Robert Blanchon: AIDS and the Question of Conceptualism

For his 1974 series Men, James Welling arranged some of modernism’s most celebrated artists into a sequence of pas de deux. Each work contains two images of its titular artists in their studios, montaged to showcase the strikingly similar ways they perform their role. Rothko/Giacometti shows both men on a break, smoking cigarettes as if to deflate the existential demands of making artwork; Pollock/Serra shows these artists in the midst of painting, their active physical engagement seeming to shore up the expressive mark’s authorial index. As isolated images these photographs might inspire a sense of high drama; however, by placing these “dances of embattled subjectivity” alongside each other, Welling pokes fun at artists who rehearse the set of romanticized tropes about the creative process and become, in the words of Douglas Eklund, “prepackaged personae ready for consumption.”1 Coming seventeen years later, the 1991 work Untitled [Schnabel] by Robert Blanchon (1965–1999) finds a similarly parodic pitch. Using a found image of the artist, Blanchon shows Julian Schnabel dressed like a prep school dropout, his loafers and wristwatch clashing with what appears to be a pair of striped pajamas and black sunglasses. Hunched over in a chair, gesturing at his audience with an air of jocular self-assurance, the image catches Schnabel in the midst of performing his own distinct artistic personality, one that substitutes the doom and gloom of Welling’s diptychs with a combination of “hero and buffoon.”2 While the photograph captures Schnabel’s carefully crafted persona, Blanchon complicates his representation of the painter with a caption included below the photograph: “Has Magic Johnson replaced Julian Schnabel? Happy Hunting. I love you from Robert Blanchon.”

With his question, Blanchon produces a rather puzzling equivalence between the notorious Neo-Expressionist painter and one of the NBA’s most famous athletes. Both men were wealthy and celebrated within their respective circles; however, Blanchon’s caption suggests that a recent turn of events had structured their relationship to one another. Considering the work’s creation in December 1991, Blanchon’s association between Schnabel and Johnson seems to rest on the latter’s HIV diagnosis, which he had revealed to the world just a month before. In fact, this image of Schnabel bears a certain resemblance to Johnson’s posture during the press conference in which the latter revealed his positive status, speaking in front of a flock of reporters.3 The question remains, however, of what more specifically likens Johnson to Schnabel and what made his confession, or its reception among AIDS activists, similar to Schnabel’s work and the Neo-Expressionist current in contemporary painting he represented. By parsing this complicated ecology bridging aesthetic and sociopolitical domains, it becomes clear that the rise of 1980s Neo-Expressionist painters like Schnabel was pitted against more critically engaged practices—namely those of photo-based Conceptualist artists such as Sherrie Levine and other “Pictures Generation” artists—according to antagonisms that also distanced celebrities like Johnson from activist organizations including ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), the Lesbian Avengers, Queer Nation, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, or Sex Panic!.4 While Blanchon was a member of ACT UP, acting as an institutional liaison at the New Museum during his time in New York City, his work nevertheless complicates the sharp divide carved out between deconstructive, politicized analysis focused on structural aspects of the AIDS epidemic and more individualized reactions to its disastrous effects.5: The Work of Robert Blanchon, ed. Sasha Archibald (New York: Visual AIDS, 2009), 4.] Specifically, his discursive approach to sexuality and desire serves as a case study of how the supposedly solipsistic arena of subjectivity might have reentered AIDS discourse and activist art through a formal language that maintained the depersonalized edge of Conceptualism’s “aesthetic of administration.”6

Johnson’s confession was shocking—as was Rock Hudson’s confirmation of his status in 1985—for demonstrating the virus’s ability to reach the rich and famous. Even so, he was certainly not a typical patient. Due to his celebrity, Johnson joined Ryan White and Arthur Ashe—both of whom acquired HIV through blood transfusions—as exceptional cases whose diagnoses were eventually met with sympathy (although even these public personalities were of course not free from homophobic, paranoid forms of social exclusion). Indeed, Johnson’s confession expedited a host of long-fought activist battles “as if by magic.”7 The media finally distinguished between HIV, which Johnson had contracted, and AIDS; it showed him living a relatively happy and productive life—even framing him as Superman-like figure on a February 1996 cover of Newsweek—that stood in sharp contrast to the prevailing spectacle of half-dead victims in hospital beds that dominated media outlets; George Bush Sr., in conversation with Johnson, even admitted that his administration’s response to AIDS had been insufficient.8 This relatively supportive response to Johnson validated the approach adopted by one branch of AIDS advocates, who believed that if the disease could be seen and embodied through specific figureheads, it could be stopped. This view, what Douglas Crimp called the “typical liberal position,” sought to provide the disease a series of strategically selected martyrs who elicited pity through their celebrity and individuated tales of grief and suffering.9

Within this schema prioritizing visibility and recognition, photography became a primary strategy for advertising the disease’s deleterious effects. As Crimp pointed out, Rosalind Fox Solomon and Nicholas Nixon were especially important examples of this effort. Both artists produced portrait photographs that document the virus’s attack on the body—with special focus on patients’ Kaposi sarcoma lesions and harrowing weight loss—as well as its victims’ social isolation. As quoted in Crimp’s discussion of this genre of AIDS photography, curator Thomas Sokolowski identified the importance of artists like Fox Solomon in her visualization of the disease: “‘Our awareness of [AIDS] grew through the accumulation of vast amounts of numerically derived evidence. . . . We could count it, but not truly describe it. Our picture of AIDS was a totally conceptual one.”10 In contrast to “conceptual” pictures of the epidemic, Fox Solomon and Nixon opted for sentimental evocations of loss that zero in on individual bodies as the virus’s embattled nexus. In the eyes of certain figures in ACT UP, however, the poignancy of these photographs depended upon positioning their depicted subjects as little more than readymade vessels of tragic pathos, resulting in images where, Crimp argued, “people’s difficult personal circumstances have been exploited for public spectacle, their most private thoughts and emotions exposed.”11 One might say, where statistics were dry and conceptual, Fox Solomon’s and Nixon’s images were designed to be expressive.

