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.
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 was a gay man with AIDS who lived and worked in this time. If the 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.
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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or visit bwac.org. To see more of Hofmann’s work online, go to the Visual AIDS website.
– Catherine Kirkpatrick, April 9, 2017