More Life - Silence=Death | David Zwirner

Silence = Death

On view at 525 West 19th Street in New York from June 24 through August 3, 2021, this exhibition centers on the now iconic Silence=Death poster as well as other agitprop created by the Silence=Death collective and other artist-activist groups in the late 1980s in response to the HIV/AIDS crisis. Three original Silence=Death collective posters will be contextualized with a range of ephemera that charts the birth of AIDS activism, drawn largely from the collection of Avram Finkelstein, a founding member of Silence=Death and the subsequent collective Gran Fury. 

Formed in 1986 as a consciousness-raising group, the Silence=Death collective designed a poster to be wheat-pasted in strategic locations around New York City as a political statement and call to action to address the lack of response to the health crisis. Forgoing photographic documentation of the unfolding crisis in favor of a simple design that featured a pink triangle floating on a black background with the words “Silence=Death” emblazoned below, this image became a powerful symbol of solidarity, pride, and political dissent
.  


A limited-edition Silence=Death print is available through Platform, with proceeds benefiting Visual AIDS

A photo of members of the Silence=Death Collective at a demonstration together in 1987.

ACT UP Demonstration, Federal Plaza, NYC, June 30, 1987. From left: Steve Gendon, Mark Aurigemma, Douglas Montgomery, Charles Stinson, Frank O’Dowd, Avram Finkelstein. Photo by Donna Binder. © Donna Binder

ACT UP Demonstration, Federal Plaza, NYC, June 30, 1987. From left: Steve Gendon, Mark Aurigemma, Douglas Montgomery, Charles Stinson, Frank O’Dowd, Avram Finkelstein. Photo by Donna Binder. © Donna Binder

Best known for their iconic political poster, Silence=Death was formed by a six-person collective in New York City: Avram Finkelstein, Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston (1952–1990), Charles Kreloff, Chris Lione, and Jorge Soccarás.

Inspired by posters made by the Art Workers’ Coalition and Guerilla Girls, the group finalized the design of their first poster to protest institutional inaction as the epidemic’s devastation raged on
.

A photo of the Silence=Death Colelctive in 1986: S=D collective 1986. Present are Oliver, Jorge, Avram, Brian Howard, Chris Lione, and Charles Kraloff.

The Silence=Death collective: Avram Finkelstein, Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston (1952–1990), Charles Kreloff, Chris Lione, and Jorge Soccarás, 1986. Photo by Brian Howard

The Silence=Death collective: Avram Finkelstein, Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston (1952–1990), Charles Kreloff, Chris Lione, and Jorge Soccarás, 1986. Photo by Brian Howard

A proof of the Silence=Death poster and instructions for the printer, dated 1988.

Silence=Death Project, Mechanical drawing, 1988

Silence=Death Project, Mechanical drawing, 1988

Targeted to advertise and organize against cultural, scientific, and political inaction and indifference, the Silence=Death poster uses abstract rather than photographic imagery in an attempt to reach multiple audiences. The pink triangle is a reference to Nazi persecution of LGBTQ people in the 1930s and 1940s.

A photo of Silence=Death posters wheatpasted in New York City in 1987 before the ACT UP demonstration. Photo by Oliver Johnston.

Original Silence=Death poster wheat-pasted on a New York City street, February 1987. Photo by Oliver Johnston. Courtesy Avram Finkelstein

Original Silence=Death poster wheat-pasted on a New York City street, February 1987. Photo by Oliver Johnston. Courtesy Avram Finkelstein

A page from Avram Finkelstein's journal.

Avram Finkelstein’s journal from 1986 showing Silence=Death meeting notes with a sketch of the Silence=Death poster and a follow-up riot poster, task assignments, and budgets journal

Avram Finkelstein’s journal from 1986 showing Silence=Death meeting notes with a sketch of the Silence=Death poster and a follow-up riot poster, task assignments, and budgets journal

The collective wheat-pasted the poster in strategic locations around the city to serve, in their words, as “an organizing tool and as a means of communication in the streets.” This exhibition marks the first time the poster has been made available as an editioned fine-art print, for sale in support of Visual AIDS.

A poster by Silence=Death Collective, titled Silence=Death, dated 1987 & 2021.

Silence=Death Collective

Silence=Death, 1987/2021
Screenprint and letterpress on paper
34 x 28 inches (86.4 x 71.1 cm)
Framed: 36 1/8 x 30 x 1 3/4 inches (76.2 x 4.4 cm)

“The poster comes for you in ways art simply can’t. The poster comes for you where you live.”

—Avram Finkelstein

A photo by Donna Binder of the 1987 ACT UP demonstration in New York City.

