Resurrecting the Forgotten Art of the AIDS Era

It’s probably easier to spend so much time in the company of such sad, often confrontational work — to look at a mournful slow dance between wasted bodies, or a sailor lying unconscious on a restroom floor, scenes that are represented in the Steers paintings he owns — when you know how much it’s worth. Goff takes Moore’s steadily rising prices as a good sign, although what happens next remains to be seen. “It’s early days,” he says about whether Moore’s market value will lead to a museum show. “I mean, it should.”

Another collector, Brian Saltzman, a 64-year-old infectious disease specialist and internist who often received gifts of art from his East Village patients, now owns over 300 pieces that he keeps in five storage facilities across Manhattan. His collection serves as a reminder: not of the statistics related to AIDS — between 1987 and 1997, the illness claimed over 300,000 lives in America alone — but of the talented men he treated and befriended, how they brimmed with promise until the disease took hold. “The work is deeply moving for me, and it makes me smile,” he says. “That’s why I keep it around.”

AIDS shattered the notion of what it meant to be a gay artist. No matter what their practices looked like before the crisis, those who didn’t die right away were expected to dissect and distill the tragedy of the virus while it was still killing them. “I loved what David [Wojnarowicz] was doing, but I just wanted to make art about my friends. I missed them,” says the Los Angeles-based Chicano artist Joey Terrill, who, at 66, recently stepped down as the director of global advocacy and partnerships at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, where he’d worked for the past 17 years, partly because he has too many shows coming up. Last fall, Ortuzar Projects in New York hosted his first solo exhibition in the city in 40 years, which was followed by another one this past spring at Park View/Paul Soto gallery in Los Angeles. Earlier this summer, the Whitney acquired his telenovela-style painting series “Breaking Up/Breaking Down” (1984-85), in which a version of the artist is shown pining over an ex in the course of a year: crying, masturbating, self-medicating and trying to sleep. As AIDS spread, Terrill says, “It was like wartime. The idea of trying to pursue a career [in art] was preposterous.” Then there was the fact that these largely figurative works had been pushed aside by Neo-Geometric Conceptualism, whose rise in popularity coincided with the epidemic: By the mid-80s, the emerging Neo-Geo star Jeff Koons had replaced Wojnarowicz as the artist of the moment — which also meant that gay artists found themselves in the impossible position of having to make sense of and articulate the trauma of their lives, even as people grew disinterested. “No one cared about this work anymore. All the collectors suddenly wanted a [Koons] bunny,” says Wendy Olsoff, a co-founder with Penny Pilkington of PPOW gallery, who nonetheless never stopped representing Wojnarowicz and Wong.