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Episode 3: Thomas Sokolowski

Release date: December 1, 2011

Curator and art historian Thomas Sokolowski is no stranger to MOCRA audiences, having lectured at the museum in 1994 with a talk called "The Changing Face of AIDS" and again in 2002 with a talk called "The Last Impression: Andy Warhol's Art as Belief."

Sokolowski and MOCRA Director Terrence Dempsey, SJ, discuss issues related to art and AIDS. Topics include Sokolowski's experiences in presenting some of the earliest exhibitions of art about AIDS, and his role in the creation of the red ribbon for AIDS awareness. Also addressed are Sokolowski's role in introducing Dempsey to the late artist Adrian Kellard, and Sokolowski's significant role in making several MOCRA exhibitions possible.

The Audio Extra, "The Changing Face of AIDS," features excerpts from Sokolowski's 1994 talk at MOCRA.

The Conversation

Listening Guide

Audio Extra: The Changing Face of AIDS

Listening Guide for the Audio Extra

MOCRA Voices on Stitcher MOCRA Voices on iTunes

Related Exhibitions

Consecrations: The Spiritual in Art in the Time of AIDS
Adrian Kellard: The Learned Art of Compassion
Andy Warhol: Silver Clouds

Related Episode

Episode 2: Adrian Kellard


Producer: David Brinker
Recording Engineer and Editor: Fojammi (Daniel Stefacek)
Host: John Launius
Listening Guide: David Brinker


Thomas Sokolowski A native of Chicago, Thomas Sokolowski received his B.A. from the University of Chicago, and earned his master's degree and did doctoral work in art history at New York University, where he specialized in late 17th- and early 18th-century Italian art. In the early 1980s Sokolowski was curator of European painting and sculpture, and later chief curator, at the Chrysler Museum. In 1984 he was named Director of New York University's Grey Art Gallery and Study Center, where he curated a number of important exhibitions.

Sokolowski became Director of The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, PA, in 1996, a post he held for 14 years. During his tenure at the Warhol, Sokolowski established a reputation for inventiveness in exhibitions and programming, as well as for civic activism. In addition to reaching out to marginalized populations in the Pittsburgh region, the Warhol has produced more than 50 traveling exhibitions that have been shown in over 150 venues worldwide.

In addition to his work in museums, Sokolowski has taught at a number of universities, including New York University, and he is a board member of Visual AIDS. Since he left the Warhol at the end of 2010, Sokolowski has kept up an active schedule as an art historian, consultant, and lecturer.

Listening Guide

Audio Extra: "The Changing Face of AIDS"


June 5, 1981, marked the first published descriptions of the disease that would come to be known as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS , a complex of opportunistic infections that take advantage of an immune system weakened by infection with the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. The amfAR website provides this timeline of the impact of AIDS over the ensuing 30 years, from the 159 cases reported in the U.S. in 1981, to the over 33 million estimated worldwide cases today. Another timeline is provided by AVERT. This New York Times article reports on new research showing that HIV was laying its first roots as early as the 1920s.

AIDS ribbonIt may be difficult for some today to appreciate just how devastating the impact of HIV/AIDS was upon those infected in the early years. Lack of scientific knowledge about the disease and its causes led to unfounded rumors and consequent discrimination against and ostracizing of both HIV+ patients and people in high risk groups, particularly gay men. The epidemic devastated whole communities with predominantly gay residents, yet also led to grassroots activism to address the needs of the ill, to educate those at risk, to fund scientific research, and to influence government policy and public opinion. (The U.S. government response, initially distressingly tepid, has since become quite robust.)

The magazine article referenced by Sokolowski is likely the article by David Ansen, titled "A Lost Generation." It appeared in the January 17, 1993, issue of Newsweek. This article about a 1990 photo in Life magazine demonstrates how visual imagery played a major role in helping to break down the fear and misinformation that dogged those with HIV/AIDS.