Nicholas Nixon, Tony Mastrorilli, Mansfield, Massachusetts, 1988, gelatin silver print, 7¾ x 9⅝ in. (19.7 x 24.5 cm) (image courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco © Nicholas Nixon)

Zooming out from a focus on individual suffering, ACT UP members focused their messaging on structural issues related to income, access to health care, and representations of the virus in mass media. In turn, the focus on Johnson and other individual spokespeople was understood as a distraction from the “politics of AIDS.”12 At the Museum of Modern Art’s 1988 exhibition Pictures of People, featuring Nixon’s People with AIDS series, ACT UP distributed fliers that began and ended with the following demands: “NO MORE PICTURES WITHOUT CONTEXT” and “STOP LOOKING AT US; START LISTENING TO US,” respectively. Their commands suggest a disinvestment in the visual as the primary domain of political action and, in particular, a call for activist campaigns that center PWAs (People with AIDS) as privileged voices in forging resistance over those who merely represent their decaying bodies as passive cenotaphs for the virus’s destruction. This approach to the epidemic motivated artists to make work in which aesthetic function was circumscribed within the rhetoric of activist engagement. Criticality appeared to come with an evacuation of sentiment, resulting in work whose effect was declarative rather than evocative, impersonal rather than idiosyncratic. The logo of the SILENCE = DEATH Project, which ACT UP was allowed to use throughout its activism and became associated with the organization, epitomizes this distinction.13 In addition to its matter-of-fact formulation—the embrace of mathematical symbols being a clear demonstration of the organization’s analytic accent—the slogan also circulated outside the fine-art ecosystem. Pasted on T-shirts and printed on buttons, fliers, and protest signs, it materializes Crimp’s assertion—published in October’s Winter 1987 issue focused on the epidemic—that activist art “involves questions not only of the nature of cultural production, but also of the location, or the means of distribution, of that production.”14

Of primary importance to AIDS activist organizations, intimated in this last quotation, is an interrogation of representational processes, of how the disease became a visual and textual discourse. In this regard, video was particularly relevant for activists because it allowed them to re-script the very medium in which information about the virus was most readily distributed. As artist and AIDS activist Gregg Bordowitz wrote in the same issue of October, “we must call into question the established structures of the media. We must create new ways to make and distribute media. We must work toward participatory forms of representation that incorporate people into the communication process.”15 The 1987 series Only Human: Sex, Gender, and Other Misrepresentations, organized by B. Ruby Rich and Bill Horrigan, exemplified this medium-specific revision. As Crimp describes, Only Human was included in the 1987 American Film Institute Video Festival and featured twenty videos concerning AIDS, ranging from educational material (Sex, Drugs, and AIDS, made for the New York City school system) to critiques of AIDS media (A Plague on You, made by the Lesbian and Gay Media Group), to tapes made for broadcast television (AIDS in the Arts).16 Produced by a coalition of activists, rather than individual authors, Only Human reconfigured the direction of AIDS representation, shifting away from an exogeneous—albeit sympathetic—voyeur to visual material made in-house, produced as part of a comprehensive activist engagement that transcended the official confines of the art world. Furthermore, whereas the news cycle presented the virus itself through medical telescopes as, “a huge technicolor asteroid,” on the one hand, and the bodies it infects and kills, on the other—a haunting diptych that Simon Watney called the “spectacle of AIDS”—Only Human illuminated the activity of grassroots activists who were combatting the virus and institutional lethargy, utilizing television and video primarily as informational platforms rather than aesthetic media.17

