Artist and show coordinator Ellie Winberg talks about a retrospective of the work of Richard Hofmann, a show revisiting the early years of the AIDS epidemic
by Alina Oswald
Sometimes it is about the journey as well as the destination. Sometimes, as we reach a goal or a destination, we tend to look back and revisit the oftentimes winding road that brought us there in the first place. And we take that one final look back in the proverbial rearview mirror, perhaps to forever seal in our memory the experience of our journey.
When it comes to HIV and AIDS, we’ve been on a long, sometimes seemingly endless journey for over three decades and still counting. And as we inch our way toward a cure, an affordable HIV cure that is, we’ve already begun to glance back at our HIV journey, from the darkest years of AIDS to the progress achieved to this day.
With that in mind, perhaps, most recently, many art venues have started to take that final look back through shows that revisit the AIDS epidemic, in particular as it touched so many lives during the eighties and early nineties. One of these art shows stands out. It is the “Richard Hofmann Retrospective,” on display at the Brooklyn Waterfront Artist Coalition this past April.
What makes this particular show different is that the artist, himself, was “prolific. I think he’s an inspiration,” show coordinator Ellie Winberg tells me, as we meet in front of the gallery building.
Winberg is herself an artist, as well as a member of the Board of Directors of the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition. As she invites me inside the gallery space, I find myself going back in time and space, surrounded by an artistic rendering of the eighties and early nineties, as captured by the artist, Richard Hofmann, himself.
A Visual AIDS artist and ACT UP member born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1954, Richard Hofmann attended Pratt Institute. After graduation, he lived and created art in the East Village. He was “an activist through his artwork,” using the tools of art to voice his opinion towards the epidemic and to express how society addressed the epidemic and those affected by it. Hofmann’s artwork is described as “a rare time-capsule of work whose bold colors and iconoclastic themes leap off the canvas perhaps even more today than back then.”
The retrospective almost did not happen. As Winberg explains, her friend, Brian McCormick, who lives in the neighborhood, once mentioned to her “all this artwork” that was in his basement. He didn’t know what to do with all the artwork, and even thought of giving it away because he was selling the building. Without even seeing the work or having any idea what the work was about, Winberg promised that she would take a look. In the process, she discovered the amazing work of Richard Hofmann. She decided to take it out from the basement, where it had been stored since Hofmann’s death, and display it for everybody to see it.
It took Winberg about one year and a half to put together the show. As a result, this past April, some 150 of Hofmann’s pieces adorned the walls of the BWAC art space. Presented in chronological order, they often juxtapose “religious icons with lurid images of gay men” expressing the artist’s protest against the church’s stand on homosexuality as well as the public’s response to and denial of the AIDS epidemic, as well as the public’s views toward all those touched by the epidemic, including men, women and children.
As Winberg explains, Richard Hofmann’s partner, who had saved the artwork, stopped by BWAC to see the displayed work, but was too emotional to look at all the pieces. He returned many times. Other friends and individuals who have lived through the early years of the AIDS epidemic went through similar feelings upon seeing the artwork.
Richard Hofmann “did paint the times,” Winberg comments. He also tried to stay relevant, no matter how sick he became toward the end of his life. “He was painting to the end,” Winberg says, “knowing what the end was.” He died at the beginning of 1994, only months before the new life-saving medications became available.
Richard Hofmann’s work is haunting, dark, at times political, and often biographical. “I have painted a personal history,” the artist relates, “but not as self-indulgence” because whatever was happening to him (HIV), was happening to the world, as well as whatever was happening to the world (HIV) was also happening to him.
He painted the world around him. A reappearing element in his paintings is a baby, maybe symbolizing the artist or anybody else, surrounded by chaos. He also painted sin and redemption, suffering and death, and the ecstasy of emotions that come with suffering and death related to the epidemic.
Huge murals that once decorated the walls of iconic New York City clubs like Danceteria, the Roxy, and the Pyramid are also part of the Richard Hofmann retrospective, as well as watercolors, oil paintings, and photomontages.
Hofmann took a dark tone early on in his work. Shadowed figures and ghost-like shapes, as well as skulls and religious items populate his art, as do homoerotic themes. Hands are often present, too. He often used bold brush strokes.
Beside the work he created for ACT UP—posters on which he actually wrote the word “AIDS”—Hofmann’s art offers an in-your-face kind of message related to the epidemic, yet, without mentioning the words HIV or AIDS. It is a message expressed in between the lines or rather the brush strokes.
“Richard Hofmann Retrospective” includes artwork of various sizes. There are smaller pieces of artwork showing different animals, as well as Hofmann’s spontaneous creativity. Also, toward the end of his life, Hofmann worked on smaller pieces, not having the strength to work on big paintings anymore.
But the big paintings are an important part of “Retrospective.” Ship of Fools is an amazing piece, especially when it comes to the artist’s use of color, alternating darkness and light. Ship of Fools is a painting about people trying to survive. It was timely then, and it’s also timely nowadays, which makes it timeless.
Close to the end of his life, Hofmann created an allegory representing faces of people dying of AIDS, just like an AIDS Quilt in watercolor. The word “AIDS” is not present in this particular artwork, thus making it even more powerful, forcing viewers to really stop and look and absorb what the artist’s trying to say.
While working on some of his last paintings, his sight became affected by CMV and his mind by AIDS-related dementia. Hence, he painted what he saw—floaters distorting his eyesight, represented “perhaps as globs resembling, in his mind, the shape of the virus invading his body.”
Maybe the most powerful painting is a 1992 piece that pays homage to Goya: Mother With Deformed Child. It is a diptych and the last painting before Hofmann’s death in 1994. Maybe what’s most important about this piece is that the baby who appears in it is a deformed child. The mother might be his mother, shown as a young, and then as an older woman. The deformed baby might symbolize the artist, himself. Also present in this image is a haunting figure that’s taking the deformed baby away. Winberg explains that this piece is so powerful that people practically cry when looking at it.
Hofmann’s own words come to life in the retrospective. “I fight AIDS with anger,” a quote
says, “I am fighting this Genocide and portray its ghost, and the memories that insure my inevitable link to it.”
Despite the fact that he painted suffering and death, Hofmann did have hope. An entry in his diary, circa 1993, says:
“I want to beat to odds.
I want to live.
I want to remember.
I have many to prosecute.”
Learn more about Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition by logging on to: bwac.org. To find out more about Ellie Winberg’s art, visit:
Alina Oswald interviewed actor Steve Hayes for the April issue.