Painting to Survive
Artist and art historian Jonathan Weinberg & artist Ellie Winberg talk about the latest Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition show and its intersection with the early AIDS epidemic
by Alina Oswald
“In one of Andreas Sterzing’s most beautiful photographs of Pier 34, Mike Bidlo and David Wojnarowicz sprawl out on the grass that has mysteriously grown inside the waterfront building,” artist and art historian Jonathan Weinberg, PhD, writes in the Pier 34 catalogue that describes the 2016 New York City show he curated, “Something Possible Everywhere Pier 34, NYC 1983–84,” which featured Andreas Sterzing’s photographs of artists who created work on Pier 34 between 1983 and 1984. For those unfamiliar with the history of Pier 34, Weinberg adds: “In 1932, when the enormous building on Pier 34 first took its place in the network of shipping terminals around Manhattan, part of what was then the largest port in the world, Bidlo and Wojnarowicz’s lazy posture amid the ruins of the waterfront would be unthinkable.…How did such a monumental structure, at such a key location—straddling the Tunnel’s air-shaft towers—come to be abandoned, and how did it become an epicenter for art-making in the 1980s? ‘Something Possible Everywhere: Pier 34 NYC, 1983–84’ revisits this extraordinary place and time when Wojnarowicz, Bidlo, and many of their friends effectively seized a city-owned pier and filled it with art.”
Richard Hofmann [A&U, May 2017] was one of these artists. So, Ellie Winberg, herself an artist, who has devoted herself to showing Richard Hofmann’s work, showed up at the Pier 34 show, in 2016. That’s how she met Jonathan Weinberg. The two started a conversation that led to the latest Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition (BWAC) show, “Painting to Survive,” which features works created between 1985 and 1995.
“[During] 1975 and 1985 there was this explosion of art,” Winberg explains. Then the AIDS crisis happened, and together with other factors, affected the life and work of so many artists. And yet, “many artists continued to paint because that was their passion,” Winberg says. “Hofmann’s most interesting work [happened] during that [time], and that’s why the idea of having a show about artwork created [between 1985 and 1995 is so important.]” She further explains that many artists featured in the show were not well known at the time, and then, because of the AIDS crisis, many never had the opportunity to become well known. But their artwork did survive. “Painting to Survive” is a show about survival—of the artists, through their artwork, and of the artwork itself. Being a group show, “Painting to Survive” offers different stories, each story told by each featured artist’s work. Put together, these stories by Richard Hoffman, Marc Lisa, Jonathan Weinberg and others offer a better understanding of the period of time when this art was created.
The artists featured in the show have either lost their lives or have lost friends to the AIDS epidemic. At the time when they created their art, there was also “a shift in the art scene, from the early eighties when it was such a focus on painting and expressionist and identity [to the late] eighties and early nineties [when] post-modernism took over,” Weinberg explains, echoing Winberg’s words. “And so, the kind of painting (created in the previous decade) [was falling] out of fashion. And it was a double whammy [for the artists, because] you were losing your friends [or your life] to AIDS, and [also] you were being told that your work [was] not of value.”
In a way, “Painting to Survive” is a “continuation” of the Pier 34 show, Weinberg says, because the “cutoff date for the pier show was ’84 and the start date of the artwork featured in the [BWAC] show is 1985 through 1995,” from a time when people where “dropping like flies and it was like WWII,” to a time (mid-nineties) when something began to happen, Weinberg comments, mentioning that, when the life-saving medications started to become available, it didn’t quite seem like a “miracle” but, retrospectively, it was. “It took a while to see that people were being saved, that the drugs were going to work,” Weinberg adds. “It’s a decade, it’s a really long time.”
When working on the show, Weinberg went to different artists and asked them to send twenty works created during that decade, 1985 to 1995. He ended up choosing ten art pieces to represent each of the artists.
One of the art pieces Weinberg also included in “Painting to Survive” is one he created as a memorial for his friend, artist Mark Lida. “At the time I was doing a lot of paintings of Times Square, in New York, in a state of construction and ruin,” he explains. “There’s a façade of a building, and then there’s a big billboard on the façade, all black-and-white.” The name “Lida” is visible. “It’s from ’93. He’d just died. The idea was to advertise his name, to try to remember him in some kind of way.”
“Painting to Survive” also includes some of Marc Lida’s work. Marc Lida was Weinberg’s best friend. “I have his estate,” Weinberg says, “and I’m always looking for ways to get [his] work out into the world.”
One of Lida’s works is from the sex series, “a picture of two guys having sex,” Weinberg mentions. “In the background is an image of death, sort of hanging over them.”
The lead image of the show captures a scene in a dance club, one of the places Marc Lida used to frequent. Then there’s yet another image, Asphyxiation, inspired by the many articles about people dying of self-asphyxiation published at the time.
Richard Hofmann’s artwork is also part of “Painting to Survive” show. “There’s a lot of religious imagery [in Hofmann’s work],” Weinberg comments.
“Painting to Survive” also features artwork like Sex Market and Wrestler by Steven Lack. “He would say that his work is political,” Weinberg comments, “but [Steven Lack’s work] also was a response to the devastation of AIDS that was going on in the eighties. The violence expressed in his artwork is all about that.”
Weinberg adds, about “Painting to Survive”: “The show is doing two things. One is that it’s helping us remember two incredible artists [Hofmann and Lida] who should be alive, just in terms of dates [they both died right before the advent of HAART medications]. That’s a key thing. But the other part of the show isn’t about AIDS and HIV directly, but about painting [itself] surviving during a time when painting was not respected,” he adds, again, in a way echoing Winberg’s words.
Today’s audience might look at this work in two very different ways. Some people might notice the artwork showing sex clubs, the “kinky sex,” and also the violence, and be turned off by it. Some others, like Weinberg himself, might notice the “incredibly beautiful colors” or the idea of unity, a kind of overcoming, expressed in those images, even as they also express violence. “To me, the best painting does that, creates a kind of wholeness out of the struggle, out of the possibility of a kind of tearing apart. That very much fits the work of Jean Foos, who creates this kind of web-like images that hold together but you really feel the stresses. She’s an abstract painter, but you feel the stress that’s pushing against this sense of unity and organization.
“Painting is very good at doing this, expressing a sense of pulling apart, and the coming back together as a whole. And I think that’s something we really need right now.
“I want people to see these artists’ work, because these are amazing artists. They should be better known. One of the things AIDS reminds us [artists] of is that if people don’t [pay attention to] your work when you’re alive, then it’s very possible that after your death nobody will pay attention to it.”
Proust once said, “Art is long, life is too short.” To that Weinberg adds, “Only if the art itself survives. If the art dies, the artists die with it.” He reminds about the work Visual AIDS, which archives and promotes positive artists’ work. “If artists who’re alive can’t get people interested in their work and nobody cares about it, then the chances are that [after their death] the work is going to disappear.”
In the “Painting to Survive” press release, Jonathan Weinberg, reminds us all why the show is so timely today: “For all of these artists, painting was a means of expressing anger and mourning, while balancing qualities of beauty and harmony.…Now, as we face a similar period in American history—one of intense anxiety, heightened animosity and fear, and newly focused attention to the issues of the underrepresented—the ways in which these artists used painting as a form of resistance and a means of salvation has renewed resonance.”
For more information about “Painting to Survive” and Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition, visit BWAC online at: www.bwac.org. For more information about Jonathan Weinberg, PhD, log on to: www.jonathanweinberg.com.
Closing party for Painting to Survive show is on Saturday, April 14, 1–6 p.m. Find out more at http://bwac.org/2018/02/painting-to-survive-1985-1995/.
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.