Unlikely Heroes: Life & Art at the Start of AIDS

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"Aqua Man," Richard Hofmann

“Aqua Man,” Richard Hofmann

Far from the bleached walls of Chelsea, the art advisers and slick dealers who’ll sell you anything for a buck, are the rougher spaces, mental and physical, where artists work, wrestling with private demons with no guaranty of return. Some succeed, some fail, and some carry on against heavy odds.

Richard Hofmann was one who persevered. Born in Newark in 1954, he died of AIDS across the river in Red Hook in 1994. Though his life was short, it was also rich. On his death he left behind over five hundred works ranging from colossal paintings and club murals to etchings, silkscreens, woodcuts, and photo montage. It was also a near miss, one of those peculiar cases in art where a significant body of work narrowly escapes being lost or thrown away. Bellocq, van Gogh, and Vivian Maier are a few others that come to mind. Their lives were tough, and you wouldn’t call them lucky, but in a sense they were because after they died, someone stepped forward and saved their art.

Richard Hofmann Club Mural

Richard Hofmann Club Mural

Hofmann began painting early, with classes at the Newark Museum and sessions with his mother and father. He earned a BFA from Pratt Institute, then moved to Manhattan’s East Village in the 1980s, a time when squatters claimed abandoned buildings, crime was high, and the art was wild and flowered underground. It was the age of Basquiat, Haring, and Madonna; of legendary clubs like Xenon, Roxy, and Danceteria; of alternative spaces and work that defied traditional genres. But with the ferment came a rising incidence of a rare pneumonia (PCP) and obscure cancer (Kaposi’s sarcoma) in the gay community. As the decade progressed, the pattern deepened. As officials dithered, the disease, yet unnamed, spread through New York, San Francisco, foreign countries, the world. It was deadly, yet no one understood transmission, let alone how to treat or even deal with it on the most basic human level. In 1982 it was given a name–AIDS, Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome–but thirteen years would pass before a drug cocktail was formulated to fight it. In the meantime there was sorrow, confusion, and fear. Political tumult as the Reagan administration tried to suppress evidence, even discussion of the disease, as if not mentioning it would somehow make it go away. It was likened by some to a plague, a biblical punishment wrought on those who engaged in “deviant” sexual behavior. Years went on and knowledge grew, but the terrible genie was out of the bottle. Babies were born with it, families torn apart by it, neighborhoods and entire professions decimated as the dance of death marched on and millions were struck down.

Richard Hofmann Painting

Untitled Painting by Richard Hofmann

Richard Hofmann was a gay man with AIDS who lived and worked in this time. If retrospective is powerful, the human story is wrenching. Because in sickness as in health, Richard Hofmann kept making art. Media and size varied, but his determination never flagged. He faced AIDS without flinching, and in his art at least, it never got the better of him.

Life was a different matter. Yet his final partner bought a measure of peace and stability, as well as supplies needed to sustain Hofmann’s art which continued even as he went blind. When he died, it was put away in a basement. Twenty years later, a chance conversation spurred Ellie Winberg, an artist and board member of the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition, to reach out with an offer to present the work. If this is Hofmann’s story, it is their story too.

If all this sounds a little charmed, Hofmann’s life was not. He lived less than forty years, contracted AIDS at a time when there was no treatment, went blind, and died. A life that would seem nothing but nasty, brutish and short. Yet he produced over five hundred works of art that speak of a time and place in our history. Works that remain inspiring and relevant today.

Hofmann was a part of ACT UP, the group that confronted governmental bureaucracy with vivid demonstrations. He tried to be a part of his family, but they told him not to visit because they didn’t want his medicine in their refrigerator.

He went on. Some say he was unstable, but he was also known to be a kind and generous friend. Wherever he was, whatever he was doing, if a young artist had questions, he always had time. According to Winberg, his living spaces were cramped, including a room in a welfare hotel. If working on a large canvas, he would simply unroll a small stretch, paint it, then roll it up and unroll another blank section and paint on.

As the 90s progressed, Hofmann’s bright Neo-Expressionist style fell out of favor with curators and galleries. But his creativity was stronger than the virus, and he continued making art nearly to the end.

"Six Figures," 1985, Richard Hofmann

“Six Figures,” 1985, Richard Hofmann

It is filled with passion and purpose. As he said in an application to the Pollock-Krasner Foundation in 1989: “I confront death in my work, to remember with catharsis the lives of friends past and to expel the fear of my own mortality. I am angered that my Loves, Friends and Mentors have been allowed to die the most painful of deaths without help or care.”