To repeat our earlier question, what does this tension between grassroots AIDS activism and photographers like Nixon and Fox Solomon have to do with Schnabel? The answer lies in a roughly coterminous divide emerging in the art world between the Pictures Generation and Neo-Expressionism—a parallel in which Crimp played a major part through his activism as well as his written and curatorial work that helped establish the former group as a distinct set of artists. Blanchon was certainly aware of this dynamic, both as an artist active throughout the 1980s and as a professor of art history teaching courses on contemporary art.18 Indeed, Fiona Johnstone recently revealed (in the most extensive treatment of the artist’s work to date) that during a course at the University of California, Irvine, in the spring term of 1997, Blanchon assigned Levine’s text “Five Comments,” which focuses on the postmodern critique of originality and authorship.19 This aesthetic cleavage was most actively asserted by the critics associated with October. These writers went beyond strictly aesthetic analyses to assign ideological value to the various formal differences between the primarily photo- and video-based Pictures Generation and Neo-Expressionist painters. The former’s use of appropriation and montage was understood as a deconstruction of cultural topoi, a means of uncovering “strata of representation” beneath otherwise transparent imagery.20 In turn, artists such as Levine and Cindy Sherman were championed by critics including Crimp and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh as the successors to Hans Haacke, Michael Asher, Marcel Broodthaers, and their peers working in the 1960s and 1970s, who similarly questioned the systems undergirding the production and display of artwork, namely the museum. The genealogy those critics constructed reflects an evaluative metric in which, as Buchloch wrote, “it is in the critical analysis of the actual procedures and materials of production and reception that a work’s historical legitimacy will be evident.”21 Crimp would write in strikingly similar terms regarding the discourse on AIDS: “we must also recognize that every image of a PWA is a representation, and formulate our activist demands not in relation to the ‘truth’ of the image, but in relation to the conditions of its construction and to its social effects.”22 As with the construction of femininity for an artist like Sherman, then, in the views of Crimp and other activists working in response to the misrepresentation of the epidemic, AIDS was a Pictures problem.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, photographers such as Nixon and Neo-Expressionist painters were aggressively admonished according to similar points of contention. In the 1980s, “Neo-Expressionism” proved to be a pejorative dismissal as much as an aesthetic descriptor, positioned as the capitalist foil to the Picture Generation’s critique of art’s commodification. For Levine’s After Walker Evans: 4 (1981), for instance, the artist photographed a reproduction of Evans’s famous portrait Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife (1936). By removing any sign of her own intervention, Buchloh argued that Levine’s work “threatens within its very structure, mode of operation, and status the current reaffirmation of individual expressive creativity and its implicit reaffirmation of private property and enterprise.”23 Moreover, he argued that Levine resuscitated the work’s “reader/viewer” as an active participant in the work’s signification, charged with tracking its syntactical construction of appropriated elements and their break from a now nullified authorial subject.24 Crimp and Buchloh contended that Neo-Expressionist painters, in contrast, asserted themselves and their biography as the work’s primary epistemological determination, a flattened framework more easily subject to settlement, fixation, and commodification. Buchloh would even relate Neo-Expressionism’s “ideology of individual expression” to a “proto-Fascist libertarianism.”25 While Nixon’s and Fox Solomon’s photographs present individual narratives of patients’ suffering, not their own, the efficacy of their work nevertheless depends on unique voices cut off from the collective, each patient configured as an expressive cipher. Furthermore, rather than producing the postmodern “reader/viewer” who is interpolated into the aesthetic experience through their deciphering of an unmoored array of fragmentary materials, their photographs are inert, merely “reiteration[s] of what we have already been told or shown about people with AIDS: that they are ravaged, disfigured, and debilitated by the syndrome; they are generally alone, desperate, but resigned to their ‘inevitable’ deaths.”26 Trafficking in stereotype, these photographs are designed to speak for themselves without the intervention of the viewer. AIDS activists like Crimp as well as critics like Buchloh were resistant to this faith in authorial intent and the idea of self-evident meaning, opting instead for art practices that interrogated representation itself as a nexus of ideological control and, in turn, political intervention.27

Robert Blanchon, Untitled [sympathy card], ca. 1994, black-and-white photograph, wood frame, 31 x 34 in. (78.7 x 86.4 cm) (image courtesy Visual AIDS, New York City © 1999 The Estate of Robert Blanchon—Mary Ellen Carroll/MEC, Studios)

The connection that Blanchon articulated between Johnson and Schnabel consequently seems to emerge from their shared primacy within a “liberal” belief in representation, one in which representation operates as a sufficient vehicle of political intervention. Within this complicated discourse spanning aesthetics and activism, Blanchon would have likely aligned himself with writers like Buchloh and Crimp. As the artist wrote in 1993, “like all attempts to personalize the plague, the Magic Johnsons of the world are unlikely to change the destination of those sick for reasons of simple economic exclusion and social expulsion.”28,” in Robert Blanchon, ed. Duvergne and Sadao, 113.] Johnstone notes Blanchon’s critical approach to representation in relation to his consistent return to self-effacement, naming absence as “a hallmark even of Blanchon’s most autobiographical works,” which “can be read as part of a deliberate strategy to foreground the role of the viewer in meaning making.”29 Furthermore, much of his work aligns with ACT UP’s emphasis on depersonalized analysis of the epidemic over anecdotal stories of loss and heartbreak. Take Untitled [sympathy card], for example. Here, the traditional means of thanking friends and family for their condolences, a distinctly intimate and personal affair, is uncharacteristically abstracted. Blanchon included a blank line where the bereaved family name would ordinarily appear, suggesting that AIDS inflicts a generalized, diffuse trauma above and beyond individual ruination. With this work, as Sasha Archibald writes, Blanchon identifies the necessity of extrapolation in mourning AIDS, of producing a political rhetoric wherein a “single vacancy turns monumental.”30

Robert Blanchon, Untitled [I will not get AIDS], ca. 1989, multiple: sticker, 9½ x 7½ in. (24.1 x 19.1 cm) (artwork © 1999 The Estate of Robert Blanchon—Mary Ellen Carroll/MEC, Studios; provided by Visual AIDS, New York City)

