The Art of the Aids Crisis: Cautionary Oeuvres From the 1980s

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A 1985 protest in New York City, the hub of the AIDS epidemic and the corresponding art movement. Source:


This essay will analyze the artwork produced in the United States during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s, and engage with the following question: What were the dominant messages and intentions of the paintings and posters that emerged from the 1980’s AIDS crisis? Using a modest sample of case studies, this essay will demonstrate how the AIDS epidemic inspired still artwork of many styles, all inspired in their own right by one of the greatest nationwide scares of the late 20th century. The essay will also establish the sociopolitical forces that shaped the artwork of this era. For instance, what was the federal government’s role in and response to the AIDS crisis, and how did that influence the manner in which chief political figures (particularly Ronald Reagan, who was president throughout most of this period) were portrayed?

By visually analyzing a number of paintings from this period, as well as consulting the scholarship related to them, this essay will reveal what elements of the AIDS crisis most inspired the resulting artwork of the era.




Just as Picasso did with Guernica and Van Gogh did with The Potato Eaters, artists across America produced works which visually encapsulated a period of great sorrow and suffering: the nationwide AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s.

Early on in the decade, the Center for Disease Control reported the first cases of a strange new illness, which had affected five previously healthy gay men living in New York City. Although the disease remained mysterious in many regards, physicians could recognize that it was “a blood-borne and sexually transmitted disease, probably viral in origin” (Caldwell, pg. 203). By 1984, the disease was given a formal name— “AIDS,” which stands for “acquired immunodeficiency syndrome”— and identified more thoroughly as “a deadly new blood-transmitted viral disease that was primarily striking down young men, particularly homosexuals and drug users who shared contaminated needles. (Reeves, 2005, pg. 211).

The causes of this disease were not all that were being recognized— so was the ever-mounting death toll. According to the United States Public Health Service, “AIDS deaths had gone from one in 1978, to 151 in 1981, and 1,145 in 1983.” (pg. 306).  “The disease, which had been identified early in Reagan’s first term, had killed more than 4,000 Americans by 1984,” (pg. 212). “By the end of [1987], more than twenty-nine thousand Americans— predominantly gays and minorities— had already been killed by the disease” (Bunch, 2010, pg. 111). As AIDS claimed more and more lives, and left many others grievously sick, the epidemic evolved “from headline to hysteria to global pandemic” (Moffitt & Duncan, 2011, pg. 229).

AIDS remains without a cure and globally widespread— over 37 million people are now living with the disease, with about 1 million fatalities per year, according to the World Health Organization. Yet the medical world has responded— thanks to antiretroviral therapies and other contemporary medicine, the annual death toll is now scarcely half of its 2005 peak of 1.8 million — and so has the arts community. “Because of the scope and gravity of the AIDS crisis, cultural activism pertaining to it has assumed every imaginable form,” author David Deitcher observes (1995, pg. 194).

Plays like The Normal Heart, As Is and Safe Sex “played an activist role throughout the 1980s, not only drawing on popular perceptions of the disease, but contributing to them by increasing both education and compassion.” (Moffitt & Duncan, pg. 244) Rent continued that process in the 1990’s, and anti-AIDS activism also raged on television and in literature. Films like Living with AIDS were nationally televised on PBS and other stations, while Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On “established the vocabulary with which popular discussion [on AIDS] has been conducted ever since.” (Mills, 1990, pg. 202).

Furthermore, a number of paintings and posters rank among the most stirring cultural projects to emerge from the height of the 1980’s AIDS crisis. These works ranged considerably in terms of style and artistic qualities; yet all emerged from their authors’ intense feelings of sadness, anger, and fear from a period that freely triggered such emotions across the nation. The main body of the essay will engage with a number of such paintings, while determining their similarities and differences as works of art and sociopolitical statements.

The conclusion of the essay will return to the primary research question of what sort of consensus statement, if any, was made by the art created in response to the 1980’s AIDS crisis.