"Mother With Deformed Child," 1992, Richard Hofmann

“Mother With Deformed Child,” 1992, Richard Hofmann

The drug cocktail that turned AIDS from a death sentence into a chronic disease was discovered in 1995. If Richard Hoffman had lived longer, he might have been saved. Fortunately his work was. Go see it.

The Richard Hofmann Retrospective is on display at the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition through April 16th. It is open Saturdays and Sundays from 12-5pm, and by appointment. Contact rhofmannproject@gmail.com or visit bwac.org. To see more of Hofmann’s work online, go to the Visual AIDS website.

Richard Hofmann Prints

Prints by Richard Hofmann

Prints by Richard Hofmann

– Catherine Kirkpatrick, April 9, 2017

Photography: This Way and That

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Painted_Vase_Rinds_Yellow_DrapeWider_77Back in the studio futzing. Every time I go, I take between 100 to 300 images, each slightly different. A little to the left, a little to the right, a tad closer, a little further back, adjusting so that one comes out right.  Painted_Vase_Rinds_Yellow_DrapeWider_81I tell myself to go faster, to change it up sooner instead of harping on one setup sixty different ways for sixty different minutes, but it doesn’t work.Painted_Vase_Rinds_Yellow_DrapeWider_95I go right back to doing a multitude of variations, learning as I process what works and what doesn’t. (Sometimes it’s hard to tell).Painted_Vase_Rinds_Yellow_Drape_110

And sometimes it’s hard to choose.Painted_Vase_Rinds_Yellow_Drape_105

Which makes me nervous when I send work off to the printer. Did I pick the absolute right one? Is it worth spending x dollars on this image? I want to get it right.Painted_Vase_Rinds_Yellow_Drape_101Which is why the next time I go back to the studio, it’s 100 to 300 shots, a little to the left, a little to the right…

– Catherine Kirkpatrick

Show in November!

I was very honored to have been chosen by the FRONT Art Space for a solo show in November. Downstairs it appears to be a “pocket” gallery (but with great street exposure!), but upstairs is a lovely proper gallery room with great lighting. For me, it was incredibly instructive to see my work on the wall in a great size (19 1/2″ x 27 1/4″). Here are a couple of pictures:

FRONT Gallery Installation (detail)

FRONT Gallery Installation (detail)

 

 

 

It’s Personal

I have a piece in a great book show that’s really been making the rounds down under. The exhibit is Personal Histories, and it’s now at the UNSW CANBERRA: 28 September – 11 December 2015.

Personal Histories Canberra

 

Weather Cooler, Camera Comes Out

The weather is getting cooler, the studio now endurable for photography. It’s a lovely place, but in the summer too hot for moving around. And photography involves moving around. Began some painted still life pics, and did some pictures of the dolls. One is very formal, like doing scales; the other darker and deeply psychological. What does this say about me? A little scared to know. Anyway….

Still Life With White CompoteBlond Doll, StairsDoll_Blue_Stairs_150

Visiting With Leslie Granda-Hill and Those Who Serve Our Country

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Luis Carlos Montalvàn and Tuesday ©Leslie Granda-Hill

Luis Carlos Montalvàn and Tuesday ©Leslie Granda-Hill

I recently had the honor of speaking with Leslie Granda-Hill about her work with the Wounded Warrior Project. Leslie is an incredibly talented photographer with a really big heart. In a world full of users and paparazzi looking for a “gotcha” shots and a buck, Leslie actually cares about the people she photographs. You can feel this in the work. She has a show called Familia Oaxaca opening tonight at Umbrella Arts in Manhattan, and I hope you will stop by. The work and Leslie Granda-Hill are worth it.

If you want to learn about her work with wounded veterans, please take a look at the PWP blog article: Body & Soul: Leslie Granda-Hill Photographs Veterans of Recent Wars.

– Catherine Kirkpatrick

New Book, Another Feature by the New Yorker!

Purgatory & Paradise Sassy '70s Suburbia & the City by Meryl Meisler

Purgatory & Paradise Sassy ’70s Suburbia & the City by Meryl Meisler

Meryl Meisler’s new book is out and it’s great! It was an honor to write the introduction and also to be quoted by the New Yorker! Incredibly, this is a repeat: A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick was featured, the intro quoted by the same publication last year. It doesn’t get too much better.

Meryl Meisler is a dear friend and great creative enabler. She has a unique talent for identifying what people do well and providing opportunities for them to strut their stuff. Her book launches have featured poets, writers, drag stars, visual artists, and The Naked Man, who really, truly goes around naked. Known as the “Legendary Bushwick Photographer,” she has attained celebrity status in Brooklyn. She is the best, as all of her many friends will agree.