Additionally, with Untitled [I will not get AIDS], Blanchon collaged together the work’s parenthetical title, the slogan of a 1989 AIDS awareness campaign in Chicago (where the artist was then studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and where he received his diagnosis), an additional line of red text reading “ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS” and an image of Mayor Robert Daley.31 As in the work of Barbara Kruger, another Pictures Generation artist, the text “manifest[s] the subject positions of partners in a conversation.”32 By specifying Daley as the “I” who will not get AIDS, Blanchon suggested that viewers of the work, the implied “You,” remain an unprotected class vulnerable to transmission, unable to predict their future status as confidently as those in positions of power. Chicago’s campaign was heavily criticized by AIDS activists because its visual implements—billboards and posters—did not provide any information describing how people were supposed to avoid contracting the virus, suggesting instead that the blind optimism of its slogan would suffice.33 The red text toward the bottom of Blanchon’s work, however, also interjects into this life-threatening obfuscation, reminding Daley’s administration and viewers of the posters in Chicago that, regardless of the slogan, the city’s response to the epidemic must become material. The shortcomings of Daley’s campaign appear to be symptomatic of the 1987 Helms Amendment, which “prohibit[ed] the federal funding of any healthcare information that might ‘promote, encourage, or condone homosexual sexual activities or the intravenous use of illegal drugs,’” effectively censoring safe-sex instruction from AIDS educational material.34 Keeping this in mind, Untitled [I will not get AIDS] names Daley as one identifiable node within the sweeping resistance to the dissemination of information about HIV/AIDS. By pasting his sticker around the streets of Chicago, Blanchon expanded his use of personal pronouns, pitting the singular “I” against an accumulatively identified “You”—one that bypassed himself or any one individual to identify the city at large as the collective victim of Daley’s informational gatekeeping.35 In this sense, his work can be compared to Donald Moffett’s 1987 indictment of Ronald Reagan in He Kills Me, where the artist uses a personal pronoun, “Me,” to identify how governmental resistance to HIV/AIDS prevention trickles down to touch individual lives. “Me” functions as a poignant personalization of Reagan’s abandonment of AIDS patients, which, like Daley’s, was forged through pernicious, deadly forms of inaction. Sociologist Josh Gamson wrote the same year that Blanchon made his poster that “ACT UP members often have trouble finding their ‘enemies.’”36 By naming and picturing Daley and Reagan as two such enemies, Blanchon and Moffett intervened in this political battleground by creating dialogues that, through posing their unnamed, generalized viewer against a fixed point of opposition, simultaneously attempted to “picture a coalition.”37

Donald Moffett, He Kills Me, 1987, offset lithograph, 23½ x 37½ in. (59.7 x 95.3 cm) (artwork © Donald Moffett; image provided by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY)

While Blanchon’s work shares an affinity with that of the Pictures Generation, he is consistently called a Conceptual artist. Indeed, the introductory remarks to both of Blanchon’s only two catalogs use the term to describe his work’s overarching aesthetic and lineage.38. See notes 3 and 5.] If Levine and other Pictures Generation artists certainly figure in a history of Conceptualism, the label given to Blanchon most readily calls to mind a slightly earlier group of artists emerging in the late 1960s across the world who aimed to bypass the authorial claims and material emphasis of art commodities through routinized procedures and text-based practices.39 Formally, this comparison holds up. Untitled [Schnabel] could easily be compared to John Baldessari’s photo-text paintings from the late 1960s while Untitled [sympathy card] resembles any number of dematerialized, Conceptual works from the same period. In his various forms of self-effacement, Blanchon also gestured toward an alignment with Conceptual artists—or “clerks,” as Sol LeWitt called himself and his peers—who “adopted predetermined schemas in order to ensure that subjectivity and personal expression would play virtually no role in artistic production.”40 Eliminating individual expression by engaging the rote mechanics of office work, Conceptual artists, at various levels of intensity, aimed to debunk the myth of the artist-hero parodically staged by Welling. Here we see the important similarities shared by Conceptual art as it emerged in the 1960s and the Pictures Generation formally announced a decade later. Both attempted to overturn the traditional model of aesthetic experience dependent on transcendent artistic objects and the privileged position of the author for a more level playing field between art and its reader/viewers. If Blanchon’s work exhibits an affinity for these modes of critical analysis, however, it does not merely mirror them or aspire toward their totalizing rejection of individual subjecthood and expressivity.

With Conceptualism’s Anniversary, for instance, Blanchon set up a fake conference to be held at the no longer extant Terra Museum of Art in Chicago, complete with a lecture on “The Semiotics Surrounding Recent Health Care Concerns” by Susan Sontag and a panel investigating “The Ironies of Self-Reflexive Conceptualism” led by Vito Acconci, Laurie Palmer, and Joseph Kosuth, among others.41 Invitations were sent and invited guests showed up to the museum on the day of the conference, only to be turned away at the door. Critic and professor James Yood attested to the effectiveness of the work’s institutional drag: “he got me on that one, and the embarrassment/exhilaration of being so artfully and aptly tricked was unforgettable.”42 Blanchon even submitted an article to Whitewalls covering the event under the pseudonym Dolores Boogdanian, rounding out the conference’s fictionalized life cycle.43 Here, Blanchon pointed to a particular moment of Conceptual art’s assimilation—its art historical canonization—set within the style’s more structural integration into postwar society. Alexander Alberro argues via Jean Baudrillard’s theory of the “Xerox degree of culture” that as Conceptual art increasingly began to resemble the text-based practices of publicity and telecommunications, “the sphere of art expanded, becoming coterminous with market society in such a way that the aesthetic was no longer limited to its earlier, traditional or experimental forms but was consumed throughout daily life itself.”44 Announcing Conceptualism’s anniversary accented this transformation of an avant-garde rupture into an institutional staple, an assimilation into the realm of fine art and capitalism that Conceptual artists had previously worked to avoid, and consequently articulated an ambivalence toward that earlier group rather than blind admiration. Similarly, in the late 1980s Blanchon began stamping “Biceps” in red text over exhibition announcements for a coterie of high-profile Conceptual and Minimalist artists including LeWitt and Donald Judd, mocking their heady intellectualism and massive sculptures as pathological assertions of patriarchal masculinity.