Our first case study is the piece which inspired this whole essay: He Kills Me, a 1987 street poster which Texan-born artist Donald Moffett created in memory of his deceased friend, Diego Lopez. Our class trip to the Hirshhorn Museum to visit the exhibition Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s was very memorable, and seeing this piece on display was both powerful and unsettling. I became keen to place He Kills Me in conversation with other works inspired by the AIDS epidemic, so as to determine how political and accusatory they were by comparison. I was also curious as to whether the arts community portrayed Ronald Reagan as the consensus villain of the era, the way that Moffett so explicitly does.  

Moffett made this poster on behalf of ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and the three-word slogan he chose “concisely communicated the group’s thoughts about the President’s effect on AIDS patients” ( ACT UP’s basic feelings were shared by other activists and advocacy groups of the era: as severe as the AIDS crisis had grown, Reagan was nonetheless “ineffectively responding to the disease. In particular, they were concerned that the administration was underfunding AIDS research and obstructing prevention efforts by opposing sex education” (

Academics are seemingly divided on the merits of these accusations. As the title of his book suggests, political journalist Will Bunch is fiercely critical of the president in Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future. He agrees that Reagan “failed to address issues such as AIDS and homelessness in any meaningful way” (pg. 20) and that “on AIDS in particular, Reagan’s lack of leadership was appalling— it would not be until 1987, when the disease had already claimed thousands of American lives, that the president even uttered the words in a prepared speech” (pg. 97). Bunch promotes Reagan’s severe mishandling of the AIDS crisis as a clear example of how “in pushing his nostalgic and rose-colored vision of the country he marginalized many groups of Americans” (pg. 97).

In his book President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination, historian Richard Reeves recognizes that Reagan was criticized for “refusing to acknowledge the lethal spread of AIDS across the nation” (pg. xvi). However, Reeves remarks that one of the most inflammatory accusations levied against Reagan— that he was “ignoring the disease because most of the victims were homosexuals or drug users, ready targets of the Moral Majority and other religious fundamentalists” (pg. 306)— both upset him and ultimately inspired him to respond to his critics more deliberately.


The day after his 1985 inauguration, Reagan spoke to the Department of Health and Human Services, describing the search for a cure for AIDS as “one of our highest public health priorities” (pg. 308).  A few months later, in a speech to the College of Physicians in Philadelphia, he declared AIDS to be “Public Enemy Number One” and that “government-financed progress toward a cure was being made faster than similar drives in the past against polio and hepatitis.” (pg. 389)

In certain respects, Reagan was right: “Federal spending on AIDS research, which had been $5.5 million in 1982, would reach almost $400 million by the end of 1986” (pg. 306) and the Presidential Commission on the HIV Epidemic was established the following year. However, Reagan’s critics still blasted him for not reacting to the AIDS crisis until it had claimed many lives (“his proposals were seen by many as too little, too late,” Bunch writes (pg. 111)) and for allowing his conservative and religious values to undermine his commitment to fighting AIDS. “Until the Reagan administration realizes that the government’s responsibility is saving lives and not saving souls, we will continue to see the virus spread through the society,” Dr. Neil Schram, head of Los Angeles AIDS Task Force, wrote in response to Reagan’s remarks to the HHS Department (Reeves, pg. 389).



As would be the case for any Commander-in-Chief, Reagan was antagonized in a great deal of artwork throughout his presidency. Keith Haring, Moffett’s colleague at ACT UP, created several slanderous pieces with titles like Reagan: Ready to Kill. A poster which this group released in 1987 placed Reagan’s face behind a giant pink label, “AIDSGATE,” with many horrifying statistics about the consequences of AIDS sprawled underneath. “What is Reagan’s real policy on AIDS?” the caption asked. “Genocide of non-whites, non-males, and non-heterosexuals?”

