Avram Finkelstein talks about the roots of his activism and his new projects, individual & collaborative
Text & Photos by Alina Oswald
There are defining moments in our life that divide it into a before and an after, and, in the process, help shape our journey through life. Such was the moment, years ago, when I became aware of the Silence = Death poster. To this day I remain fascinated by it. I’ve always thought of it as mesmerizing and mysterious, dark, daring us to take a closer look. The poster, itself, is one extraordinary, poignant symbol of AIDS history and, specifically, AIDS activism history. In recent years it has become a symbol of activism in a much larger sense.
It’s hard to argue with the impact and the ongoing meaning of the Silence = Death poster, comments Avram Finkelstein, artist, activist and author, and founding member of collectives such as Silence = Death and Gran Fury. “Silence = Death has every bit of meaning to me now as it did when we were designing it,” he says. “It really helps me to resituate myself in my own politics and in my own practice.”
While he might be best known for the Silence = Death poster, Finkelstein has created memorable, remarkable activist artwork throughout his life. Women Don’t Get AIDS They Just Die From It (Gran Fury, 1991), the Four Questions poster [Gran Fury, 1993] and the more recent Undetectable flash collective  are some of his favorites, “powerful works that withstood the test of time,” he calls them. Today we recognize his work in movies like After Louie [A&U, March 2018] and other performances about the then-and-now AIDS crisis.
Over the years we’ve also come to recognize Finkelstein’s work when strolling through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, The Whitney, Museum of the City of New York, and many other public spaces. And no matter where we find ourselves face to face with his artwork, if we look closely, we catch a glimpse of the person behind the work. Yet, it’s only in his book, After Silence: A History of AIDS Through Its Images [A&U, January 2018], which was nominated for the International Center of Photography’s 2018 Infinity Award in Critical Writing and Research and for the 30th Annual Lambda Literary Award in LGBT Nonfiction, that his image starts coming into focus. And it’s by reading After Silence that we begin to understand why, at the height of the AIDS crisis, when most artists used their work to explore the meaning of the early moments of the epidemic, Finkelstein decided to abandon his individual practice in favor of collective practice, and to focus on “cultural production for public spaces” as a means to consider the political implications of AIDS. “It connected the [political sensibilities of my family and my upbringing] to my personal experience as a gay man,” he says, explaining that his upbringing is integral to the way he sees the world today.
His parents met at an International Workers Order (a left-wing organization, 1930–1954) summer camp where his father’s mother was a cook. As a child, Finkelstein would often go to the camp together with his parents and siblings. “My experience is so inflected with my upbringing, in the way in which I talk and think about the world, politics and the meaning of culture, in everything I do, the way I write, the subject of my work,” he comments. “It’s all interconnected and comes from the same source, which, in my case, is my father’s mother, grandmother Lena,” and Russia, the homeland she fled when she was young “to live another day.”
His grandmother comes to life through stories she shared with him, and through his own memories. “She talked about throwing rocks at the Cossacks,” Finkelstein says, mentioning a story from his book. “If you think about it, [that’s] incredibly dangerous and bold, but I think, very much who she was.”
He also remembers that his grandmother always shielded him from any dog that would come close to him, and tell him the story of how his grandfather was once held a day in a tree by a pack of dogs. “I always thought that in the old country dogs were wild,” he laughs, “’cause you never knew if they were going to bite you.”
She was fearful of thunderstorms because in her hometown the roofs of the houses were hatched in hay, and during lighting storms people were terrified that their houses would burn down. “She barely ever talked about [the old country],” he adds, “except in that way.”
Finkelstein remembers his grandmother wearing her hair up in a French braid crown that would go back and forth across the top of her head. “When I stayed with her, she would let me sleep in her room,” he recalls. “And I would pretend to sleep [to watch her] let down her braid. She would brush it all the way to the arm’s distance, and pull it all the way back, over and over…it was the only time I ever saw her [with her] hair down.”