The WPA , or Works Progress Administration, was the largest of the New Deal programs initiated by the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. It employed millions of unskilled workers to carry out public works projects, and also funded arts, drama, media, and literacy projects. Many of the artists involved in the WPA are well known today, including Leon Golub, Jacob Lawrence, Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky, Lee Krasner, Marsden Hartley, and Diego Rivera. Wikipedia lists a number of the artists who worked for the WPA.


Sokolowski notes that the arts community has been disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS, and has responded to the crisis in the most natural way it could, through the creation and presentation of art. Visual AIDS continues to play an active role in the arts community. According to the Visual AIDS website, the organization "utilizes art to fight AIDS by provoking dialogue, supporting HIV+ artists, and preserving a legacy, because AIDS is not over." Visual AIDS works for HIV prevention and AIDS awareness through visual art projects; provides assistance to artists living with HIV/AIDS; and preserves and promotes the legacy of artist who have died from AIDS. (A similar initiative is The Estate Project for Artists with AIDS.)

As Sokolowski mentions later in this segment, Visual AIDS initiated Day With(out) Art, an annual observance each year on World AIDS Day (December 1), for which galleries and museums display (or sometimes remove) works of art, or present other programs to mark the impact of HIV/AIDS on the arts community. MOCRA participates annually in the Day With(out) Art observance. MOCRA's 2009 observance featured Adrian Kellard's work The Promise.

Sokolowski mentions other similar arts-related organizations, including Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and Dance for Life Chicago. The power of the arts to fight ignorance about AIDS is not limited to professional performers, as the organization dance4life demonstrates.


1986 photo by Alon Reininger of Ken MeeksKaposi's sarcoma is one of the best known and also most horrifying symptoms of full-blown AIDS. Kaposi's sarcoma is a cancer that causes red or purple patches to appear on the skin, in the lining of the mouth, nose, and throat, or in other organs. Read more about the disease and its treatment on the American Cancer Society website.

above: Ken Meeks, a 42-year-old AIDS patient in San Francisco. The lesions of Kaposi's sarcoma are visible on his arm. The photo, by Alon Reininger, won the 1986 World Press Photo award.


Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, 1905-06

Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, 1905-06. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Along with her brother Leo, Gertrude Stein supported and collected the work of Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and Pablo Picasso long before their work was generally accepted and acclaimed.

The Metropolitan Museum website provides a short essay on this portrait and the creative ferment in Paris in the early 1900s, a setting that brought together artists, writers, musicians, and thinkers from diverse countries.


The AVERT website provides a discussion of the impact of AIDS on the African continent. The disease has affected different countries, regions, and tribal groups in various ways, and the response has been equally varied. HIV/AIDS has spread widely and rapidly, and had a severe impact on life expectancy, family structure, and economic growth and development. The dire poverty in much of the continent has also raised serious ethical and practical issues for drug manufacturers and the agencies that provide treatment.

The United States has provided significant financial resources to combat and treat HIV/AIDS in Africa, although these efforts are beset with contention over issues such as abstinence education, abortion and clean needles for IV drug users.


AIDS ribbonBBC News provides a look at the history of the red ribbon , including an interview with co-creator Patrick O'Connell, who describes the meetings in May 1991 that led to the ribbon's creation.

The inspiration in part came from United States folk traditions associated with yellow ribbons. As discussed in this Wikipedia article on the yellow ribbon, perhaps the best known reference is the early 1970s song "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree," wherein the yellow ribbon represents the welcome home of a released convict by his wife or lover; this symbolism was adapted as a symbol of support first for the U.S. hostages in Tehran in 1979, and for the troops in the first Guly War in the early 1990s. Memorial Day has roots in customs of decorating the graves of those who died fighting in service of their country.

The 45th Tony Awards ceremony on which co-host Jeremy Irons wore a red ribbon, was broadcast on on June 2, 1991. Watch a clip from that broadcast on YouTube. Awareness ribbons of various colors have become commonplace sight in the years since, such as pink for breast cancer.

