Loss Within Loss: Artists in the Age of AIDS

Loss Within Loss edited by Edmund Whiteedited by Edmund White
University of Wisconsin Press ($29.95)

by Thomas Fagan

Much has been written about the toll taken by AIDS on the artistic community. Especially in the early years of the epidemic, when the time between diagnosis and death was much shorter than it is today, it seemed that every day brought news of another poet, playwright or painter, many only in their 20s or 30s, struck down by the virus.

Most of us only heard about the deaths deemed newsworthy, but what about all the others? For every Keith Haring, there were countless as-yet unknown painters who became too ill to wrestle their visions onto canvas; for every Rock Hudson, thousands of aspiring actors were robbed of the chance to perfect their craft and share their gifts.

It's said that when an artist dies, the world suffers two great losses: the person and the work they did not live to do. Loss Within Loss seeks to shed some light on both. Published in cooperation with the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS, this is a unique and ground-breaking collection of essays by artists, written about their artist friends, mentors, colleagues, and in some cases, lovers.

While some of the subjects in Loss Within Loss—Derek Jarman, Paul Monette, James Merrill—were relatively well-known when they died and have had their lives and works written about, most were not. The great service provided by these essays is to rescue from obscurity and celebrate the lives and creations of a diverse group of artists, most of them unknown and all dead too soon.

Combining elements of biography, memoir, art history and cultural studies, the contributors to the anthology approach their subjects from a variety of angles. John Berendt's tribute to his friend, landscape architect Bruce Kelly, is a straight-forward assessment of his considerable body of work, culminating in a detailed appreciation of Kelly's last project, more famous than its creator: Strawberry Fields, the John Lennon memorial in New York's Central Park.

Others, like Sarah Schulman on the writer and publisher Stan Leventhal and Felice Picano on the novelist Robert Ferro, take a more sociological approach, illuminating their subjects' lives and artistic accomplishments as parts of the new gay bohemianism of the 1970s, which was both a social and artistic phenomenon, and placing them firmly at the center of its emerging queer literary scene.

Most of the essays in Loss Within Loss are more personal and anecdotal. Allan Gurganus's piece on James Merrill, chronicling the stages of their friendship, consists of the two times the novelist spoke publicly of the poet: the first in 1993 when he introduced Merrill reading his work at New York's 92nd Street YMHA; the second was Gurganus's eulogy at his friend and mentor's funeral a mere fourteen months later.

The writer Benjamin Taylor was friends from childhood with scenic designer and avant-garde puppeteer Robert Frank Anton, and movingly recalls their life-long relationship. Of Anton's death in 1984 at age 35 he writes, "Watching my adored friend as the darkness enveloped him, I did not imagine how many more I'd watch as they vanished in their turn. This subtraction of wit, grace, brains and beauty from our midst has now become unbearable to contemplate. How is it we haven't, in compassionate horror, pulled the earth up over us?"

There are, of course, many more names that could be mentioned here: choreographer Joah Lowe, architect Frank Isreal, composer Chris DeBlasio, filmmakers Howard Brookner and Warren Sonbert. This list, fragmentary as it is, only hints at the depth and breadth of what we have lost.

As the "Age of AIDS" enters its third decade and the disease itself has gone from "crisis" to "epidemic" to "pandemic," Loss Within Loss is a powerful warning against complacency. It stands as both a fitting tribute to the dead of the past and a challenge to the survivors in the future: to continue the tasks of bearing witness and remembrance, the heart-breaking and necessary work of the living.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001