On June 2, the mural RIOT was unveiled at New York’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center (“The Center”). The powerful 96″ x 96″ work is a recreation of a painting originally created in 1988 by the artist collective Gran Fury. Gran Fury is an autonomous collective that has included Mark Simpson (d. 1996), Richard Elovich, Avram Finkelstein, Amy Heard, Tom Kalin, John Lindell, Loring McAlpin, Marlene McCarty, Donald Moffett, Michael Nesline, and Robert Vazquez, who have described themselves as a “band of individuals united in anger and dedicated to exploiting the power of art to end the AIDS crisis.”
“The Center is honored to collaborate with Gran Fury to revive such an important work as we recognize the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots,” said Glennda Testone, The Center’s executive director. “RIOT calls to mind the battles that the LGBTQ community has fought over the past 50 years, including those it still fights today. Especially as the eyes of the world turn to New York for WorldPride, this is a vital reminder that our struggle to secure equity and justice for all within our community is far from over.”
Days before the unveiling, I spoke with artist and member of both Gran Fury and the Silence Equals Death Collective, Avram Finkelstein. Finkelstein is a prolific and provocative artist who has always used his creative talents to inspire and challenge our community. Because of his longstanding and outspoken artistic advocacy, his work and presence are in high demand for events during WorldPride, taking place in New York City this coming Pride weekend. I caught up with him on the phone to talk about the history of the painting RIOT, the Gran Fury collaboration, and the mural’s installation at The Center.
Charles Sanchez: Hi, Avram. How are you?
Avram Finkelstein: I’m good. Trying to catch up.
AF: Stonewall 50: The Monster that ate New York! (laughs) I really need to get a personal assistant.
CS: How was it decided to put the mural of RIOT at The Center?
AF: The short version of the story is that the [original] RIOT painting had been living at The Center for a couple of decades. We (Gran Fury) borrowed it to show at [an exhibition] at 80 Washington Square East, and then returned it and had no call to use it again. But then a curator, actually a gallerist, requested it for a show. In investigating where it was so we could pull it out for them to look at it, it was discovered that it was gone.
CS: What? Wow. You mean the painting disappeared?
AF: Yeah! We were heartbroken. It’s the only work that can be described as artwork that Gran Fury ever produced. Moreover, one of our founding members, Mark Simpson, painted it. He died many years ago. It was very heartbreaking for the collective, but in order to make use of a bad situation, we came up with a series of ideas that we proposed to The Center and they were extremely receptive and very supportive of all of them.
The original RIOT painting was made — the story behind it is that it’s one of Gran Fury’s first works as a named collective. It was for our first oversees exhibition, in Germany.
We found out that General Idea (an artist collective out of Canada), who had done this AIDS wallpaper project, based on Robert Indiana’s LOVE painting, was going to be in the exhibition. Gran Fury disagreed with that work, in that without context, what it really appears to be saying is that love leads to AIDS, or that AIDS is a result of love. We thought that without context the message was cryptic enough for us to take exception to, and we decided that we needed to complete the sentence that General Idea had started, by saying that if love leads to AIDS, then AIDS leads to riot. That was our line of thinking about it.
So we made this painting, and we shipped it in a container that I think Mark Simpson took from the Lichtenstein Foundation. It didn’t even fit in the container; he had to put it in a folding canvas. The painting was meant to be a sort of punk response to the slickness of the General Idea painting, but it was also made with a powdered pigment that was blown onto the canvas onto a gel medium, as opposed to mixed into the gel medium. [Since the paint was not solid on the canvas,] it actually shed pigment. The red and the black pigment was intended to sort of explode off the canvas, like fall off and leave a mess behind. It was a performative aspect of the painting that was misunderstood and made everyone unhappy because when it opened, it literally got everywhere! There was something snotty about us having done it, and it’s somewhat notorious in the art world.
CS: So the painting itself was a riot!
AF: Yeah. And it was meant to look like it had been in a riot. It was meant to look burned and semi-destroyed. And over the years many curators have misunderstood that aspect of the painting, have understood it to be incomplete or in decay, and consequently ineligible for display, from a standard, institutional perspective. But it was intended to be that way. When we took it out to show at Washington Square East, we noticed there was a puncture mark and we were like, “Yeah, we should probably fix it,” but we didn’t. We actually didn’t care.
The version of the painting you’re going to see [at The Center] is actually this new shiny exhibition version of this missing messy testament to a time and place that’s now disappeared.
The mural came out of a meeting with The Center, once it was discovered that the painting was missing. We requested that we make a permanent mural of the work at The Center. They were very happy to agree to that. It’s much bigger than the original painting, and it’s pretty spectacular.
CS: How big was the original painting?
AF: Well, I can tell you, it was a pretty big painting. It was 6 by 6 feet. So this one is 8 feet. It’s much bigger, and I can tell you, it’s quite beautiful. The Center has also produced 25,000 stickers of the RIOT image, which they’ll be handing out along the [New York City Pride] march route.
CS: That’s amazing. I heard that Marc Jacobs is also using the image to create merchandise to benefit The Center. Hats and T-shirts and condoms and stuff (available at stores and online). How do you feel about that?
AF: The Center originally asked us about T-shirts, and the collective felt fine about it. We were very much about work in the public domain, so the idea that we had was either stickers or T-shirts, something that people could have rather than sell, more works of art, but that they could have themselves, so that was always in the mix. And then Marc Jacobs offered to make the T-shirts.
And the RIOT painting is the only work we’ve ever done that wasn’t reproducible. Well, it is right now.
Gran Fury has for a long time wanted to create a website where people can download our work for free. You can get that work from the New York Public Library or various archives, but they usually charge you between $100, $150, to $300 for a high-res file — and you know for academics and small press, etc., they may not be able to afford that. The website is called GranFury.org, and it’s live now.
CS: Thanks, Avram. Is there anything else you want to say about the work?
AF: The whole point of us having done the painting to begin with, us agreeing to remake it, the circumstances under which we have had to rediscover and revisit our own idea about our own history as a collective — much less the meaning of our work and the meaning of it in relation to our social status in the 21st century — this is an ongoing conversation within the collective.
I think in a way, the original painting and this new mural are perfect metaphors for the difference between remembering the AIDS crisis and having lived through it.
RIOT is on permanent display on the second floor of The Center, mere steps from Keith Haring’s iconic Once Upon A Time men’s bathroom mural and alongside other notable paintings and photographs that honor and chronicle New York City queer history. The Center is open to the public at 208 W. 13th Street in Manhattan during business hours.
For the unveiling, the Gran Fury collective stated, “RIOT grew out of the AIDS crisis in the late 80’s when every gay person in New York felt under attack. Even though antiretroviral therapy that activism pressed for has alleviated the crisis for some people, our battles are not over, even for HIV/AIDS. We salute all those in the LGBT community who continue to fight for our rights and equal treatment. Stonewall was a RIOT.”
Note: This interview has been edited for content and clarity.