ACT-UP Demo Federal Plaza June 30, 1987. Avram Finkelstein, second from right. Behind him, Mark Fotopolous holds a homemade sign charting his time living with AIDS. Fotopolous updated his sign at each demonstration until his death in 1991. Photo by Donna Binder. © Donna Binder

ACT-UP Demo Federal Plaza June 30, 1987. Avram Finkelstein, second from right. Behind him, Mark Fotopolous holds a homemade sign charting his time living with AIDS. Fotopolous updated his sign at each demonstration until his death in 1991. Photo by Donna Binder. © Donna Binder

Donna Binder, ACT UP Demonstration in Federal Plaza, June 30, 1987. Copyright Donna Binder

ACT UP Demonstration in Federal Plaza, June 30, 1987. Photo by Donna Binder. © Donna Binder

 

ACT UP Demonstration in Federal Plaza, June 30, 1987. Photo by Donna Binder. © Donna Binder

 

A photo by Donna Binder of the 1988 ACT UP demonstration at the FDA in Washington, D.C.

Seize Control of the FDA at Rockville, Maryland, Campus of the Food and Drug Administration, October 11, 1988. Peter Staley, influential member of ACT UP, is pictured above a line of police officers. Photo by Donna Binder. © Donna Binder

Seize Control of the FDA at Rockville, Maryland, Campus of the Food and Drug Administration, October 11, 1988. Peter Staley, influential member of ACT UP, is pictured above a line of police officers. Photo by Donna Binder. © Donna Binder

“The political poster is a public thing.… Once it hits the street, if it manages to tap into the zeitgeist … it’s the audience that determines that rare cultural nanosecond.”

—Avram Finkelstein

A photo by Donna Binder of the 1988 ACT UP demonstration at the FDA in Washington, D.C.

FDA Action, 1988. Photo by Donna Binder. © Donna Binder

FDA Action, 1988. Photo by Donna Binder. © Donna Binder

The triangle became the central visual symbol of AIDS activism after it was adopted by the direct action advocacy group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) in 1987.

 

Featuring the face of then-President Ronald Reagan, the second poster produced by Silence=Death was made for the Third International Conference on AIDS. Protesters booed George Bush (then Vice President) for his support of Reagan’s controversial policies, and held an action at the White House and at the Hilton, where the AIDS conference was being held. 

A poster by the Silence = Death Collective titled Poster #2, For June 1st Action, dated 1987.

Silence=Death Project, AIDSGATE, 1987

Silence=Death Project, AIDSGATE, 1987

A photo of Silence=Death pins.

A Silence=Death pin

A Silence=Death pin

A photo of Avram Finkelstein, Frank Jump, Jerry Smith, Steve Webb, Larry Kramer, and Barry Gingell wearing Silence=Death t-shirts in the Christopher Street Fair in New York for Pride in 1987.

Avram Finkelstein, Frank Jump, Jerry Smith, Steve Webb, Larry Kramer, and Barry Gingell (medical director of GMHC), at the Gay Pride March, New York City, June 28, 1987

Avram Finkelstein, Frank Jump, Jerry Smith, Steve Webb, Larry Kramer, and Barry Gingell (medical director of GMHC), at the Gay Pride March, New York City, June 28, 1987

A photo of a Silence=Death neon installation at the New Museum in New York for the exhibition "Let the record show", in 1987.

Installation view, Let the Record Show …., New Museum, New York, 1987

Installation view, Let the Record Show …., New Museum, New York, 1987

Silence=Death’s political and aesthetic efforts have inspired countless artist-activist groups to continue to fight for equity, justice, respect, and an end to the AIDS crisis. Founding member Avram Finkelstein, for example, would go on to establish Gran Fury along with ten others—a collective perhaps best known for the New Museum’s landmark 1987 exhibition Let the Record Show … installation and the Kissing Doesn’t Kill campaign (1989). 

Pictured here is a neon sign of the Silence=Death motif in the window of the New Museum, then located at 583 Broadway in New York, for Let the Record Show ….

The highly graphic stickers, buttons, posters, and more produced by the fierce pussy collective advocated for lesbian visibility and AIDS-activist mobilization on the streets of New York City. Across the country, Boy With Arms Akimbo/Girl With Arms Akimbo plastered San Francisco with anti-homophobic agitprop work. Recent efforts by Flash Collective and the Tacoma Action Collective speak to the remarkable legacy of Silence=Death as well as the ongoing imperative of direct action intervention to combat AIDS.

A poster by Gran Fury, titled All People With AIDS Are Innocent 1988  Spring AIDS Action 1988. 9 Days of actions, made in 1988.

Gran Fury, All People With AIDS Are Innocent, 1988

Gran Fury, All People With AIDS Are Innocent, 1988

Among those who were pivotal in capturing images of the movement and raising awareness in the media were Donna Binder, Lola Flash, and t. l. litt, whose photographs are also included in the exhibition.

A photo by Donna Binder of the We Die  Act UP demonstration at the Food and Drug Administration in Maryland, USA,  in 1987.

