December 1 is World AIDS Day as well as what was once known as A Day Without Art. That began December 1, 1989, in response to the AIDS crisis and in honor of all the artists who lost their lives or were affected by the disease. About 800 U.S. arts and AIDS groups participated. Nearly twenty years later, that number has grown to more than 8,000 national and international organizations now taking part, and A Day Without Art has evolved into A Day With(out) Art. Originally, an art object was cloaked in black for the day; now the emphasis is on proactive programming that relates to artists and AIDS.
When I lived in New York in the 1980s, the AIDS crisis was just beginning. There was fear and ignorance and young people leaving us much too soon. I did not know Carlos Alfonzo; the Cuban-born artist died of AIDS in 1991. His painting Where Tears Can't Stop (1986) hangs proudly in SAAM's Lincoln Gallery among other works of the twentieth century. I was rushing by it one day, as I had an appointment with another painting, so to speak, but it literally stopped me in my tracks. I stood in front of it and couldn't move. I've been trying to write about it ever since but always seemed to find excuses to write about something else.
Was it the painting itself or the story of the painter that drew me in? Alfonzo was born in Cuba and fled the Castro regime in 1980. The painting is full of blood and daggers, and swirls around like a life trying to find meaning and balance, whether in religion or the tarot. The colors are bright but the action is impulsive, jarring. A large tear shape dominates the left side of the painting, which is filled with images of eyes, limbs, crosses, even more tears. It also recalls the early belief that the AIDS virus was carried in the tears of the infected. Tears flow but who will be there to wipe them for you?
Alfonzo died five years after completing this work. We have the painting to look at every day of the year but we should all stand in front of it quietly for a moment or two on December 1. I doubt if the only tears will be on the canvas.