For anyone who lived through the years 1980-1985 in New York City, the new exhibition “AIDS in New York: The First Five Years,” on view at the New York Historical Society from June 7 through September 15, will be a sobering and illuminating flashback to an era of overwhelming confusion and anxiety. As curator Jean Ashton states, “These were the years of silence,” the panic-stricken years before ACT UP’s game-changing motto SILENCE = DEATH.
Ashton’s stunning evocation of the first five years of the rapidly escalating epidemic draws from the archives of the New York Public Library, New York University, and the National Archive of LGBT History to recreate the climate of fear, mystery, and grief that was the pervasive atmosphere for many New Yorkers.
With photographs of Plato’s Retreat and the piers of the West Village, the exhibition’s introduction establishes the prevailing cultural freedoms and the era’s libidinous permissiveness. After the social and political unrest of the Sixties, it was “party time for everyone in Seventies New York.” As one commentator noted of New York City in the Seventies, “where some saw disorder and chaos, others saw artistic ferment,” and so it was that New York had become home for artists from around the world.
Often initially marked by Kaposi’s sarcoma, a disease previously found only in elderly Mediterraneans and Ashkenazi Jews, AIDS was as confounding to the medical profession as it was to those whose families and friends were immediately impacted.
The exhibition traces the first rumors of a “gay plague” and the ensuing activism, clinical research, and political struggle. As Ashton asserts and as the exhibition so compellingly substantiates, “Disease has a political context; you can’t deny it.”
Complementing the exhibition is a separate room filled with 20 black-and-white photographs of children with AIDS. In 1990, photographer and social realist Claire Yaffa began documenting the lives of afflicted children at the Incarnation Children’s Center in the Bronx, which was one of the first organizations to care for orphaned infants born with HIV.
Hung in a black-walled room, the haunting images of “Children with AIDS: Spirit and Memory Photographs by Claire Yaffa” document HIV’s youngest victims, as well as the extraordinary compassion of the children’s caretakers. Only one of the children survived.
“For many people today,” states Ashton, “these years are now a little-understood and nearly forgotten historical period.” Using a collection of artifacts that includes posters, letters, diaries, audio and video clips (shown on Eighties-era televisions), as well as clinicians’ notes, “AIDS in New York: The First Five Years” reminds viewers to never forget.