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Book Review: ‘It Was Vulgar & It Was Beautiful,’ by Jack Lowery

How AIDS Activists Used Art to Fight a Pandemic
By Jack Lowery
Illustrated. 422 pages. Bold Type Books. $35.

The revolution would not be televised, but slathered with wheat paste.

Do not underestimate the importance of this starchy makeshift adhesive in the history of AIDS awareness — back when a “poster” was not someone writing anonymous comments online but public relations on paper, in the actual town square.

As described in Jack Lowery’s new book, “It Was Vulgar & It Was Beautiful,” wheat paste was something like a holy substance for activists, enabling the circulation of their righteously angry art. They hired a “snipping” company with possible ties to the mafia to stick up posters around Manhattan that bore pink triangles taken from the Nazis’ symbol for homosexuals: inverted because of an organizer’s faulty memory but looking boldly intentional. The posters’ tagline, “Silence = Death,” became as well-known in the cultural capitals as a Coca-Cola or McDonald’s slogan.

Wheat paste also backed the less-remembered “He Kills Me” poster, which showed then-President Ronald Reagan smirking in apparent indifference to the rapid spread of AIDS. And the “Sexism Rears Its Unprotected Head” poster, which featured a naked, erect penis, a command for condom use and a warning that the disease kills women too. (This imagery was a little too much for many passers-by, who often tore it down.) A large billboard asked rhetorically: “When a government turns its back on its people, is it civil war?” Turns out you shouldn’t use wheat paste to put up a heavier billboard in the cold. The paste froze and this particular piece of signage “crumbled into a sad heap at the base of the wall,” Lowery writes.

His book focuses on the Gran Fury art collective, an offshoot of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), which itself had been founded out of frustration with existing organizations that were not sufficiently radicalized against a fast-moving, lethal disease decimating an entire generation of gay men. The logistics behind demonstrations — the phone trees and accounting and pizzas — would not seem to be the most scintillating material, but Lowery painstakingly reconstructs conversations and negotiations that compel a reader to feel the era’s anguish and urgency. Much of the collective’s work now hangs in major museums.

Jack Lowery, the author of “It Was Vulgar & It Was Beautiful: How AIDS Activists Used Art to Fight a Pandemic.”Credit…Gregory Wikstrom

Gran Fury was named for a model of Plymouth car then used by the New York City Police Department. The phrase somehow “insinuated a kind of fabulous outrage,” Lowery writes, and sounded gothic, like a Tennessee Williams play. “Our fury was grand,” Donald Moffett, a graphic designer and one of the nine surviving core members of Gran Fury, told the author. Lowery interviewed them all and drew from an unfinished memoir by the tenth, Mark Simpson, who died in 1996.

Like the artist Barbara Kruger, who taught one member of the group and whose typeface they swiped for their “Read My Lips” series, Gran Fury reappropriated the well-oiled and sometimes absurd patois of American advertising and branding. This was social media before the internet. Far from crumbling in a sad heap at the base of a wall, the group was solidifying, mobilizing and furiously fighting.

All white but for one member, Robert Vazquez-Pacheco, the creators of Gran Fury confronted the elite on its own turf: repurposing foamcore sales signs from Barneys for percussive protest; shutting down the stock exchange using fake Bear Stearns badges and currency (“people are dying while you play business”); and stuffing New York Times vending boxes with pointed spoofs called The New York Crimes. “Bloody” paint handprints began to show up on pavements and windows, trailing elected officials who, the demonstrators argued, were effectively guilty of murder.

Lowery is young — this project started as his master’s thesis at Columbia — but writes like an old soul, scholarly and indignant at how AIDS was for so many years minimized and marginalized. Occasionally he permits himself an exclamation point of delight or mild sarcasm. (“Most innocuous indeed!” he writes of a banner reading “All People with AIDS Are Innocent,” a rebuttal of the idea that the disease stemmed from immoral behavior. “Gran Fury even won a prize!” he writes about the awarded “Kissing Doesn’t Kill” poster, which featured an array of diverse couples mid-smooch; many at the time mistook it for a Benetton ad.)

But mostly “It Was Vulgar,” the title taken from another of Moffett’s pronouncements, is a deeply sober story about a vulnerable population, often rejected and failed by their birth families, their health care system, their civic leaders and even sometimes by each other, suffused with grief and dread.

“The closet is turning into a coffin,” wrote Avram Finkelstein, a hairdresser, “self-described Machiavellian propagandist” and Gran Fury member, in a 1986 journal entry. Small details give the activists’ trajectory a novel’s momentum: the useless garlic cure attempted by an early AIDS patient; the Gouldian finches that Simpson housed in his Brooklyn apartment; his shrinking from the sunlight like a vampire; the beef blood that pooled and froze in the street in the Meatpacking District before gentrification. Eventually, tactics escalated. As one member put it, “wheat paste means you’re marginal.”

Lowery is careful to document pockets of camaraderie and even joy in a harrowing time. As he writes: “It wasn’t just people nervously palpating their glands every 10 minutes.” There is a confrontation with the pope, but also a party at Peggy Guggenheim’s palazzo in Venice. We see Tim Bailey, a men’s wear designer and member of the Marys, another of ACT UP’s affinity groups, car-dancing to Taylor Dayne’s rendition of “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love” days before the thwarted staging of his political funeral in Washington, D.C.

“It Was Vulgar” isn’t perfect — this critic wanted to get out a blue pencil whenever Lowery overused the word “ultimately,” sometimes multiple times on a page, and his endnotes are scant. But it’s an important contribution to the annals of AIDS, and, in hewing close to but fanning out from a narrow cast of characters, a sturdy template for chroniclers of complex sociopolitical movements.

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