25 Stories: Art + AIDS


December 04, 2012



An Illinois native, David K. moved to upstate New York after graduating from college in 1976 with a degree in the arts. With dozens of friends and acquaintances living in New York City, David did a lot of traveling back and forth from Rochester to the city, so when HIV reared its head in the early 80s, David was in the thick of it. “People were just dropping like flies, especially in the arts,” he remembers. “It just seemed like the end of the world.” David, who remains HIV negative to this day, wanted to do something, anything, to educate the public and give AIDS patients and their families a place to express themselves. So, as a gallery curator at the University of Rochester, David began curating exhibitions on visual art and poetry from the AIDS community. “That was my way of beginning to at least make people start having a discussion about how they felt,” he explains. “It was mentally very devastating to see so much of the art community just passing away without any thought of their artwork or what’s going to happen to their legacy after they’re gone.”

New York City-based artist Sue Coe’s radical work always struck a chord with David, who wanted to show her work in his exhibit. He shares his memories of Coe and curating AIDS-related art here:

Early on, I went to one of her lectures. I knew that she had done artwork dealing with AIDS, and her artwork is always very in-your-face militant, whether it’s about slaughterhouses, or rape, or AIDS. She went to Texas and spent time in an AIDS unit in a hospital, and she got to know AIDS patients and did this series prints about these AIDS patients. I talked to her very briefly before her lecture and I told her I’d been curating exhibits about AIDS, and she said, “Well, I should be in your exhibit,” and I said, “I would love that” and she said, “Well write to my gallery and we’ll see what we can do.”

Well, she’s in a famous gallery in New York City, and I wrote two or three letters to them and of course they wanted me to buy her artwork in order to exhibit it, so I finally just gave up. And then I came home one day and in my mail was a card from Sue Coe. And she said, “I hear you’re having trouble with my gallery. I’m giving you a suite of my prints if you promise to exhibit them.” It was just an amazing gift, so I started showing her work on a regular basis.

She actually worked with a doctor who was also an artist in Texas. He was an AIDS specialist, Eric Avery, and he ended up doing prints on paper that was made out of sheets from the beds of the AIDS patients. They would shred the sheets, the cotton, and make the sheets of paper out of the cotton, and then he would do his prints on these very personalized pieces of paper that came from the AIDS wing of the hospital. So her work was just amazing. She really wanted to get out there. She actually would have openings in New York City, and she would have testing going on in the gallery while she was having her opening. This was in the late 80s and early 90s. That was pretty radical for that time. I think she probably is one of the highlights of my exhibits. It’s also amazing to think of all the people who were in the exhibits who are gone. I’m glad that I had those years to do the exhibits.