Can We Talk About the 80s Without Talking About AIDS?


by David Waggoner

Count Me In

For the past year, I have been watching artist documentaries on cable and I caught one the other day that gave me pause: Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait. The doc features lengthy interviews with the artist, his children and other family members, gallery owners, and art critics, and creates a fascinating portrait of someone who paints to the beat of his own drum. The film presents a chronology and, by the late seventies and early eighties, the enigmatic Schnabel has moved to New York City, connecting with Mary Boone and befriending Jean-Michel Basquiat (later a subject for Schnabel’s first film as a director) and becoming part of the art scene. Yet not once does the documentary mention AIDS.

This exclusion may or may not have been conscious, but it struck me how easy it is to tell a story of the eighties in NYC without mentioning the pandemic. Granted, the doc did not mention any other political or cultural forces during that time, keeping its subject in a cocoon. But that approach is par for the course in aesthetics—art is universal and transcends the time in which it is produced, goes one theory.

But HIV/AIDS changed all that, perhaps once and for all. So we tell the story again: Keith Haring, Frank Moore, Peter Hujar, David Wojnarowicz, Mark Morrisroe….

Yet, like the documentary, exclusion comes easily. The art establishment “forgets” Black artists and other artists of color, anyone who is not male and white. So we need to approach art appreciation—and AIDS activism—with questions in tow: Who is missing from the record, and why? Who occupies the center and who has been marginalized?

Sur Rodney (Sur), this month’s cover story interview, was part of the NYC art scene in the eighties. And because he feared that artists who were dying from AIDS or otherwise impacted might be forgotten, he, his partner Geoffrey Hendricks and Frank Moore, along with help from Visual AIDS, cofounded an initiative to preserve art in the mid-nineties called the Frank Moore Archive Project. His practice of inclusion extends to telling the truth about activism and treatment history as well. He tells contributing writer Larry Buhl: “There were a lot of women and mothers [in ACT UP] and they’d bring their kids because they couldn’t get babysitters. You never see any film about AIDS activism where kids are present, or people of color. The reality was a lot more complicated.” I am so glad we can feature Sur Rodney (Sur)’s insights as well as the heartfelt photographs of him taken by Senior Editor Sean Black.

Inclusion is also a goal for the advocates featured in this issue. Bryan C. Jones, interviewed by Mel Baker, is a tour de force in Ohio, creating a true community of care, while Brad Grimes, interviewed by A&U’s Hank Trout, is making sure to not leave anyone out in the cold in West Virginia. And Larry Buhl interviews military service members and other advocates fighting against the government’s policies to restrict deployment of and therefore exclude individuals living with HIV/AIDS.

As we know, some members of the HIV community are no longer around to tell their story and must rely on those who remain to be accurate and fair. And some are living today who cannot access their full-throated voices. Or they are being sidelined by those in power. If the proposition on the table is that, within the HIV community we have to be extra-diligent to strive for and achieve inclusion, well, then, count me in. And I hope we can count on you, too.

David Waggoner is Editor in Chief and Publisher of A&U, the first national HIV/AIDS magazine in the U.S.