Her courage and determination, her innate desire to protect the youngest in her family and prepare them for life while sharing her own life stories are threads that now we recognize in the artist, himself—in his art and activism, as well as in his work as a mentor.
I met Avram Finkelstein in person in 2014 and witnessed the artist, activist and mentor in action. He talked about the full meaning of an undetectable status, opened my eyes to what activism is, and discussed collectives and art in public spaces. “Collectives are organisms,” he’d say. “Our commons is an exercise in collectivity.”
When I recently caught up with him again, to no surprise, I found him at work, creating new art. “I kind of abandoned my individual practice for the collective practice [at the height of] the AIDS crisis,” he reminds when we talk on the phone, “and as a consequence I have no galleries [to show] my individual work as an artist.” Recently he’s gotten his first commission, as an individual artist, by The Shed, a new art stage at Hudson Yards in New York City that is opening to the public on June 19. “Open Call” is The Shed’s world-premiere commission of large-scale work by fifty-two New York City artists and collectives opening early summer. “It’s my first public commission as an individual artist,” he comments, “a tremendously rewarding, rich, complicated and emotional experience for me on many levels.”
To work on the large-scale piece for The Shed commission, Finkelstein needed a large workspace, and so he applied for an artist residency at Pioneer Works, a Brooklyn arts community. “One of the things I love about Pioneer Works,” he says, “[is that] it’s an experiment in what an arts community that’s fully engaged might look like…it’s like art school for the larger community it serves.”
The work commissioned by The Shed, called Untitled, 1972, is produced by Magnolia Editions (they’re doing the Chuck Close tapestry). With it, Finkelstein returns not only to his work as an individual artist, but also to his work with textiles—such as his early fabric designs about the history of the pharmaceutical industrial complex or about the White Night Riots following Dan White’s lenient sentence for the assassination of Harvey Milk captured on fabric through scattered prints of people throwing rocks at the riot scene. “It’s all based on the idea of propaganda textile used in [some countries] during WWII,” he explains, “about integrating revolutionary ideas into everyday life.”
Finkelstein offers to show me sketches of his new work, in progress, and several days later I find myself in his Pioneer Works studio, surrounded by gigantic sheets of black-and-white sketches that, pinned to the walls, create an artistic tapestry, thus offering a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse into his work process on Untitled, 1972, a hand portrait so enlarged that it looks like a dot pattern. Next to more drawings there’s an image that mentions one word, Schlitz.
Finkelstein explains that in Boston, where he went to college to study art back “when people still hitchhiked, in the late sixties and early seventies,” he became friends with [late] photographer David Armstrong (1954–2014). “Whenever he came to my apartment, he brought two quart bottles of Schlitz,” Finkelstein says. “It was a very cheap brand of beer available in Boston back then. [The image] is a version of the logo in rhinestones on silver leaf, a study for a portrait of him based on a portrait I did of him in 1972. He was one of my closest friends in Boston.” He adds, “the subject of my hand portrait, is another of my closest friends in Boston, who was gender non-conforming and then transitioned.”
The two images, although created decades apart, now share the same (art) space, the juxtaposition allowing for a better understanding of the artist’s work. The image created decades ago serves as a document of the process of becoming, a process that Finkelstein feels he experiences himself, to this day. The Schlitz logo on the wall, next to his new work, serves as a reminder of his LGBTQ activism and memory as an act of witnessing.
Finkelstein is known for creating work that explores ways in which images function in public spaces, and that’s also true with his most recent work. It’s all “an exercise in the heavily meditated nature of image reproduction within our social spaces,” he says, commenting on the hand portrait, which is based on two nineteenth-century image reproduction techniques—the Ben Day dot pattern and the Jacquard (loom) processes—as seen through parallel, modern-day means of creating images that are shared and seen by everyone, and their role in exploring the way images function in today’s imagistic culture.
“In a way, the genesis for all the work that I’[m] doing at Pioneer Works is based on the camera phone, the twenty-first century idea of egalitarian fantasias the Ben Day dot pattern and the Jacquard loom came out of.