Based on a survey of other artwork of this theme and era, other artists tended not to demonize Ronald Reagan as explicitly as did Moffett, Haring and the rest of ACT UP. For instance, the book Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS features images of an extensive amount of artwork created in response to the AIDS epidemic; Moffett’s poster is the only piece that includes Reagan’s face at all. The same is true of the book After Silence: A History of AIDS Through Its Images, which also features many images of AIDS-related material from this era. Again, Reagan’s face appears only once: on the “AIDSGATE” poster produced by ACT UP.

Overall, it seems like the art community had more than Reagan on its mind, and the bulk of AIDS-themed artwork from this period reflects that mentality. Perhaps ACT UP, in an effort to draw attention to its cause as an emerging political advocacy group, employed inflammatory images of Reagan far more forcefully than the average artist of the era cared to do. If not the President of the United States, though, who else might these artists have meant to target in the works?




Keith Haring is the artist most often associated with the AIDS epidemic, not only because he was the most famous one to succumb to the illness, but because he made AIDS such a prevalent theme throughout his body of work. Given that the disease ultimately claimed his life, such a theme may come across as eerily prophetic. Yet it also demonstrates how forcefully many artists of the era wished to convey the disease that was killing off many of their peers. “I’m not really scared of AIDS,” Haring wrote in his journal on March 28th 1987— the year before he was diagnosed with the virus. “I’m scared of having to watch more people die in front of me…. If the time comes, I think suicide is much more dignified and much easier on friends and loved ones. Nobody deserves to watch this kind of slow death” (Haring, 2010, pg. 163).

Terrifying thoughts of this nature, as well as awareness of his own mortality— “I am quite aware of the chance that I have or will have AIDS,” he confides in his diary (pg. 162) — had a direct impact on Haring’s late-career catalogue. In the years before he died of AIDS-related complications in 1990, Haring produced an extraordinary number of paintings inspired by this epidemic. This process proved to be quite cathartic for the artist— “Haring painted in the late eighties to save others and keep himself alive,” Robert Farris Thompson observes in the introduction to Keith Haring – Journals (pg. xxxi).

This section of the essay will consider two such paintings: one produced in 1989 named Silence = Death, and another produced in 1988 which, like many of Haring’s works, remains untitled. These pieces features Haring’s recognizable trademark of simple, faceless figures which he graffitied across the New York subway in his early career, and then on canvases once his resources allowed for it. “His style of references were intentionally simple in order to be accessible to as wide an audience as possible,” (Haring et. al., 2011, pg. 206), and that same style has since “been cloned into international graphic vernacular” (Haring & Sussman, 2008, pg. 12). In this particular case, such simplicity proved effective in communicating how urgent it was for everybody to recognize and respond to the early AIDS crisis.



Silence = Death also presents us with two further trademarks: the slogan in its title and the colored shape at its foreground. Originated by a six-person collective in New York in 1985, “Silence = Death” had become ACT UP’s provocative call to action. They now passed out merchandise featuring these words at their rallies, and also displayed them proudly on their shirts and posters. As the group’s manifesto explained, “silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people, then and now, must be broken as a matter of our survival” (Maggiano, 2017,

This slogan is featured in the painting’s title, and one of the dominant images to emerge from ACT UP and the entire AIDS epidemic is placed at its foreground: the pink triangle. During the Nazi regime, this colored shape had been applied to homosexuals the same way the Star of David had been applied to Jews— first as a public badge of shame, and then as a means of making the deportation process one degree easier.

ACT UP’s website provides the history of what happened next. “The pink triangle was established as a pro-gay symbol by activists in the United States during the 1970s… the appropriation of the symbol of the pink triangle, usually turned upright rather than inverted, was a conscious attempt to transform a symbol of humiliation into one of solidarity and resistance. By the outset of the AIDS epidemic, it was well-entrenched as a symbol of gay pride and liberation” ( ACT UP adopted this symbol as its own, implying that the onset of AIDS, too often met with societal and governmental neglect, had now led to another extermination of the gay community.