Seeking to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the red ribbon, and to revitalize the ribbon by emphasizing that the struggle against HIV/AIDS is not over, Visual AIDS has commissioned four artists to create "Not Over" buttons that can be attached to the red ribbon.


Copyright law concerning visual art is notoriously convoluted. Explore a primer on the subject from Artists Rights Society.


Actress Dame Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011) was an early and prominent champion for HIV and AIDS programs. She co-founded the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) in 1985, and established the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation in 1993.

A jewel-studded ribbon like the won described by Sokolowski was sold in auction by Christie's for $21,837 in May 2000.


Sokolowski touches briefly on a turbulent period in the late 1980s and early 1990s when art, morality and politics collided over a variety of issues, including AIDS and the public funding of art. Artist Andres Serrano, along with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-89) and others, was a lightning rod for attacks on the public funding of art through the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Their chief adversary was Senator Jesse Helms (1921-2008) of North Carolina. (See this MOCRA blog entry about a more recent assault--literally--on Serrano's infamous Piss Christ.)

This Cincinnati Enquirer article from May 2000 looks back at the Mapplethorpe controversy that embroiled the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati and the wider cultural context. Or, delve into this in-depth look at the NEA - NEH crisis from scholar Cynthia Koch, writing for the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community.

Although the "culture wars" have since quieted down to a slow simmer, they still boil over from time to time over works that address AIDS, such as the 2010 controversy involving the National Portrait Gallery and the video work A Fire in My Belly by David Wojnarowicz (1954-92).

Sokolowski mentions President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), as well as Mayor Ed Koch and Cardinal John J. O'Connor (1920-2000), both of New York City. Reagan and Koch were both strongly criticized by AIDS activists for their inaction concerning the spreading epidemic. O'Connor had long been an antagonist of the gay and lesbian community in New York--he fought against non-discrimination laws that included sexual orientation, and opposed condom distribution to reduce the spread of AIDS--when he was appointed by Reagan to a presidential commission on AIDS. The response from AIDS activists was predictably chilly.


Juan Gonzalez, Don't Mourn, Consecrate, 1987Juan Gonzalez, Don't Mourn, Consecrate, 1987.

Juan Gonzalez (1942-93) was noted for his exquisite magic realist paintings that incorporated art historical references but evoked a state of dreamlike wonder. See samples of his work on the Nancy Hoffman Gallery website.

Gonzalez' work Don't Mourn, Consecrate was first presented in 1987 at New York University's Grey Art Gallery, whose street front windows overlook Washington Square. The work subsequently lent its name to MOCRA's exhibition Consecrations: The Spiritual in Art in the Time of AIDS (1994) and was featured in MOCRA at Fifteen: Good Friday (2009); and Good Friday: The Suffering Christ in Contemporary Art (2010).

The source work by Hans Holbein, The Dead Christ in the Tomb (c. 1520) can be seen here.

Two of the people Sokolowski mentions as taking part in the "AIDS tally" ritual are Dr. Mathilde Krim, one of the earliest scientists to devote herself to AIDS research, and Larry Kramer, a playwright, author, and LGBT rights activist. His 1985 play The Normal Heart won the 2011 Tony Award for best revival.

Sokolowski mentions Gran Fury , an activist/artist collective associated with the AIDS activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). ACT UP made potent use of arresting visuals, such as "Silence=Death," which took the upside-down pink triangle used by the Nazis to stigmatize homosexuals, and inverted it as a sign of resistance and power. Read more about ACT UP and Gran Fury on Wikipedia. This article in Frieze magazine looks back at ACT UP's noteworthy public demonstrations in New York.

Gran Fury become formalized as a collective in 1988, following a 1987 installation created by ACT UP members at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, titled "Let the Record Show. . ." Beneath a neon Silence=Death logo was a gallery of "AIDS criminals" including televangelist Jerry Falwell (1933-2007)--who declared "AIDS is God's judgment of a society that does not live by His rules" --and conservative columnist William F. Buckley, Jr. (1925-2008)--who opined that "Everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common needle users, and on the buttocks to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals."