Blanchon’s fatigue with these artists’ self-serious machismo is echoed in other works where he reinserted subjective expression into the formal language of Conceptual art, breaking down the supposedly intractable barriers between critical, postmodern analysis and the registration of individual experience. That this breakdown occurred in the context of Blanchon’s grappling with the AIDS epidemic and its concomitant effects on queer sexuality points to the epidemic’s substantive impact on the period’s aesthetic debates. Indeed, as Crimp claimed, it was precisely the rupture caused by October’s special issue on AIDS and a subsequent isssue planned on representations of gays and lesbians in the media that led to his break with the journal, illustrating a tension between its relatively formalist politics and the activist’s gradual turn toward cultural studies, sparked by the exigencies of the epidemic.45 Hal Foster replaced Crimp as editor of the journal in 1991—alongside Buchloh, Yves-Alain Bois, Denis Hollier, and John Rajchman—but has since confirmed the importance of AIDS in understanding art from the 1980s and 1990s. In a recent interview in which Foster reflects on the period in question, he notes, “It was really AIDS that drove the politicization of art during that time. It was one factor that shifted the focus away from ‘pictures’ and ‘texts’—pictures as texts—to bodies, bodies in pain, bodies in a plague, to a body politic that was diseased as well…. Everything before seemed to be ‘image’ and ‘sign,’ but then there was a ‘return of the real.’”46

Here, therefore, we might be able to better locate Blanchon’s critical accent, one involved in an assessment of expression and representational circuits—à la Conceptual art and the Pictures Generation—but unwilling to excise subjectivity tout court. Indeed, as Johnstone writes, “Blanchon’s work provides an important counterpoint to the activist graphics of the late 1980s” as well as “to the naïve photographic practices of Nicholas Nixon and Rosalind Solomon.”47 In fact, the works already considered exhibit this integration of affect and emotion into a Conceptualist frame highly skeptical of authorship. In Conceptualism’s Anniversary, the artist’s satirical celebration of Conceptualism’s canonization denotes a wry sense of humor, even a juvenile prankishness. Alternatively, it is difficult to imagine Untitled [I will not get AIDS], born as a form of agitprop, as uniformly depersonalized, affectively flat, and unmotivated. Rather, given the immediacy of the crisis, public responses like Blanchon’s were not merely objective, conceptual, or semiotic interrogations of AIDS discourse but laden with anger and fear as well. Additionally, Blanchon consistently staged sexuality, or sexual expression, in his excavation of “the real.” However, in place of individual libidos he approached desire as a discourse that can studied, analyzed, and tracked. For example, with Untitled [If You Like a Man Who’s 25] and Untitled [Bodyrub in Queens], among other examples from the same series, the artist sent out a cold call for models to pose for him. Blanchon then juxtaposed photographs of his volunteers with escort advertisements from the personal ads in local newspapers.48 At first glance, these works seem to present sex workers posed alongside their self-promotional material. When the photographed subjects are revealed for who they are—anonymous pedestrians—the images are at once stripped of an erotic energy specific to the person and invested with the more general, diffuse eroticism of mass-produced classifieds. Within this series, desirous expression primarily functions as a coefficient, augmenting and animating even the most banal imagery. It seems Blanchon was attempting to isolate the discursive production of desire in order to show how and where it operates.