The painting’s title and central image forge an unmistakable connection to ACT UP and its central message, although Haring denied that his art should read as works of propaganda. “I don’t think art is propaganda; it should be something that liberates the soul, provokes the imagination, and encourages people to go further,” he said (Leary, 1990, pg. 1). Propaganda or not, one of the chief intentions of Silence = Death was certainly to “encourage people to go further” in the fight against the AIDS crisis, which had reached a fever pitch by that point.


Untitled, 1988 was not produced specifically for ACT UP as Silence = Death was, and so it is missing the fierce politics of the latter piece. Nonetheless, it is every bit a product of the AIDS era, as it portrays that incurable virus in the form of a “demon sperm,” as the artist termed it, with tentacles wrapped around its victims like a giant squid ready to consume its prey.   

The monster “bursts from the egg, like a giant horned insect,” Robert Farris Thompson observes in the introduction to Keith Haring – Journals (pg. xxxii). “Its horns break the frame of crimson, as if escaping from the paper.” This creepy being wound up appearing in a good number of Haring’s paintings throughout this period. Its recurring and gruesome presence throughout his catalogue served as a frightening metaphor for the lethal, incurable HIV virus. “He probes the terror in extreme promiscuity,” Thompson notes, by employing “a machine of desire that gives itself to death, achieving completion by means of grasping, coiling, licking, and opening” (pg. xxxi).

Both Silence = Death and Untitled, 1988 offer clear commentary and penetrating metaphors of the AIDS epidemic. Yet unlike He Kills Me and AIDSGATE, Ronald Reagan is nowhere to be found here. There are a number of possibilities for this shift in tone: perhaps ACT UP had decided to move on from attacking Reagan directly, especially after his administration made visible gestures to respond to the crisis in the late 1980’s. Or perhaps they eventually deemed it unwise to single out Reagan as a culprit, when really it was nationwide indifference to the suffering of AIDS victims that allowed the crisis to become as severe as it did.

“Most Americans, which of course means straight Americans, didn’t flinch as the bodies hit the ground,” Charles E. Morris III writes in Remembering the AIDS Quilt (2011, pg. xli). “Out of apathy of hatred, the “general population,” as it was then invidiously and disastrously called, and every institution of power at every level, moralized, demonized, ostracized, neglected, and stalled” (pg. xli).

Haring’s famous style of placing all of his subjects on a visual common ground helps to express some important and dismaying realities about the period of the AIDS crisis. Stripping all of his subjects of their facial and physical features serves as a powerful representation of how AIDS affected all of its victims indiscriminately, and how the suffering of those it struck was so often met with indifference by the general public. Life has essentially been removed from these people along with their identifying traits. They’ve become so reduced by the disease that they now are merely “ghostly silver figures” grouped together into a crowd (Haring, pg. xxxi).

Overall, the ominous features within these two paintings— the demon sperm and the infamous logo— coupled with the faceless, featureless victims make Silence = Death and Untitled, 1988 powerful statements about the disease that ravaged the nation in this era and ultimately claimed the artist’s own life.




He Kills Me and Silence = Death feature provocative text and imagery, but other artwork went further in offering suggestions as to how the average person might do their part to prevent the spreading of AIDS— namely, by practicing safe sex.

This was one of the prevalent messages to emerge from the 1980’s AIDS epidemic at large, and the gay community took especially forceful measures to promote this practice. A comprehensive survey of the paintings and posters from the era reveals a variety of ways in which this idea was communicated. One comic book-style poster produced by ACT UP shows Dick Tracy and Clark Kent kissing, with the crude caption reading “Clark Wants Dick, Dick Wants Condoms.” Another poster, issued by the AIDS Council of New South Wales, featured a naked man seen from behind, with the painting’s title placed in the caption below: “Some of Us Get Out of It, Some of Us Don’t. All of Us Fuck With a Condom, Every Time!” One of the most common slogans across these posters: “Men: Use Condoms or Beat It.”

