W. M. HUNT, photo
collector, curator and director of photography of New Yorks Ricco-Maresca
Gallery, was the chairman of Photographers + Friends United Against
Felix Gonzalez-Torres was this brilliant, 30-something conceptual artist
who had been a part of Group Material, a collective. I think he was
in Act Up. He had a huge, wonderful retrospective at the Guggenheim.
He was also kind of a sexy dog, a handsome fellow, and people just liked
being with him. He died of AIDS-related complications in 1996, a year
after the Guggenheim show.
was a magician. He would do something as odd as fill the corner of a
museum with wrapped candies. That would be the piece. And the piece
would be bewildering. Youd go, What the hell is that all
about? Kids thought theyd landed in heaven. You were supposed
to take the candy. The works were endlessly replenishable. You were
encouraged to touch it and deal with it directly. It may not have been
conventional, but it was engaging and magical.
One of the pieces for which he got wide recognition about eight years
ago was this billboard project. [It was part of the Museum of Modern
Arts Project Series (Projects 34: Felix Gonzalez-Torres,
May 16-June 30, 1992.)] Images of an empty bed appeared on commercial
billboards around the city. What was great about this piece is that
as it was situated in the public domain without any explanatory text,
everyone who saw it could interpret the piece differently. For me, it
was reminiscent of the Imogen Cunningham bed picture. There was something
incredibly sad about it. The implication to me was that now the bed
doesnt have two people in it. Something has happened. Something
is missing. Something is absent. To me, I saw it as a testimonial to
his lover, who had died. So you dont literally have the information,
its completely enigmatic in its way, but it has some sort of lingering
emotional impact on you. You bring all of your stuff to it and you go,
Whats with that bed?
The piece was sold to one person, which meant that it could be leant
over and over again. Now the Museum of Modern Art owns this work. They
too have printed billboards. And if you look around Manhattan, you can
see them once more, engaging people yet again.
Outside the window of the [Ricco-Maresca] gallery, close to where Im
sitting right now, is that billboard. Its visible from the viewing
room and whenever I have clients or visitors, I sit them so that they
can see it. They always ask what it is. Its about a block away,
so its framed by the slightly grimy window. Its very cool.
The photograph has a life of its own, again, eight or ten years or so
after its creation. Im sure for others it has new and different
meanings. For me, it is still about the same theme: Our palpable sense
of loss in dealing with AIDS.
I also want to emphasize the significance, in the 1990s, of Photographers
+ Friends United Against AIDS. The founder, Joseph Hartney, was dying,
and I went from volunteer to chairman, overnight. That organization
helped define who I am. It completely changed my life. I found the whole
experience exhilarating, despite the truly unfortunate circumstances
of how I inherited the chairmanship. I had a mission and I became a
totally different, fearless guy. Im like Pollyanna. I adore my
life in photography. The photography community - - photographers, artists,
commercial, editorial - - is full of great people, with the number of
bozos and jerks such a small percentage.
The mission of Photographers + Friends was to raise money to distribute
for AIDS education and for medical care. Its methodology, at first,
was to launch the exhibition, The Indomitable Spirit that
Marvin Heiferman curated in 1990, and to sell those pictures. It was
the product of the labors of Marvin, Andy Grunberg, Brent Sikkema and
their team. In the process of doing that, it developed two unbelievably
prescient portfolios of the hottest fine-art photographic talent in
the world. The combination of those two projects raised a couple of
What the organization did was set a standard for the use of fine-art
photography in helping to fund charitable causes. It helped foster and
shape The Charity Auction. In retrospect, not to discount the booming
economy of the 90s, it was also the first to validate the sustained
value of contemporary photography collecting. It brought together the
worlds of fashion, fine-art photography, photojournalism and the tastemakers
of photography collecting as they hadnt been aligned before.
Photographers + Friends died in the mid-1990s, a victim of its own success.
It got folded into DIFFA. I dont know who actually turned the