Cruising New York is another example of how Blanchon elevated the intimacy of sexual expression into an analytic project. In a magazine called Promotional Copy, Blanchon placed an invitation for readers to join him on a tour of various cruising sites around New York City: the West Side Piers, the Ramble in Central Park, and the bathrooms in Grand Central Station, among others. While Conceptualism’s Anniversary was designed from the start as a fabulation, artist Mary Ellen Carroll—a close friend of Blanchon and executor of his estate—confirmed that Cruising New York was, at least in her case, more than mere provocation: “I did the tour, and believe me, it was not fake. There were very real locations with very real activity going on.”49 The format of the magazine advertisement calls to mind Adrian Piper’s advertisements for her series The Mythic Being placed in the Village Voice, as well as gallerist Seth Siegelaub’s promotional strategies. As Alberro wrote of Siegelaub’s advertisement for his 1968 exhibition of Douglas Huebler’s work, which exhibits a rather mundane graphic design, “the manner in which Siegelaub presented the work of Huebler celebrated its insertion into the heterogeneous fabric of publicity, display, and information.”50 In Blanchon’s hands, however, the “work” in question is a presentation of the nameless, anonymous sex to be found in the various cruising grounds he promised to show his guests. Inserting cruising into the informational and distributive context of a magazine advertisement reinforced the artist’s interest in the relatively dull contexts through which desire could be circulated and consumed. Furthermore, upon taking the tour, sexuality in its most carnal expression was retrofitted into and refracted through Blanchon’s ascetic framing, positioned uncomfortably between organic activity and anthropological object of inquiry. Indeed, along with his bandana series— which displays individual, colored bandanas, each advertising their own kink or sexual proclivity within its subcultural lexicon—Cruising New York “takes the information from an insider, privileged realm and drops it into the public like a meteor.”51 However, this publicity was not self-involved; rather, he attempted to reveal the ways in which desire functioned at scale—shedding light on its clandestine geography, its communication, and its discursive proliferation. Following Foster’s contention that artists emerging in the 1990s exhibited “an ambition to inhabit a place of total affect and to be drained of affect altogether,”52 with the works described here Blanchon appears to have been interested in the way that something as charged as sexuality could be articulated through the lens of Conceptualism’s dry, depersonalized idiom. Whether the viewer is confronted with a want ad or groups of men cruising, “the real” is nevertheless mediated—or conceptualized—through its restrained presentation via newsprint or informational tour groups. For, even in this tour, sex itself was positioned at a remove, shuttled through and constructed by Blanchon’s representational system. The inherently artificial quality of this “cruising” experience calls to mind what Blanchon’s friend and fellow artist Connie Samaras wrote, after his death, about their shared artistic philosophies: “some things and some art, we learned, must remain private, relegated to a dimension where the failure of language and the failure of vision becomes the intention.”53

Robert Blanchon, Cruising New York, 1993, multiple: paper, 28 x 21½ in (71.1 x 54.6 cm) (© 1999 The Estate of Robert Blanchon—Mary Ellen Carroll/MEC, Studios; provided by Visual AIDS, New York City)

Blanchon’s work, however, entailed an ethical streak that extended beyond the confines of the aesthetic debate between Conceptual art and Neo-Expressionism described here. Because the specific desires Blanchon was interested in analyzing were distinctly queer, his works’ expressive residue coincides with the insistence of AIDS activists on changing the terms of public morality. As Simon Watney wrote in 1987, instead of formulating a sexual politics around a unitary conception of “gay oppression,” it is the set of cultural conventions surrounding desire that should occupy AIDS activists since “it is the structure, epistemology, and ‘decorum’ of ‘sexuality’ itself that have inexorably led us to the tragic impasse in which we find ourselves.”54 Similarly, Crimp wrote that “alongside the dismal toll of death, what many of us have lost is a culture of sexual possibility,” referring to sexual liberation in the 1970s before the epidemic took hold.55 Interrogating wide-ranging attitudes toward sexuality, orienting activism toward a now vanished culture of libidinal freedom, both Watney and Crimp articulate the importance of desire to the bourgeoning discourse surrounding AIDS in the 1980s. Blanchon took this call to action seriously, abstracting desire from the idiosyncratic impulses of individuals and inserting it into distributive systems like a viral cocktail. The point is not that Blanchon stripped sexuality of its libidinal charge, nor that he attempted to assert the validity of queer desire through affirmative representations. Rather, in appropriating desire as a readymade material—present as much in cruising’s coded language as in anonymous want ads—he was able to bridge the gap between critical analysis and individual expression in order to confront the “structure, epistemology, and ‘decorum’” of sexuality identified by Watney.

Robert Blanchon, Untitled (s/m top-bottom), 1995, gelatin silver print, wood frame, 40½ x 40½ in. (102.9 x 102.9 cm) (photograph © 1999 The Estate of Robert Blanchon—Mary Ellen Carroll/MEC, Studios; provided by Visual AIDS, New York City)

Writing in regard to the constructed divisions that emerged between Conceptualism and Neo-Expressionism in the 1970s and 1980s described in these pages, Isabelle Graw stated that “expression can be conceptualized … just as works resulting from thorough conceptual planning can exhibit a sort of ‘residual expression.’”56 If she provides a theoretical framework for identifying the artistic modes that fall in between Conceptualism and Neo-Expressionism, Blanchon’s work points toward the AIDS epidemic as one of the many forces that prompted this slippage. In particular, his work concerning sexual expression responded to Watney’s understanding that public attitudes toward desire were constitutive of the epidemic’s ascendence. More broadly, however, Blanchon’s practice was indicative of a certain hangover after deconstruction and the concomitant rise of art practices in the 1980s and ’90s that engaged questions of the queer body and its politics with increasing candor. Blanchon subsequently acted as a prompt to reconsider the seemingly intractable divides between purportedly critical art and its Neo-Expressionist foil, between photographers like Nixon and the diagrammatic work made by artists associated with ACT UP, to make room for a framework that accounts for artists’ porous movement between these analytic and emotive methodologies. Linking together figures like Schnabel and Johnson, Blanchon’s work offers a remarkable picture of the mutually informing machinations structuring art and AIDS politics in the1980s, revealing the diffusion of debates concerning the rhetoric of expression that spanned postmodern aesthetics and the (ongoing) fight against the disease, reading one through the other in a perpetual exchange.

