Located in the Upper West Side’s “Museum mile”, not far from the Museum of Natural History, the New York Historical Society is another starchy institution dedicated to exhibiting art and artefacts – in this case from the city’s past.
I had missed a Keith Haring retrospective but went there to see two very different displays – one the work of 19th century illustrator James Audubon whose illustrated ‘Birds of America’ was acclaimed as a work of art and science alike, and the other a sobering historical display on the early years of AIDS in the city.
“AIDS in New York: the First Five Years” opens with euphoric scenes of the city’s swinging 1970s gay scene. This was a time when bath houses flourished (see the amazing poster for one above) and hundreds of men would sunbathe (and more) naked on the rickety Chelsea piers on sunny afternoons. All of this is now gone, and many of those men are too.
The exhibit shows with frightening clarity the confusion about the emergence of a strange, terrifying new disease dubbed GRID (gay-related immune deficiency). TV reports and newspaper clippings from the time give a real sense of the confusion, the misinformation and the fear. Then, there was of course no cure and very little treatment. AIDS meant a lonely and painful death – and no one knew, for the first five years, how they had got it. There were rumours that it came from chemicals in amyl nitrate. One article, published in 1981 from the Center for Disease Control, was an attempt to reassure gay men that the ‘rumours’ of a gay plague were just that. In hindsight of course, we know how tragically wrong this was.
There was of course massive prejudice. One writer at the time said: “Pity the poor homosexual. He has declared war on nature and now nature is fighing back.”
The exhibit also highlights the heroic work of those people who stood up to the disease and the hysteria; a synagogue that called a meeting to discuss sexual health for gay men was one striking example. Doctors who worked tirelessly to treat the patients despite the fear that they might somehow contract the virus are also highlighted.
It was a sobering exhibition but all the more powerful for that, a reminder of a terrible time for many in the city’s history.
After that harrowing display I was in the mood for some more restful viewing, so I was disappointed to find the Audubon prints were not on show. A couple of swans were out, and the giftstore was full of the images on postcards and sunglasses boxes, but the majority of the pieces are for the moment under wraps awaiting a new 2014 exhibition.