Book Review: ‘It Was Rude and Beautiful’ by Jack Lowery

How AIDS Activists Used Art to Fight a Pandemic
by Jack Lowery
illustrated. 422 pages. Bold Type Books. 35 dollars.

The revolution would not be televised, it would be covered in wheat paste.

Don’t underestimate the importance of this starchy makeshift glue in the history of AIDS awareness—a “poster” in the actual town square, not someone writing anonymous comments online, but writing public relations on paper.

As described in Jack Lowery’s new book, It Was Vulgar & It Was Beautiful, wheatgrass was something of a holy grail for activists and rightly so that their raging art circulated. They hired a company of “clippers” with possible ties to the mob to hang posters with pink triangles taken from Nazi symbols for gays around Manhattan: it was turned upside down due to an organizer’s faulty memory, but it looked boldly intentional. The slogan of the posters “Silence = Death” became as well known in cultural capitals as the slogan of Coca-Cola or McDonald’s.

Wheatgrass also promoted the less-remembered “It’s Killing Me” poster, which showed then-President Ronald Reagan smiling with apparent indifference to the rapid spread of AIDS. And the “Sexism Unprotected” poster with a naked erect penis, an order to use a condom, and a warning that the disease also kills women. (This image was a bit too much for many passers-by, often tearing it up.) A large billboard asked rhetorically: “When a government turns its back on its people, is there a civil war?” It turns out that you should not use wheat paste to hang a heavier billboard in the cold. Putty froze, and this particular piece of signage “crumbled in a sad heap at the foot of the wall,” Lowery writes.

His book focuses on the Gran Fury art collective, an offshoot of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash the Power (ACT UP), which was formed out of frustration with existing organizations that are not sufficiently radicalized against a rapidly advancing, terminal illness. all generations of gay men. The logistics behind the performances—phone trees, accounting, and pizza—do not seem like the brightest material, but Lowery painstakingly reconstructs the conversations and negotiations that compel the reader to feel the agony and urgency of the era. Much of the collective’s work now hangs in major museums.

Credit…Gregory Wikstrom

The Gran Fury was named for a model of a Plymouth car that was later used by the New York City Police Department. Somehow, Lowery writes, “it implied some kind of glorious rage,” and it sounded gothic, like a Tennessee Williams play. “our anger it happened Graphic designer Donald Moffett, one of the nine surviving core members of Grand Fury, told the author: Lowery interviewed them all and drew something from the unfinished memories of the tenth Mark Simpson, who died in 1996.

Like the artist Barbara Kruger, who tutored a member of the band and whose typeface they swiped for their “Read My Lips” series, Gran Fury reclaimed the well-crafted and sometimes absurd style of American advertising and branding. This was social media before the internet. Far from disintegrating in a sad heap against a wall, the group was solidifying, mobilizing, and fighting fiercely.

All white but one member, Gran Fury creators Robert Vazquez-Pacheco faced the elite on his own court: reusing Barneys’ sparkling sales signs for violent protest; shutting down the exchange using fake Bear Stearns badges and currency (“people die while doing business”); and stuffing New York Times vending boxes with a pointed fraud called The New York Crimes. Handprints of “bloody” paint began to appear on sidewalks and windows, and demonstrators allegedly followed elected officials who were convicted of actual murder.

Lowery is young—this project started as a graduate thesis at Columbia—but he writes like an old soul, furious about the science and how AIDS has been minimized and marginalized over the years. Occasionally he gives himself a delight or a slight sarcasm as an exclamation point. To debunk the notion that the disease is caused by immoral behavior, about a banner that reads “All People with AIDS Are Innocent” (“It’s really harmless!” The poster featured a number of different couples who kissed moderately, most people at the time called it a Benetton. thought it was the ad.)

But mostly, the title, taken from another Moffett paper, “It Was Rude,” is a deeply sober story about a vulnerable population often rejected and failed by their own families, healthcare systems, civic leaders, and sometimes even each other. filled with grief and fear.

“The closet turns into a coffin,” Avram Finkelstein, a hairdresser, “self-made Machiavellian propagandist,” and Gran Fury member wrote in a 1986 magazine entry. Small details give new impetus to the activists’ trajectory: the useless garlic treatment tried by an early AIDS patient; Gouldian finches housed in Simpson’s Brooklyn apartment; shrinking like a vampire from sunlight; Bovine blood frozen in the street in the Meatpacking District before gentrification. Eventually, tactics escalated. As one member said, “wheat butter means you’re marginal.”

Lowery is careful to document camaraderie and even joy in a troubling time. As she wrote: “It wasn’t just people who nervously palpate their glands every 10 minutes.” There is a confrontation with the Pope, but there is also a party at Peggy Guggenheim’s palazzo in Venice. We see Tim Bailey, a menswear designer and member of Marys, another of ACT UP’s interest groups, car dancing to Taylor Dayne’s rendition of “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love” days before his political funeral was blocked from being staged. Washington DC

“It Was Vulgar” isn’t perfect – this critic wanted to pull out a blue pencil when Lowery sometimes used the word “finally” multiple times on a page, and his endnotes were scant. It is, however, an important addition to the annals of AIDS, and while close to a narrow cast of characters, it is a solid template for historians of complex sociopolitical movements based on these characters.

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