Blake Oetting is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. His dissertation, “The New Aesthetics of Administration,” examines the development of institutional critique practices in the 1980s and 1990s. In addition to Art Journal, his past and forthcoming writing can be found in NkaCriticismArtforum, and Texte Zur Kunst, among other publications and exhibition catalogs. [The Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 1 E. 78th St., New York, NY 10075,]

Thank you to Professor Thomas Crow for providing thoughts on an earlier version of this essay and to the peer reviewers for their subsequent insights and questions. Thank you also to Nicholas Martin at Fales Library, Kyle Croft at Visual AIDS and Mary Ellen Carroll for their assistance in sourcing materials. Finally, thank you to the artists and estates named throughout these pages for allowing me to reproduce images of their work in this essay.

  1. Douglas Eklund, The Pictures Generation, 1974–1984 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009), 31.
  2. Alison Pearlman, Unpackaging Art of the 1980s (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 50.
  3. In her chapter about Blanchon’s practice, Fiona Johnstone notes that Blanchon would later, in 1996, discuss the symbolic role of Magic Johnson in rather different terms: “Whenever Magic dies it won’t matter. We are past the point of awareness and change. This DNA replicating virus is less talked about than Melrose Place or that really annoying show Friends.” See her recent book, AIDS and Representation: Queering Portraiture During the AIDS Crisis in America (London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2023), 109. As for the date of Blanchon’s work, the archival catalog in Visual AIDS’s monograph on the artist notes it was “mailed as a Christmas card,” presumably sometime in December 1991. For the full chronology, see “Catalogue of the Robert Blanchon Archive,” in Robert Blanchon, ed. Tania Duvergne and Amy Sadao (New York: Visual AIDS, 2006), 131–69.
  4. The “Pictures Generation” is a label given to artists like Levine who were included in the 1977 exhibition titled Pictures curated by Douglas Crimp at Artists Space. The other artists were Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Robert Longo, and Philip Smith. Cindy Sherman would be included as part of this group in a subsequent essay written by Crimp about the exhibition; see his text “Pictures,” October 8 (Spring 1979): 75–88.
  5. Blanchon is cited as a spokesperson for the New Museum in an article discussing its condom distribution campaign “Love for Sale—Free Condoms Inside.” See Linda Yablonskaya, “Opening a Window on Truth in (Sex) Advertising,” Outweek, March 27, 1991, 58. Regarding his relationship to ACT UP, close friend and executor of Blanchon’s estate Mary Ellen Carroll says the following about the artist’s activist involvement: “Yes, Robert participated in the AIDS activism group ACT UP. This was really when AIDS was at its height. The number of people who were dying in the community of visual artists, and all across the culture industry, was totally devastating. It was a poignant moment for many people in New York, and also an incredibly important time in terms of political activism and protest. Robert was a part of this movement in Chicago and continued to be part of it in New York.” Quoted in Bethany Martin-Breen, “Interview with Mary Ellen Carroll,” in You Make Me Feel [Mighty Real
  6. See Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Conceptual Art, 1962–1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions,” October 55 (Winter 1990): 105–43.
  7. Douglas Crimp, “Accommodating Magic,” in Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 209.
  8. Crimp, 211. Crimp notes as well that Bush asked Johnson to join his National Commission on AIDS, although the administration’s continued resistance to increased funding for the commission would lead Johnson to step down rather quickly in September 1992.
  9. Douglas Crimp, “Portraits of People with AIDS,” in Cultural Studies, ed. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula A. Treichler (New York: Routledge, 1992), 118.
  10. Ibid., 118–19.
  11. Ibid., 120.
  12. Ibid.
  13. The logo came from a 1987 poster made by the six members of the SILENCE = DEATH Project: Avram Finkelstein, Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston, Charles Kreloff, Chris Lione, and Jorge Socarrás.
  14. Douglas Crimp, “AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism,” October 43 (Winter, 1987): 12. Susan Sontag would also discuss the rhetorical aspects of AIDS and ways of deconstructing it as a cultural text; see her AIDS and Its Metaphors (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989).
  15. Gregg Bordowitz, “Picture a Coalition,” October 43 (Winter 1987): 184.
  16. Crimp, “AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism,” 14.
  17. Simon Watney, “The Spectacle of AIDS,” October 43 (Winter 1987): 78.
  18. Between 1995 and 1999, Blanchon would teach at five institutions: California Institute of the Arts (1995–97), University of California, Irvine (1995–97), ArtCenter College of Design (1996), University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1998), and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (1998–99). For a full biography of Blanchon’s activities, see “Biography,” in Robert Blanchon, ed. Duvergne and Sadao, 171–74.
  19. Johnstone, AIDS and Representation, 111. For the article assigned by Blanchon, see Sherrie Levine, “Five Comments,” in Blasted Allegories: An Anthology of Writings by Contemporary Artists, ed. Brian Wallis (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987), 92–93.
  20. Crimp, “Pictures,” 87.
  21. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Allegorical Procedures: Appropriation and Montage in Contemporary Art,” Artforum 21, no. 1 (September 1982): 52.
  22. Crimp, “Portraits,” 126.
