message, in poster form, preceded the formation of ACT UP. This is a copy of the original from the collection of the New Museum, New York.

On loan from the collection of Avram Finkelstein. Photograph by Katya Kallsen. ©President and Fellows of Harvard College

A sheet of stickers from the ACT UP Day of Desperation, January 23, 1991

A sheet of stickers from the ACT UP Day of Desperation, January 23, 1991

On loan from the collection of Avram Finkelstein. Photograph by Jessica Ficken. ©President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Little Elvis, <i>The Aids Crisis is Not Over</i> sticker, 1988

Little Elvis, The Aids Crisis is Not Over sticker, 1988

On loan from the collection of Avram Finkelstein. Photograph by Edward Lloyd. ©President and Fellows of Harvard College.

ACT UP, <i>Storm the NIH</i> sticker, May 21, 1990

ACT UP, Storm the NIH sticker, May 21, 1990

On loan from the collection of Avram Finkelstein. Photograph by Jessica Ficken. ©President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Gran Fury, <i>Art Is Not Enough,</i> 1988, offset lithography on paper

Gran Fury, Art Is Not Enough, 1988, offset lithography on paper

On loan from the collection of Avram Finkelstein. Photograph by Katya Kallsen. ©President and Fellows of Harvard College

Gran Fury, <i>The Government Has Blood on Its Hands,</i> 1988, poster, offset lithography

Gran Fury, The Government Has Blood on Its Hands, 1988, poster, offset lithography

On loan from the collection of Avram Finkelstein. Photograph by Katya Kallsen. ©President and Fellows of Harvard College

Silence=Death Project, <i>AIDSGATE,</i> 1987, poster, offset lithography

Silence=Death Project, AIDSGATE, 1987, poster, offset lithography

On loan from the collection of Avram Finkelstein. Photograph by Katya Kallsen. ©President and Fellows of Harvard College

Vincent Gagliostro, <i>Enjoy AZT,</i> 1993, screen print

Vincent Gagliostro, Enjoy AZT, 1993, screen print

Photograph by Allan MacIntyre. Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum © President and Fellows of Harvard College

Gran Fury, <i>Read My Lips,</i> 1988, poster, offset lithography

Gran Fury, Read My Lips, 1988, poster, offset lithography

On loan from the collection of Avram Finkelstein, Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum. Photograph by Katya Kallsen. ©President and Fellows of Harvard College

ACT UP, <i>Silence=Death,</i> button, c. 1988

ACT UP, Silence=Death, button, c. 1988

On loan from the collection of Avram Finkelstein, Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum. Photograph by Katya Kallsen. ©President and Fellows of Harvard College

Richard Deagle, <i>Undercounting AIDS Cases Kills,</i> poster, offset lithography, mounted on foam core, undated

Richard Deagle, Undercounting AIDS Cases Kills, poster, offset lithography, mounted on foam core, undated

On loan from the collection of Avram Finkelstein, Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum. Photograph by Katya Kallsen. ©President and Fellows of Harvard College

like other plagues, HIV/AIDS has brought death and grief, fear and prejudice, passion and—in the modern context—biomedical progress. It has also left many marks on contemporary culture. It is impossible to imagine fictions like Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series, or Tony Kushner’s epic drama Angels in America, or Abraham Verghese’s factual My Own Country without the new epidemic rolling across the land.

In New York City, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power—ACT UP—mobilized political pressure to fight the disease. It publicized AIDS openly, loudly insisted on increased research funding and faster regulatory review of drugs, and in 1990 even attempted to seize control of the National Institutes of Health.

An enduring legacy of that work is the rich and visually vivid graphics it spawned—some of it riffing on mainstream culture—in posters, bumper stickers, leaflets, and more. Now, that material is examined as art in ACT UP New York: Activism, Art, and the AIDS Crisis, 1987-1993, an exhibition organized by Helen Molesworth, Houghton curator of contemporary art, and doctoral student Claire Grace, Mongan curatorial intern.

The exhibition, accompanied by the ACT UP Oral History Project (featuring more than 100 video interviews), is on display at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts through December 23; selected works appear here. It is accompanied by a robust program of lectures and symposiums on everything from history and film to safe-sex practices; the complete schedule is at www.harvardartmuseum.org/actup