Much of the art to come from the AIDS movement is considerably profane in such a manner, both through its use of foul language as well as nudity and explicit sexual references. Masami Teraoka’s AIDS Series: Geisha in Bath (1988) carries on this grand tradition. Geishas are usually portrayed respectfully in Japanese artwork, as they were associated with purity and the upper-class, despite their promiscuous activity. Teraoka, whose catalogue features many spoofs of Japan’s iconic ukiyo-e woodblock prints, disregarded that standard entirely.

Geisha in Bath features its main subject topless, ripping open a condom package, “her gesture re-enacting that of a traditional courtesan biting on a cloth to symbolise unrequited passion” (Watson, 2012). The Japanese scripture on the wall behind her reads: “”It won’t open, no scissors, and I don’t want to borrow from next door. Well, I’ll open it with my teeth … oooh, what’s that smell – spermicide? Slippery too. This must be extra-large export size. It sure won’t fit my boyfriend!” (Ibid).


With his AIDS Series, as well as the Tale of Thousand Condoms series that soon followed, Teraoka created work which fit in quite well with the rest of the art inspired by the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s. His work ditches the classy standards of traditional Japanese artwork for the vulgarity and attitude of the gay activist movement. Like his contemporaries, Teraoka touched upon taboo subjects— particularly anal sex and condom usage— which he believed were urgent to address, given the seriousness of the epidemic.

His artistic passion was similarly driven by disdain for the federal government. “He was enraged that governments, such the administration of US president Ronald Reagan, were suggesting abstinence and monogamy for prevention before condom use,” wrote The Australian, when the AIDS Series was put on display at the Brisbane Gallery of Modern Art in 2012 (Watson, “He wanted to get AIDS out there in a popular kind of way and talked about. So he used the condoms and the geisha because they were some of the first people who would have probably experienced AIDS, because they were in the pleasure quarters and obviously slept with numerous people” (Ibid).

Connecting the dots between Teraoka’s art and other work that emerged in response to the AIDS epidemic is very illuminating. It reveals how even a person who lacks the characteristics most associated with the activists of the era— Teraoka was heterosexual, HIV-negative, and a Japanese-born Hawaiian resident— was still moved by the destructive impact of the disease, and employed similar tactics to get his message across.




Frank C. Moore was a member of the Visual AIDS Artist Caucus— the group most famous for launching the Red Ribbon Project and granting AIDS activism its most prominent symbol— and his catalogue drew marked inspiration from the illness that ultimately claimed his life in 2002. One example of his AIDS-influenced artwork is Arena (1992), the final painting which this essay will consider. It bears both important overlap and discrepancies with the other works that have been analyzed here so far.

The lethal nature of the epidemic haunted Moore just as it did Moffett and Haring, and those dreary thoughts are visually conveyed in the works of all three artists. Arena’s ominous circular labyrinth recalls the vortex of death featured in He Kills Me. Like the demon sperm in Untitled, 1988, skeletons are included in Moore’s painting as symbols of death and doom, albeit more traditional ones. Another element which makes the painting even more eerie is that the labyrinth features nine circles, the same number as those in Dante’s Inferno. Like Moffett, Haring, and many others, Moore explicitly wanted to convey in his art that the AIDS epidemic was no laughing matter: it was a plague that would claim many lives as long as it raged unhindered.

More so than the other artists we have encountered, however, Moore’s work features an extensive panorama of the various elements that characterized the era of the outbreak of AIDS in America. As noted by Rob Baker in The Art of AIDS, “he fills his canvases with the entire iconography of the AIDS epidemic… all sorts of signs and symbols, including representations of the virus itself, of PWAs as well as of their tormentors and their caregivers. The canvases are bold and bright and alive with detail, but they are never crammed or crowded, just brimming with life” (1994, pg. 156).



