1

Rosalind Solomon’s "Portraits in the Time of AIDS, 1988" is on view until August 2nd at Bruce Silverstein Gallery. It is a revisitation of her exhibition at the Grey Art Gallery 25 years ago, one of the earliest exhibitions about AIDS in the United States. Sitting down with Ted Kerr, Visual AIDS programs manager, Solomon discusses the impetus for doing the portraits, her process, and some of the impacts the exhibition has had on her life. Part 1, below, begins with Solomon and Kerr in the gallery, looking at the work.

Rosalind Solomon: It is hard for me to look at these pictures. I became close to several of the people in them, visited their homes and spent a lot of time with them talking.

Ted Kerr: In a piece you wrote for the gallery, you mention your son and your husband’s incurable hereditary kidney disease and The New York Times article about the possible quarantine of people living with HIV as factors in starting the project. Was there anything else motivating you?

RS: I thought that the project was something that needed to be done.

TK: What is your process when beginning a new project?

RS: I stumble around. For this project, it was not easy getting access in the beginning. I wasn’t sure if I was able to do it. When I travel to another country I need someone to help me get to where I want to be, and did not know how I was going to manage.

TK: What was your way in for these portraits? 

RS: I met with a young priest named Father Bill McNichols. He really wanted me to do the project.

TK: What was his involvement?

RS: He counseled and helped people with AIDS. He told me to go to St. Peter’s and attend a weekly dinner for AIDS victims. I would sit down and ask the people next to me if they would agree to be photographed for the project. While some said no, others said yes and I visited 2 or 3 people in their homes each week. I couldn’t really do more than that. After awhile the work became easier and they introduced me to others.

TK: What year are we talking about? 

RS: I began the project in the summer of 1987 and finished it in 1988. It took about a year. I was editing and producing the prints while I was photographing.  I imagined that the project would be ongoing for several years until Tom Sokolowski ( a Visual AIDS founder) heard about it. He told me, “It has to be done in May of ‘88 or otherwise I think it is too late.” I think he wanted the show to be a first.

TK: This show is not exactly as it was then, right?

RS: No, there were three times as many pictures shown at the Grey Gallery of Art in 1988.

TK: What was the process like mounting the exhibition for the first time?

RS: As always, I started with 8 x 10 prints, edited those, produced larger proofs and then edited those. I work and live in my place so the exhibition prints took over all of my space. I ended up with 70 prints with six people assisting me. The prints were rolled through the chemicals in wallpaper troughs. My darkroom was not large enough to do them any other way. I couldn’t think of anything else during this project. My friends wondered why I was doing it—they thought I could catch the virus just from photographing people living with AIDS.

TK: How did you know they were wrong?

RS: I don’t know. I read about it and believed you were infected through sexual contact. I wanted that better understood. People were so misinformed and that had terrible consequences for individuals with HIV.

TK: 1988 is an interesting time. It is both early and late into the epidemic. The damage of the government’s inaction had already set in motion the emergency, and yet it’s not until 1987 that we see a critical mass of responses to AIDS. I say all this to ask, what role did AIDS play in our life? Were newspapers your main source of information?

RS: Yes. I didn’t have any friends with AIDS.

TK: So what was it like to live a year being immersed?

RS: Emotional, very emotional. I wanted to talk about it constantly as I could not think about anything else. It was so tragic. So I got involved. I made new friends—people I loved.

TK: AIDS became visible through symptoms and prejudice. How did you reconcile this as an artist?

RS: Though my work could be political, it was not based on political correctness. I never censor my choices. I go towards my attractions and what interests me. I do not have a background in academic art. In retrospect, I am able to conceptualize my art. But as I do it, it’s through personal ethics and judgments. My solo MOMA exhibition, though I still regularly brought new pictures to them, consisted of slides from 12 years of work. Ritual was a strong theme. 

TK: Do you see ritual at play in the show up right now?

RS: Only my ritual.

TK: I guess when I look, I see people facing death. And when we look at gay culture we can see how some of it is a move away from traditional family values. Yet a lot of what you captured was that in the face of death, sons would return to the family.

RS: Sometimes they were embraced, and in other situations they were rejected. I had faced my husband’s illness and I was dreadfully concerned about my son.

TK: How did your life change after the portraits?

RS: I was talking with a friend after he came to the show and he asked, “how long did it take you to get over this?” I had not thought about the connection and project and what I did next. I left the city and went to Africa. I had never stayed longer than two months but in 1988 I left for five. When I came back, my studio help was gone, I had to start from zero. I didn’t know what to do after the AIDS project. It was so intense.

TK: Why?

RS: It encompassed me completely. I didn’t have any other life. There had been times when I thought I couldn’t do anything like that again. I just had to jump into something that was different so I went to Zimbabwe, South Africa and Mali.

TK: That makes sense. So why the revisiting?

RS: It seems like a good time.

TK: What does that mean?

R: I gave a talk at NYU and there was a student who asked why my AIDS work was not in 1993, the New Museum exhibition. Afterward, I looked into the New Museum show and I didn’t see anything about AIDS. However, the New York Historical Society was doing a show about AIDS. I suggested to Bruce Silverstein that it would be a good time to show the pictures again. Bruce found the pictures moving. Liam D. van Loenen, the gallery director, researched feedback on the 1988 exhibition and felt it was important to bring up the negative responses. I thought it would be interesting 25 years later and told him to include it.

Click here to read Part 2.