The Strength to Create
Artist Donald Tarantino Explored Architecture and Mortality
by Chael Needle
A new book, Architecture and Mortality, introduces the work of late artist and printmaker Donald Tarantino to a new generation of viewers. Published by bd-studios.com, an innovative platform that publishes art and poetry and, in general, forges creative collaborations, the book features dozens and dozens of works by Tarantino and boasts textual portraits by individuals close to Donald, Michael Tice and Michael Bacon, who wrote the foreword and afterword, respectively, giving readers a glimpse into the artist’s personality, his work habits and political philosophies, how he navigated his own diagnosis, the people he loved and the people who loved him, and the hole in the art world left by his death in 1988.
Raised on Long Island, Tarantino attended Philadelphia College of Art before moving, first to Portland, Maine, with Bacon, for a spell and then settling in New York City. He joined the Lower East Side Printshop, a nonprofit that supports artists with space and technological resources. After learning he was positive, he joined the Living Room at St. John’s and found therapeutic support, as well as another space for his creativity to flourish. The Living Room “was a lively meeting place for many people, mostly gay men with HIV,” writes Michael Bacon. “The nickname had a dual meaning because we met in what was the living room of the old house and because it was a place of life at a time when the death march was in full motion. Even the garden, which you passed through to get to the house, was notable. We all were so desperate for anything of beauty and life-affirmation. A lot of art was produced at those meetings.”
His biography, created by Bacon and Tice, shows why he was much loved; his prints, drawings and other art work show why he deserves steadfast appreciation.
Says publisher luke kurtis about the project’s origin, “Architecture and Mortality came about as a side project from when I worked with Michael Tice on his book The Male Nude. While visiting his studio and reviewing his work, I happened to see one of Donald’s prints. I asked Michael about it, curious to learn more. Soon he had pulled out a large selection of images. As Michael told me more about Donald’s life and work, I immediately wanted to turn it into a book. From there, Michael allowed me full access to his archive. I inventoried and digitized all of Donald’s surviving work, curated the images for publication, and provided the project’s overall editorial direction.”
Notes Tice, “The book gives a good overview of many of Donald’s best works, and shows him developing his work from his student days until later in life.” He adds, “I’m very thankful that this book is being published, and more people will discover Donald and his artwork. He was a very special and unique artist that I was fortunate to have known.”
Architecture and Mortality resonates with other work published by bd-studios.com, such as (This Is Not A) Mixtape for the End of the World by Daniel M. Shapiro, a collection of prose poems that has been brought out at the same time as Tarantino’s book. “At its core, the mission of my work as a publisher is to present art and poetry by unheard and underrepresented voices. Architecture and Mortality is part of this mission because Donald Tarantino’s work has been overlooked in independent queer art,” explains kurtis. “But the fact is that even though his life was cut short by AIDS, the work he did remains not only technically impressive but conceptually substantial. The ideas about home, family, cities, suburbia, life, and, ultimately, death expressed through his work are grounded in a concise aesthetic vision. There is a through-line from his earliest work right through his latest prints, even as his style and skill evolved. It is a tragedy that art of this caliber could be lost to time. Hopefully, the book can help correct that situation. Indeed, that is what my publishing practice aims to do for every artist and poet I publish: put their work into the world so that other people can enjoy and remember it for years to come.”
Says publisher luke kurtis when asked about the book’s potential audience: “Keith Haring gets most of the attention regarding gay artists from that era, and his work is certainly deserving. But artists like Donald Tarantino tell another part of the story and are just as important. Donald’s late prints, inspired by his time spent in the AIDS ward at St. Vincent’s Hospital, are valuable documents from a difficult time in our history. St. Vincent’s Hospital, which played such an essential role in the epidemic, is no longer there. But Donald’s prints help us remember it.”
Michael Tice, who was partners with Donald, tells A&U that Tarantino produced these “small intricate etchings of life in St. Vincent’s Hospital after a stay there in 1988.” He continues: “These are among his most personal and moving works, depicting himself in a hospital bed, as well as a print of men with IV poles walking in the hallway of the hospital.”
Tice, who is an artist, notes that these prints are aligned with Tarantino’s approach to art. “I think Donald took a very personal, almost autobiographical approach to his own work. He really put his experience in his work and made works that reflected his own life,” Tice notes.
Indeed, these St. Vincent’s drypoint etchings have a loose. lovingly detailed quality, as if the scenes are ripped from the artist’s notebook. Their hand-crafted emphasis makes them immediately accessible to viewers, and yet one feels one is at a remove, a view from a distance that perhaps cannot be easily crossed.
Pain is present in these works, as well as a sense of alienation that haunts many of his other pieces, which explore, to a great extent, architecture.
In some of these works, people populate urban and suburban scenes in buildings whose façades have been cut away like doll houses. In Jumping to Nowhere, for instance, a street-facing wall has been removed from an average-looking suburban house. We see two figures lifting off as spritely as the water arcs up from the sprinkler in the yard. And yet they do not quite lift off, as if their exuberance is tamped down by the roof above.
Some lithographs and screen prints celebrate vivid and muted colors alike as they depict architectural exteriors and interiors. Some focus on the way life and work become compartmentalized; Tarantino is able to intertwine people and their environments into a compact space so that the viewer can understand how they impact one another even if isolation seems to prevail.
In others, a series of cityscapes, for example, buildings loom starkly, monchromatically, almost as if German directors F.W. Murnau or Robert Wiene ordered them up for their movies. I’m thinking of Faust, here, or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, where architecture expresses character, and, in Tarantino’s work, it is an idea brought home by the fact that the scenes are often peopleless.
When asked which artists or movements Donald admired or drew inspiration from, Tice offers, “I remember how he loved the works of Egon Schiele, especially the drawings of human figures. We saw a show of Joan Nelson’s work at PPOW gallery, and he really liked her works. She was making paintings of buildings at that time.”
What stands out in this collection is that Tarantino explored his ideas by changing up his representations of architecture. St. Stephens, Wien lives in an alternate universe than Palm Reader. His ability to switch media to explore different themes and moods is evident.
Long before Donald was diagnosed with ARC and started going to ACT UP meetings with Tice, he expressed in his work a willingness to resist the status quo. For example, Architecture and Mortality also includes Violet Wakes Up and R.I.P., two chapbook-length narratives that queer social mores and reveal a certain absurdist humor reminiscent of John Waters.
Overall, Architecture and Mortality reminds us that AIDS history is unfinished history. Our archaeological efforts must continue, for, as in this case, they can bring to light the buildings that once stood and the lives of those who inhabited their rooms.
In conclusion, I ask Tice to reflect on how his art was changed for knowing Donald. He answers: “My work is also intuitive, personal, and semi-autobiographical. I think seeing Donald’s commitment and courage to create while dealing with his illness continues to inspire me. He showed me how to have the fortitude, the strength to create, no matter what happens.”
For more information, log on to: bd-studios.com.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.