Just about everyone in Bushwick is still recovering from Open Studios. Yes, it was back in June, but it was an incredibly busy time. For me, there was writing and editing for Meryl’s book, articles for AiB, and of course, prep for Open Studios itself. In our (very unique) building, one person swept up a quart of dust from the hall. Saw it with my own eyes. There wasn’t quite that much inside our studio, but there were some whirly jigs floating around. We had some very interesting visitors. Heard Chris Rock was over on Bogart Street.

When it was over, I went fishing for a while, but am getting back into gear. More soon.

A Community Grows & Shows in Bushwick

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AIB 2015 Benefit Exhibition

AIB 2015 Benefit Exhibition

I don’t love everybody. Most people think I’m pretty mild, but there have been some epic fights in the past. They will not be mentioned here. But there are a some things and people I’m enthusiastic about.

A year ago, by accident, I wound up sharing a studio in Bushwick. Okay, technically “East Williamsburg,” but still part of the official map of Bushwick Open Studios, the arts festival that takes place at the end of May, or early June (when L Train shutdowns wreak havoc in our lives). It’s overseen by the nonprofit Arts in Bushwick organization. I got introduced to their blog team by my friend, Meryl Meisler, a celebrity because of the epic photographs she took here in the 1980’s, before artists arrived and the gentrification process began. If she puts in a good word for you, it really helps.

I wrote an article about her first book (a second is on the way), stayed on in the studio, and am now in the 2015 AIB Benefit Exhibition called Making History. You can view the show online or at the Storefront Ten Eyck Gallery this Friday or Saturday from 1:00 – 6:00, or Sunday till 4:00, when the benefit auction begins.

I was delighted and honored to be asked to write an article about the show (“Chasing History“) by one of the organizers, Cibele Vieira, who is also a terrific photographer. Big shout out also to writers/editors Willow Goldstein and Veronica Dakota. I’m not a “people person,” or an organization girl, but these folks really rock. They have drive, get stuff done, but are also open and cool. They bring an artist’s sensibility and understanding to everything they do, and are a joy to work with.

The show is really about a living art history moment, a special community that reaches out to its own and gives back in many ways.

Am I getting mellow? Not really. Just telling it like it is which happens once in a while. Hie thee to Bushwick!

 

Happening Soon in Bushwick…

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BOS_Exhibition_2015This Sunday, April 19th, a fabulous show of Bushwick artists will open at gallery Store Front Ten Eyck (at 324 Ten Eyck Street). Sponsored by the great organization Arts In Bushwick, it will culminate in a raffle on May 10th. This is a wonderful opportunity to see artists in their natural habitat, and to purchase some great art at reasonable prices. A very talented group, a very friendly group, in a neighborhood that Vogue named the 7th hottest in the world!

I’m very honored to be among their number, and that my friend, Meryl Meisler, is the limited edition artist. She’s had a wonderful year, with her first book A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick garnering favorable reviews around the world. Her second book is due out this summer.

Tickets for the art raffle go on sale April 19th, and I believe increase as the raffle grows near. So get in early. Bushwick Open Studios will take place all over this neighborhood June 5th-7th. Hope to see you there!

Recording Change in the Photo Field

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Photographer Dianora Niccolini

Photographer Dianora Niccolini

I am very honored to be featured on the blog of the Columbia Center for Oral History Research. I’ve attended their talks and presentations off and on for several years, and  always leave inspired. The projects are widely varied, concern populations all over the world, and are always conducted by people passionate about what they do. There is always a tremendous amount of respect–in the room and in the field. If you think academics are dull and dry, you would be wrong. These people are smart and funny. One time there was a lecture about documenting the miners of Harlan County, Kentucky, a study conducted by an Italian. He had gone to the area, gotten an introduction to a local, and was welcomed because he didn’t make a fuss over the mess in her house. At the end of the presentation someone played a banjo. I say no more.

For the past few years, I’ve been blogging about the experiences of women in photography. It started with a trip to the PWP archives, but my curiosity grew beyond the organization, to include the sweeping changes in the field over the past forty years, technological and artistic. I hope to continue this, recording the memories of people who have experienced this change, and to learn more about the many causes of disruption. I am always interested in photo stories, so if you have any you want to share, please let me know.

http://oralhistory.columbia.edu/blog-posts/People/snapshots-of-change-voices-from-photographys-recent-past