…when you think that there’re 35 million people living with HIV in the world, if there were a cure tomorrow, [those] 35 million people will continue to be impacted by HIV. And just because people with access to medications can survive it, as long as there are still people beyond the reach of those medications, HIV is not a thing of the past.
“And I’ve been thinking about monumentalism and about what would it mean to depict queer lives in a monumental scale [in which context the hand portrait becomes a piece of a gigantic Jacquard weaving, the size of a building]. I’m doing a whole series of works that are based on this idea.”
Avram Finkelstein has dedicated his life to public spaces. His work is known in highly regarded circles of curators, historians, artists, and activists. It also has given meaning and hope to millions of people around the world.
In the potentially radicalizing moment defining our present, it’s human nature to look at the past for clues on how to think about the present and future. And the work Finkelstein is best known for offers plenty of clues, but so does his more recent work.
Last year he designed a broadsheet on HIV criminalization that Visual AIDS handed out at the Pride March. This June, for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, #Stonewall50, Finkelstein is working on yet another broadsheet, a 21st Century Liberation public project for Visual AIDS. Printed copies of the broadsheet will be handed out along the Pride March by Visual AIDS.
When it comes to HIV and AIDS, he points out the work that lies ahead. We live in a world where “undetectable” is not only a medical term, but also a term loaded with social implications. We might be inching our way towards a possible cure, but, he comments, “when you think that there’re 35 million people living with HIV in the world, if there were a cure tomorrow, [those] 35 million people will continue to be impacted by HIV. And just because people with access to medications can survive it, as long as there are still people beyond the reach of those medications, HIV is not a thing of the past.”
And so, his work continues. And as it does, just like the artist who, as a young child, watched his grandmother reveal her long hair at night, today, by following his work, we get to learn more about Finkelstein’s individual story, thus to better understand the overall activism story.
“I think there’s no point to activism without the honesty behind it,” Finkelstein comments on his decision to reveal more of his personal story. “Writing After Silence was an experiment for me in revealing things about myself that people didn’t know.” The next step is co-writing with Vincent Gagliostro, who directed and co-wrote After Louie, the script for a new movie, Lumberville.
Lumberville is the town where Avram Finkelstein’s parents met; where the International Workers Order summer camp was and where his grandmother was the cook; where, in a way, his story began. Lumberville, the movie, “is a poetic and emotional love story about the idea that America has about itself as opposed to what America actually is, as seen through the queer gaze. It is a meditation on loss, but also on giving up,” he mentions. After a long pause, he adds, “…I don’t think anyone knows that I attempted suicide as a teenager. It was because I didn’t know how to come out. I’m certainly not the only person who has had that experience and talked about it. But I think it would be useful for people to know I went through this as well, because I don’t think we understand suicide at all or how to talk about it or how common these feelings are. It’s a form of withdrawal, the idea that we remove ourselves from the face of the earth…in a way it’s the last power we have. Isn’t it?”
As someone who helped so many people during the eighties and who dealt with so much death, the activist has never actually talked about his own struggle with the question of death and dying. “Because I survived, I felt that talking about the moment when I almost didn’t would be unfair to the people whom I lost.
“Self-care or mourning or memory is an essential part of humankind. But when we confuse the personal side of loss with our communal idea of loss, we lose the ability to act. It’s important to leave room for the personal, but also bear in mind that we’re not only responsible for ourselves, but also for one another. It’s important for everyone else in the world that your voice be heard as a part of the collective voice. We need every voice there is. We can’t afford for people to withdraw from the task at hand, and the task at hand is a better world. I’m firmly convinced that we’re heading for a better world, and I’m really excited about it.”
Find out more about Avram Finkelstein by visiting online at www.avramfinkelstein.com.
Visit his Pioneer Works artist studio at https://pioneerworks.org/residency/avram-finkelstein/. Learn more about The Shed at www.theshed.org.
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.