Gone But Maybe Not Forgotten

What happens to a young artist's work when he or she is struck down by AIDS? Good question.

On a chilly Saturday afternoon in February, the Miami Art Museum bustles with visitors who zigzag through a posthumous survey of Carlos Alfonzo's work, taking in the bright-color, densely painted canvases that made the Cuban artist a favorite among local collectors a decade ago. Unfailingly, when they reach the last gallery, the buoyant visitors grow quiet and linger. Parents take their children by the hand. Couples sit on the bench in the middle of the room and silently stare at the walls.

The large, dark canvases in this gallery are known, for obvious reasons, as the "Black Paintings" -- spare, abstract configurations that stand in powerful contrast to Alfonzo's busier early works. The popular and prolific artist, who arrived in Miami with the Mariel boatlift, created these paintings in the months before he died of an AIDS-related cerebral hemorrhage in 1991. The works share a set of images that were symbolic for the 40-year-old painter at the end of his life: a large, faceless head, the outline of a kneeling figure, and, in the background, skyscraper-like shapes -- stand-ins for souls that the artist referred to as "witnesses."

"Carlos was very active until the end," remembers artist Cesar Trasobares, a close friend of Alfonzo and the former director of Metro-Dade Art in Public Places. "I remember going to Carlos's studio one day and he was crawling on the floor with a brush in his hand. He was weak, but he was determined to finish the painting. That was what mattered."

Morbid though the notion may sound, death became the work of Carlos Alfonzo. Curators and collectors agree that the dark, symbolic canvases produced in the last months of his life were his finest. Just months after his death, three were included in the prestigious Whitney Biennial in New York, exposing an international audience to his legacy. A painting worth $12,000 at the time of Alfonzo's death can now fetch more than three times that sum. And thanks to collectors who have an obvious financial as well as philanthropic interest in his fame, Alfonzo's legacy is sure to live on.

But his case is an exception in the world of art. More common are the stories of less-celebrated artists whose losing battles with AIDS have meant that their creations wind up in the dustbin of art history.

"What happens to the also-rans?" Pat Jones asks. "What happens to the ones who may have had a potentially brilliant career but were at the beginning of it when they died? They didn't really have a chance to develop ... a real market for their work."

The former director of the South Florida Art Center, Jones is the South Florida coordinator of the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS, a nonprofit organization devoted to helping artists plan for the preservation of their work after their deaths. She is also a driving force behind "Touched by AIDS," an exhibition opening March 11 at Miami-Dade Community College's Centre Gallery, which will showcase the work of thirteen Miami artists, including Alfonzo, who have died of AIDS.

"One function of an artist is purely to produce objects and aesthetic material," observes Patrick Moore, the Los Angeles-based director of the Estate Project. "But I think an equally essential function is to document a particular time through the practice of art. We're in the midst of incredible turmoil because of a particular disease, and if we preserve and study this work I think we're going to have a real historical picture of a certain time."

Peter Menendez knows precisely what Moore means. An architect and collector, Menendez remembers an era when he felt like he was attending more memorial services for artists than gallery openings. "We really started losing people in '90, '91, '92," Menendez says grimly. "One person after another." The works on display in his home, many by Miami-based Cuban artists, serve as reminders of lost friends.

And more than once Menendez has had to take on the painful task of sorting through the belongings in deceased friends' homes, sometimes discovering a cache of artworks that no one except the artist knew was there. "It's kind of a modus operandi," Menendez says. "Most people think they're going to lick the illness. They think they're going to get it together, so they don't make plans for their work."

Indeed, the rapid spread of the AIDS epidemic a decade ago hit the nation's artistic community especially hard and created an unprecedented pool of artists cut down in their primes. A rampant loss of intellectual property came with the fatalities. "Artists want to make art," Moore notes. "They don't want to deal with the business of art."

In the case of artists with AIDS, the loss of work was often exacerbated by the stigma associated with the illness. In some instances, Moore laments, whole estates left to relatives were destroyed because family members didn't approve of the works' content or because survivors regarded them as junk. "More common is that they just don't know what to do with the art," Moore says. "We can all just imagine our mothers and fathers trying to deal with some of the art we see in galleries today."

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