Demonstrations outside
          Artists Space during the opening
          of Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing
          November 16, 1989

Witnesses:
Against Our Vanishing
November 16, 1989 –
January 6, 1990

Organized by Nan Goldin

David Armstrong, Tom Chesley, Dorit Cypris, Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, Jane Dickson, Darrel Ellis, Allen Frame, Peter Hujar, Greer Lankton, Siobhan Liddel, James Nares, Perico Pastor, Margo Pelletier, Clarence Elie Rivera, Vittorio Scarpati, Jo Shane, Kiki Smith, Janet Stein, Stephen Tashjian, Shellburne Thurber, Ken Tisa, David Wojnarowicz

Ten years after the notorious incident of The Nigger Drawings (1979), Artists Space again found itself at the center of a major controversy – this time national, and under the directorship of Susan Wyatt. In 1989, Nan Goldin organized an exhibition of New York artists responding to the AIDS crisis entitled Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing. Goldin selected several of her friends living and working on the Lower East Side whose work addressed the AIDS epidemic in some way. In a deeply personal statement about the exhibition, Goldin writes,

"Over the past year four more of my most beloved friends have died of AIDS. Two were artists I had selected for this exhibit. One of the writers for this catalogue has become too sick to write. And so the tone of the exhibition has become less theoretical and more personal, from a show about AIDS to an issue to more of a collective memorial."

The controversy was ignited by an essay by David Wojnarowicz included in the exhibition catalogue, “Post Cards from America: X-Rays from Hell,” which criticized Senator Jesse Helms, Representative William Dannemeyer, the Cardinal John Joseph O’Connor and other right-wing policy-makers for their support of legislation that Wojnarowicz argued would further the spread of AIDS by discouraging education of safe sex practices.The essay particularly offended the recently-elected chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, John Frohnmayer, leading the NEA to withdraw the $10,000 grant which had funded the show. Susan Wyatt contacted the NEA about the decision, and after much debate, the grant was partially restored, this time including money to fund the exhibition but not the catalogue. Few perceived the partial reversal as a victory. This seemed to mark the second instance of a disturbing trend of government censorship towards AIDS-related speech. In June of the same year, the NEA had entirely canceled Robert Mapplethorpe’s solo exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Wojnarowicz, in particular, was outraged by Wyatt’s decision to accept the partially restored grant, and even refused to attend the opening: “I don’t feel that civil or constitutional rights are a worthy trade for money.”

New York Post headline
November 1989

Washington Post headline
November 17, 1989

New York Times headline
November 10, 1989

New York Post headline
November 9, 1989

New York Times Headline
November 9, 1989

Works by Philip-Lorca diCorcia
Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, Artists Space, 1989

Works by Robert Vitale
Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, Artists Space, 1989

Installation view, Witnesses Against Our Vanishing, Artists Space, 1989

Works by Mark Morrisroe
Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, Artists Space, 1989

Works by James Nares (left) and Peter Hujar (center)
Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, Artists Space, 1989


Download Statement on NEA Funding

Download Press Release