I hate to begin with the big D—death—but there it is. My co-curator Bill Stelling’s brilliant title for the exhibition, taken from Robert Browning’s poem “Love Among the Ruins”, aptly describes the main themes—love and mortality—that were the impetus for this show.
As I lost so many friends so suddenly and unexpectedly in the last year, I was taken back to a time when love and mortality were daily confrontations in our collective lives—when lights dimmed as dear friends, colleagues, and role models succumbed to AIDS.
By the end of the go-go 80s, the economy was in ruins, the art world crashed and burned, and the heartbreak of AIDS permeated our world. And yet, as Love Among the Ruins demonstrates, even in the face of these crushing conditions art, creativity, and joy still flourished.
And, one of the centers of light amid the ruins was 56 Bleecker Gallery—a beacon of exuberant art, madcap performances, and nonstop socializing. At the center of this whirlwind was my friend Dean Rolston and my co-curators, gallery director Bill Stelling, and force majeure Maynard Monrow.
When Dean died in 1994 from AIDS, he left behind a memoir—Remembering Dying—a memento mori of the last two years of his life. No hagiography: In this short, powerful, beautifully written, and honest work Dean looks at his life and imminent death through the prism of contemporary culture and Zen Buddhism—contrasts that were apparent in his life. He was no saint, toggling between angel and devil, sublime and profane, like many of us in the late 80s. After his death, I sent letters to publishers soliciting their interest. Searching through his papers for this exhibition, I found the rejection letters that read as a sad commentary on the times: “Too many AIDS memoirs,” they say. Too many. To honor my dear friend, Some Serious Business will publish Remembering Dying. The book is a symbol of Dean’s sovereignty and agency in the face of death. “To suffer is not enough,” he says. We will not drown in forgetfulness. Through this exhibition, catalog, and memoir, we remember dying so that we can look back on this terrible period with grace, compassion, and new understanding.
Some Serious Business is proud to collaborate with Howl! Happening to shine a light on another untold story about the art and social history of the East Village. Love Among the Ruins is not a nostalgic stroll down memory lane. It’s part of the continuum of living history that informs where we are—at this very moment—and spotlights the artists (living and dead) whose originality and exuberant style continue to resonate with the world we inhabit right here, right now.
So love and death and love again—we’re at a tipping point, brothers and sisters—a paradigm shift of epic proportions. We’re simultaneously “letting go altogether and being in spirited motion” to co-create a world in which love is a revolutionary act—a universe that fully acknowledges the last line of Browning’s poem: “Love is best.”
—Susan Martin, Founding Director, Some Serious Business