Peter Antony, Associate Publisher in the Publications and Editorial Department, speaks on his involvement with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and its role in the creation of the limited-edition ACT UP Art Box (1994) featuring works by the artists Nancy Spero, Lorna Simpson, Ross Bleckner, Mike Kelley, Kiki Smith, Simon Leung, and Louise Bourgeois. Today, the Art Box can be found at The Met and in public and private collections across the country.
By the time I came to New York in 1989 after interviewing at various publishing houses, I had already known and lost a number of friends in Pennsylvania and San Francisco to HIV. In San Francisco, while working for Houghton Mifflin, I’d become acquainted with quite a large, sociable group of gay men who were six or ten years older than I was at the time. Over the following years, every single one of those men died.
At The Met, I was first hired as a production assistant in the Publications Department and soon became acquainted with Jim Aquino, who worked in what was then called the Department of Twentieth Century Art. Jim invited me to join him and I began to attend ACT UP meetings, which were held at the Cooper Union and later at the gay community center on West 13th Street in Manhattan. I also began to go to demonstrations.
These meetings were very well attended—often hundreds of people, including Larry Kramer, who was a founder of ACT UP. People were grieving for those already lost to HIV. There was anxiety for people whose health was deteriorating from the illness. And there was absolute rage. We all felt rage about government inaction on the issue at every level: city, state, and federal. There was a great deal of anger and it fueled some spectacular ACT UP demonstrations, the impact of which is felt to this day.
Some of these demonstrations took place before I arrived in New York: Storm the National Institutes of Health and Stop the Church, for example, were famous actions that had precise strategic purposes. But I did join ACT UP in Washington D.C. when a group of activists chained themselves to the gates of the White House and were arrested. I also went to a demonstration at a pharmaceutical company that, we thought, was very slow to develop and release a medication that could conceivably help people.
The head of the Publications Department at the time was a man named John O’Neill. He strongly encouraged and supported my participation in ACT UP. But he was concerned for my safety. He knew that we were sometimes arrested and handcuffed by the police.
Prior to the development of the ACT UP Art Box, there had been some great fundraising art auctions that generated thousands of dollars to fund ACT UP’s activities. The organizers of those auctions included the artist Robert Gober, the art dealer Paul Morris, and many others in the art world who were committed to confronting the AIDS crisis. There was an early meeting, and it was decided for whatever reason, that having done two auctions, we should not endeavor to do a third.
The idea emerged of developing a multiple that could be sold, which became a box featuring works by a number of participating artists. At that time, I was familiar with boxed editions of artworks that previous generations of artists had made. There were these boxes, in many cases subsequently broken apart with elements sold individually, but perhaps in other cases kept in the original configuration of related objects. At the moment, I’m thinking of one that included Eva Hesse and maybe a piece by Richard Serra. So we knew about these editions, the four of us on the Art Box Committee—me; a fellow named Hal Goldberg, who has since passed away; and a married couple, Liz Boyle, who worked for Paula Cooper, and Kim Walter. I was actually dating Hal at the time. I met him in ACT UP. We were on the fundraising committee, exploring ways beyond T-shirts, buttons, and coffee mugs to raise money for ACT UP and its activities. Hal, in many ways, took the administrative lead on this project and kept all of us moving toward the creation of this multiple. He brought the committee together.
We began to think about a box of objects in an edition of one hundred that we would sell for around $1,000 each. We compared notes about artists we knew or who we thought might be sympathetic to our effort and want to participate. I had seen a beautiful, cascading wall of glass wishbones with texts by Lorna Simpson in a group show at Josh Baer Gallery. (Josh is the son of the painter Jo Baer.) Someone else knew about Simon Leung and reached out to him. We all knew about Mike Kelley, who was based in California. We contacted Kiki Smith and Louise Bourgeois and Nancy Spero and Ross Bleckner. These were the artists we invited to participate.
I reached out to Lorna and I remember speaking with her on the phone about how moved I was by her installation at Josh Baer Gallery, and she agreed to participate. She ended up contributing glass wishbones and a short text. I remember speaking to Kiki by phone. She contributed a medallion of stamped glass and a photograph of clay objects that had a visceral, almost anatomical look to them. Simon Leung contributed a remarkable textile, a piece of silk onto which he silkscreened the mark left by people pressing their faces against the peephole in door of Duchamp’s Étant donnés at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Nancy Spero decorated the lids of these boxes. Each lid is a completely unique work of art, the figural renderings and the coloration. Mike Kelley faxed me a drawing of a corked egg, and Hal went out and got it fabricated. Liz Boyle and I went down to Louise Bourgeois’s townhouse in Chelsea, where she lived and worked, and spent the better part of an afternoon sitting with her at the table in her main room as she signed each set of documentation. All of the art boxes contain a foldout that all of the artists signed.
I reached out to Josh Baer and he agreed to make his space in SoHo available for an opening. A number of the artists attended. Nancy Spero was there, and her husband Leon Golub, too, which was a thrill for me. Kiki Smith came. The ACT UP Art Box remained on view at Josh Baer Gallery for a period of time as part of their scheduled exhibition series.
There was a great deal of initial interest in the box and it was rapidly accessioned into museum collections. Bill Lieberman, who at the time was the head of the Department of Twentieth Century Art here, immediately bought one and graciously donated it to The Met. Agnes Gund, the great benefactor of the Museum of Modern Art, bought one personally and donated it to MoMA. Other institutions bought it directly, or had boxes donated to them, such as the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Walker Art Center.
My personal participation in ACT UP ended many years ago, after the Art Box release, the exhibition at Josh Baer Gallery, and the initial institutional interest in acquiring the box for various collections. But ACT UP still exists today. It’s smaller; it has a more varied focus, advocating for all kinds of healthcare issues and rights.
ACT UP felt like a collision of creativity, political fervor, justifiable anger, and total commitment to taking care of our ailing fellows and working toward the goals of a more educated public that could protect itself from exposure to HIV. There were many artists in ACT UP, and many remarkable writers including Michael Cunningham and the late David Feinberg. These artists did such incredible work before I’d even arrived in New York, making works that defined ACT UP’s visual identity and encapsulated the potency of its arguments. They came up with really stunning visuals, many of which have been collected by the New-York Historical Society, New York Public Library, MoMA, and so forth. I’ve seen several on view recently at the Whitney. It’s just extraordinary, all these years later, to see some of these recognized as museum-quality works of art. It’s very moving to me. We walked up and down the streets in the rain, carrying some of these things. Some of them are famous: Know Your Scumbags, for example, and representations of Ronald Reagan’s face next to a dizzying spiral.
Thinking back on all of this, I wanted to take a moment to remember two people in particular who worked at The Met and who died around this time. The first was Hoyt Soltau. He was working in what we now call Retail. He was young and nattily dressed and always very friendly—a buoyant, outgoing person who became sick and died of AIDS. I remember him vividly, because of his joy for living. The second person was Guy Bauman, who worked in the European Paintings Department on art from the Northern Renaissance. Guy fell ill and passed away from AIDS, as did his partner. There were other people, over the years, I’m sure, names I don’t know, people who fell ill. This story is not only about people who are part of The Met community who became activists. It’s also about people who were part of The Met community, and who we lost.
– As told to Christopher Alessandrini