  23. Buchloh, “Allegorical Procedures,” 52.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return of Representation in European Painting,” October 16 (Spring 1981): 66.
  26. Crimp, “Portraits,” 118.
  27. In addition to the critics associated with the Pictures Generation, Johnstone makes a convincing claim for considering the debate about AIDS representations—especially the photographs of Nixon and Fox Solomon—in relation to so-called anti-photography theorists from the 1970s and 1980s like Susan Sontag, Allan Sekula, and Martha Rosler who deconstructed the power dynamics embedded within neutral, objective documentary practices that also exhibited a “liberal” belief in representation. See Johnstone’s chapter on Nixon and Fox Solomon, “Putting a Face to AIDS: Critiquing Documentary Portrait Photography,” in AIDS and Representation, 49–71.
  28. Robert Blanchon, “[never realized
  29. Johnstone, AIDS and Representation, 111.
  30. Sasha Archibald, “Robert Blanchon’s Archive of Absence,” in Robert Blanchon, ed. Duvergne and Sadao, 30. Johnstone describes the work similarly, writing that Blanchon “hints at the scale of the AIDS epidemic as a collective tragedy as well as a personal one”; see AIDS and Representation, 125. As her focus is the question of portraiture in Blanchon’s and other artists’ practices, she goes on to argue that surrogate objects and heteroglossia aid him in bypassing the individualizing logics of self-depiction: “His refusal to represent the body directly has a similar effect, liberating the work from the individualizing limitations of the purely self-referential and bestowing upon it social and political significance as an investigation into the social and psychical construction of the gay male subject at this critical historical moment” (126–27).
  31. Johnstone, AIDS and Representation, 108.
  32. Craig Owens, “The Medusa Effect, or, The Specular Ruse,” in Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture, ed. Scott Bryson, Barbara Kruger, Lynne Tillman, and Jane Weinstock (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 192.
  33. Mark Schoofs, “Gays and Daley,” Chicago Reader, November 16, 1989, accessed December 3, 2020
  34. Richard Meyer, “The Jesse Helms Theory of Art,” October 104 (Spring 2003): 138.
  35. It is reported that John Darmour helped Blanchon hang the posters around the city. See “Catalogue,” 131.
  36. Josh Gamson, “Silence, Death and the Invisible Enemy: AIDS Activism and Social Movement ‘Newness,’” Social Problems 36, no. 4 (October 1989): 352.
  37. Here I refer to the title of Bordowitz’s article cited in note 15: “Picture a Coalition.”
  38. Here I refer to the following catalogs: Robert Blanchon, ed. Duvergne and Sadao; and You Make Me Feel [Mighty Real
  39. As Alexander Alberro and others have demonstrated, however, Conceptualism did not succeed in avoiding the commodity form. In fact, as Alberro argues, Conceptualism’s turn to information as its primary aesthetic content fed directly into the “information economy” of the post-Fordist period. See his Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004).
  40. See Alexander Alberro, “The Way out Is the Way in,” introduction to Art After Conceptual Art, ed. Alberro and Sabeth Buchmann (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 20. For LeWitt’s quote about clerks, see his essay “Serial Project No. 1 (ABCD),” in Sol LeWitt (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1978), 170.
  41. Archibald, “Robert Blanchon’s Archive,” 24–25.
  42. James Yood, “Robert Blanchon,” Artforum 39, no. 8 (April 2001): 142.
  43. Dolores Boogdanian, “Honoring Conceptualism: A Suspicious Perception,” Whitewalls, no. 26 (Fall 1990): 27–31.
  44. Alberro, Conceptual Art, 151.
  45. “Douglas Crimp with Jarrett Earnest,” interview, Brooklyn Rail, October 2016, accessed November 24, 2020, with-jarrett-earnest. The issue on queer representation was never published. It was based on a series of papers given at the conference “How Do I Look?,” presented at Anthology Film Archives in New York. After Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson determined that two of the papers did not meet October’s editorial standards, Crimp decided to publish the essays with Bay Press instead. For Crimp’s account of the split in the pages of the journal, see his short text “To Our Readers,” October 53 (Summer 1990): 110–12.
  46. “Hal Foster in Conversation with Aria Dean,” November, December 11, 2020, accessed December 11, 2020, Foster would later write about AIDS as one of many components that sparked this “return to the real” in art of the late 1980s and 1990s: “… despair about the persistent AIDS crisis, invasive disease and death, systemic poverty and crime, the destroyed welfare state, indeed the broken social contract (as the rich opt out in revolution from the top and the poor are dropped out in immiseration from the bottom). The articulation of these different forces is difficult, yet together they drive the contemporary concern with trauma and abjection.” See his The Return of the Real (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 166.
  47. Johnstone, AIDS and Representation, 145–46.
  48. “Catalogue,” 132.
  49. Carroll, in Martin-Breen, “Interview,” 4.
  50. Alberro, Conceptual Art, 131.
  51. Carroll, in Martin-Breen, “Interview,” 4.
  52. Foster, Return of the Real, 166.
  53. Connie Samaras, “I met Robert ten years ago to the date,” in lalalalalala lalalalalala lalalalalalalalalalala (Los Angeles: Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies, 1996), 19.
  54. Watney, “Spectacle of AIDS,” 85.
  55. Douglas Crimp, “Mourning and Militancy,” in Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 139.
  56. Isabelle Graw, “Conceptual Expression: On Conceptual Gestures in Allegedly Expressive Painting, Traces of Expression in Proto-Conceptual Works, and the Significance of Artistic Procedures,” in Art After Conceptual Art, 121.