Moore keeps this practice alive and strong in Arena. Within the labyrinth’s inner circle can be seen a figure who is curiously absent from most of the other paintings and posters that emerged from this era: somebody actually suffering from AIDS. In this case, the patient is lying on a hospital bed, getting treated by a doctor. This scene was not often conveyed in much of the activist propaganda and artwork at the time, although images like the famous 1990 photograph of David Kirby on his deathbed later brought the horrors of such settings to heightened public attention. “Many other scenes of the AIDS epidemic take place around or inside the labyrinth,” Moore observes. “Bodybuilders pose, demonstrators march, Buddhists meditate, a Buddhists meditate, a mother carries her son, whose body has suddenly deflated like a painted balloon” (pg. 159).

Arena stands out from other artwork of this era in the breadth of details it contains of the AIDS crisis. Also unlike the bulk of his contemporaries’ output, Moore’s paintings evoke a certain sense of hope. These paintings are “brimming with life,” to quote Baker— life which contradicts the prevailing theme of death that defined this era. As art critic David Hirsh observed when Arena was featured at a New York art gallery in 1993, “buried in the structure of this tangled scene of death is the hope for gentle care which includes respect for an ill person’s ability to, in some sense, transcend his illness. Arena suggests that learning how to care for the AIDS patient could, proceeding back up through the nine circles, change humankind’s knowledge of and functioning within the world for the better” (pg. 159).

Overall, Frank Moore expresses the gravity and lethal nature of the AIDS epidemic as vividly as Keith Haring and Donald Moffett did in some of their works. Yet concealed in this landscape of skeletons and dying AIDS victims is a certain sense of optimism that is absent from much of the art produced in the same vein as Arena. That optimism proved to be well-founded in the end: thanks to emerging medical technology and more cautious sexual practices, AIDS-related deaths in America managed to decline sharply from the mid-1990s onwards. Throughout the rest of the world, sadly, the fight to halt the spread of AIDS is still far from complete.




What were the dominant messages and intentions of the paintings and posters that emerged from the 1980’s AIDS crisis? Having now analyzed five pieces in depth, and learned a great deal about this period through my research, I can conclude that the artwork made in response to the AIDS crisis had the following purposes in mind:  

  • To shock and scare audiences about the dangers of this disease.
  • To identify culprits, both individual and as a group.
  • To urge safe sex.

Be it by skeleton, horned sperm, or Ronald Reagan in boogeyman form, artists of this era employed a number of creepy characters as scare tactics. These figures represented the grave danger which AIDS posed to the gay community, and artists wanted to express to their audiences, no matter what their orientation may be, that they had full reason to be alarmed. The use of colorful language and taboo images of nudity and condoms further contributed to the goal of unsettling viewers and stirring them into action.

Next, artists often wanted to recognize the causes for the outbreak and spreading of AIDS. The consensus they settled on was the apathy of the federal government and of the general public. Whether it be singling out Ronald Reagan as the guilty ones, or implying that AIDS victims were without personality or defining traits in the eyes of ordinary citizens, artists of this era experimented with abundant ways of conveying what had set the stage for this deadly virus to run its course.

Finally, many artists were unsatisfied by simply conveying the horrors of AIDS; they wanted to offer a solution as to combat the disease. There do not seem to be many calls for advanced medical research throughout the artwork of these times— I suspect that artists were keener on reaching out to everyday citizens and expressing how they might do their part to halt the spread of AIDS. Safe sex seems to be the consensus solution: Masami Teraoka’s paintings deliberately promoted the usage of condoms, as did many posters and public service announcements of this era. This was deemed the most effective weapon the average citizen had to fight against AIDS, and artists wanted to send out that message in their creative products.

These are three of the primary objectives of the paintings and posters inspired by the 1980’s AIDS epidemic, and all are concealed, in fascinating and intricate ways, throughout the case studies chosen for this project.  




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