Seize Control of the FDA at Rockville, Maryland Campus of the Food and Drug Administration October 11, 1988. Photo by Donna Binder. © Donna Binder

Seize Control of the FDA at Rockville, Maryland Campus of the Food and Drug Administration October 11, 1988. Photo by Donna Binder. © Donna Binder

A photo by Donna Binder of the ACT UP demonstration at the Food and Drug Administration, in 1988.

ACT UP travels to Atlanta during DNC, July 17–21, 1988, 1988. Figure in the foreground places a Silence=Death sticker on the riot gear of the police officer. Photo by Donna Binder. © Donna Binder

ACT UP travels to Atlanta during DNC, July 17–21, 1988, 1988. Figure in the foreground places a Silence=Death sticker on the riot gear of the police officer. Photo by Donna Binder. © Donna Binder

A photo by Donna Binder of the ACT UP demonstration in Atlanta, in 1988.

ACT UP travels to Atlanta during DNC, July 17–21, 1988, 1988. Photo by Donna Binder. © Donna Binder

ACT UP travels to Atlanta during DNC, July 17–21, 1988, 1988. Photo by Donna Binder. © Donna Binder

A photo of a newspaper article with a photo by Donna binder showing the first time Silence=Death was used in a demonstration, at the second Act Up demonstration in 1987.

A photograph by Donna Binder appears in the New York Native following the April 15, 1987 demonstration

A photograph by Donna Binder appears in the New York Native following the April 15, 1987 demonstration

Donna Binder (b. 1960) is a photojournalist and founding member of Impact Visuals, a cooperative photo agency dedicated to social documentary photography.

“In 1987, when ACT UP first formed,” Binder says, “it was … so amazing, to have pictures of, and to be able to send out images, of … people with AIDS that were strong, and were fighting, and completely turning around the victim thing.”

A detail from a photo by Lola Flash, dated 1989.

Lola Flash, Guilty, 1989 (detail). © Lola Flash

Lola Flash, Guilty, 1989 (detail). © Lola Flash

A detail from a photo by Lola Flash, dated 1987.

Lola Flash, AIDS Warriors – US Mail, 1987 (detail). © Lola Flash

Lola Flash, AIDS Warriors – US Mail, 1987 (detail). © Lola Flash

A detail from a photo by Lola Flash, dated 1989.

Lola Flash, Blood on Its Hands, 1989 (detail). © Lola Flash

Lola Flash, Blood on Its Hands, 1989 (detail). © Lola Flash

An active participant in ACT UP, the photographer Lola Flash’s (b. 1959) work focuses on social, LGBTQ, and feminist issues. Flash notably features in the poster for Gran Fury’s 1989 Kissing Doesn’t Kill project.

A photo by T.L. LItt of Mark Fotopolous and his Mom at the 1989 Pride Parade.

Mark Fotopoulos and his mom—1989 Pride Parade, 1989. Photo by t.l. litt. © t.l. Litt

Mark Fotopoulos and his mom—1989 Pride Parade, 1989. Photo by t.l. litt. © t.l. Litt

As a member of Impact Visuals, beginning in the 1980s t. l. litt (b. 1964) covered issues including AIDS activism, abortion rights, gay and lesbian rights, housing rights, and homelessness.

A photo by T.L. Litt of the 1988 ACT UP demonstration outside the offices of the New York City Commissioner of Health. Pictured is Stephen Joseph.

ACT UP targets NYC Commissioner of Health, Stephen Joseph, 1988. Photo by t.l. litt. © t.l. Litt

ACT UP targets NYC Commissioner of Health, Stephen Joseph, 1988. Photo by t.l. litt. © t.l. Litt

A photo by T.L. Litt of the ACT UP "SEIZE CONTROL OF THE FDA" action at the Food and Drug Administration Headquarters in Rockville, Maryland on October 11, 1988.

Seize Control of the FDA, 1988. Photo by t.l. litt. © t.l. Litt

Seize Control of the FDA, 1988. Photo by t.l. litt. © t.l. Litt

A photo by T.L. Litt of Ray Navarro and David Robinson at the 1990 Pride Parade.

Ray Navarro and David Robinson – 1990 Gay Pride Parade, 1990. Photo by t.l. litt. © t.l. Litt

Ray Navarro and David Robinson – 1990 Gay Pride Parade, 1990. Photo by t.l. litt. © t.l. Litt

“The poster perfectly suits the American ear. It has a power. If you’ve ever stopped in front of one or turned your head for a second look, that power was at work.”

—Avram Finkelstein

A photo of the Silence=Death slogan in the window of the Leslie-Lohman Museum in 2017.

Commemorating the poster's thirty-year anniversary in 2017, the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art installed the Silence=Death image in their SoHo windows, adding the tagline: “Be Vigilant. Refuse. Resist”. Photo by Timothy Schenck, 2017. Courtesy the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art

Commemorating the poster's thirty-year anniversary in 2017, the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art installed the Silence=Death image in their SoHo windows, adding the tagline: “Be Vigilant. Refuse. Resist”. Photo by Timothy Schenck, 2017. Courtesy the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art

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