Sokolowski uses three well-known artworks as examples of "good art."

Michelangelo, Pietà, 1498-99.

Michelangelo Buonarotti, Pietà, 1498-99.

Michelangelo's Pietà of 1498-99 is found in St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. It depicts the dead Jesus, brought down from the Cross and laid on Mary's lap.

Read more about the work on Wikipedia.

Leonardo's famous fresco of The Last Supper , located in a refectory in a monastery in Milan, Italy, has endured both bombings and restorations over the centuries. More recently, it played a central (if dubious) role in Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code.

Read more about the work on Wikipedia, including discussion of the various interpretations put forth about its possible hidden meanings.

Picasso's imposing mural commemorates the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica in April 1937 by German forces during the Spanish Civil War. It has become an iconic expression of the horrors of war, especially the suffering imposed on innocent civilians. It is presently housed at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid.

Read more about the work on Wikipedia.

Allen Tucker, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1931.

Allen Tucker 's (1866-1939) 1931depiction of Washington and his forces, in the collection of the Whitney Museum, will not be easily confused with the much better known version from 1851 by Emanuel Leutze, found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

See the discussion at 6:46 above for more about the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) is an artist who continues to command the fascination of contemporary audiences, and the mysteries surrounding his life and death are nearly as compelling as his paintings. Read more about him on Wikipedia. Sokolowski is likely referring to the Contarelli Chapel in Rome, which is home to Caravaggio's highly regarded painting The Calling of St. Matthew.

Several touring exhibitions of objects from the tomb of the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun (r. ca. 1333-23 BCE) have traveled the globe since the 1960s. In particular, The Treasures of Tutankhamun, which toured in the 1970s, smashed attendance records at museums worldwide and ushered in the era of the modern museum blockbuster.


Susan Sontag (b. 1933) is an American novelist, essayist, director, and human rights activist. Illness as Metaphor was published in 1978; a companion volume titled AIDS and its Metaphors appeared in 1988. (The two works are now published together.)

Tuberculosis is a bacterial disease that primarily effects the lungs, with symptoms including bloody coughs and weight loss. As Sontag explores in her essays, it shows up repeatedly in European art and literature. One perennial example, Puccini's opera La bohème, was updated in the Broadway musical Rent by Jonathan Larson, with AIDS assuming the role of tuberculosis.

Peruse a list of art works--novels, operas, films, and more--inspired by or prominently featuring tuberculosis.


Fr. Dempsey goes into greater detail about his first encounter with Adrian Kellard in a related MOCRA Voices podcast.


Precious: An American Cottage Industry of the Eighties , was an exhibition organized in 1985 by Sokolowski for the Grey Art Gallery of New York University. An exhibition catalogue was published and can be found in many library holdings. Brief discussions of the exhibition can be found online here (New York Magazine) and here (Christian Science Monitor).

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, The AnchoriteThomas Lanigan-Schmidt, The Anchorite, 2009. Mixed media. Shown at Pavel Zoubok Gallery, New York.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt (b.1948) is known for creating glittering mixed-media constructions that speak directly to issues of sex, class and religion, particularly gay and working-class consciousness as well as theological, philosophical and aesthetic ideas/ideals. An art pioneer in the use of reflective materials, he has influenced subsequent generations of artist--including Adrian Kellard --who have engaged a similar "glitter" aesthetic, exploring themes of glamour, sexual transgression, camp and kitsch. Also like Kellard, Lanigan-Schmidt explores the relationship between "high" and "low" culture. Lanigan-Schmidt is represented in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and has exhibited extensively throughout the United States and abroad. He has been an instructor in the M.F.A. Program of The School of Visual Arts in New York City since the mid-1980s.

Abstract Expressionism emerged in New York in the mid-20th century as the first American art movement to achieve worldwide influence. The term applies to a broad range of artists and approaches to art. Explore Abstract Expressionism on Wikipedia, or through a major 2011 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Abstract Expressionist New York.


Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) is the most common opportunistic infection in people with HIV. It is caused by a fungus and primarily affects the lungs. PCP does not affect healthy people but can be deadly in people with compromised immune systems.


The corporal works of mercy are acts by which, in the Christian tradition, a person helps another with physical or material needs. They include feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting and ransoming those captive or in prison, visiting the sick, and burying the dead. The corporal works of mercy are complemented by spiritual works of mercy. Learn more here.

In Judaism, the Hebrew term mitzvah can refer to the divine commandments given in the Torah, or more broadly to moral deeds performed as a religious duty--that is, an act of human kindness. Learn more about mitzvot here.

Audio Extra: The Changing Face of AIDS


This talk was given on November 5, 1994, in conjunction with MOCRA's exhibition Consecrations: The Spiritual in Art in the Time of AIDS. Excerpts are presented here; gaps are indicated by a brief period of silence.


The 1988 Grey Gallery exhibition of photographs by Rosalind Solomon was titled Portraits in the Time of AIDS. Read a summary of the exhibition catalogue, or this essay by Robert Atkins that places the exhibition in its cultural context.

Read a commentary about the 1992-93 international traveling exhibition Media to Metaphor by co-curators Robert Atkins and Thomas Sokolowski. Or, check out this New York Times review of the exhibition. The catalogue for Media to Metaphor is listed in WorldCat and is available in many library collections.

Significant Losses: Artists Who Have Died from AIDS was shown at the University of Maryland from November 2 to December 23, 1994.

Don't Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS was shown at the National Gallery of Australia in 1994. Read a 1995 review published in The Independent (UK).

MOCRA has hosted community Day With(out) Art observances several times, including 1994, 2000, and 2006.


Ichthys fragments from Catacomb of St. SebastianFragmentary Ichthys and fish image from Catacomb of St. Sebastian, Rome.

Ichthys (ΙΧΘΥΣ) is Greek for fish, but also has an ancient Christian association as an acronym for Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr, which translates into English as "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior."


Sokolowski references American artist Jeff Koons (b. 1955) and in particular the series Made in Heaven, featuring explicit portrayals of Koons in intimate encounters with his wife, Italian porn star Cicciolina (Ilona Staller). See an interview with Koons on the PBS series Art21 here.

Sokolowski also mentions Michelangelo 's famous frescoes for the Sistine Chapel. Take a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel here.


Sokolowski is making an oblique reference to the NEA and NEH funding controversies. See the Listening Guide to the Sokolowski interview above, 22:55, for further discussion.


Robet Indiana, LOVE, 1968. Oil on canvas. Collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Robert Indiana's ubiquitous rendering of the word "LOVE" has appeared in many context and media since its creation in 1964.

Gran Fury, RIOT, 1989.

Gran Fury, Riot, 1988The art collective Gran Fury, associated with AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP), reworked Indiana's image with the word "RIOT ." See more of Gran Fury's trenchant, witty, and sometimes shocking work here.

See the Listening Guide to the Sokolowski interview above, 23:50, for more about Gran Fury and ACT-UP.


The Biblical account of the events of Pentecost is found in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Read the Wikipedia entry on Pentecost and its contemporary observances.


See the Listening Guide to the Sokolowski interview above, 23:50, for a discussion of the Juan Gonzalez work Don't Mourn, Consecrate.

Donald Moffet, Mercy, 1991. Light boxes.

An exhibition titled The Interrupted Life was shown at the New Museum from September 13 to December 29, 1991. Visit the exhibition website here. Sokolowski mentions a work by artist Donald Moffet (b.1955) titled Mercy

Sokolowski mentions one of the lasting testaments to the widespread response to AIDS, the AIDS Memorial Quilt, sections of which still travel to communities around the country each year.

Maya Lin (b.1959) won a competition in 1981 to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial located near the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The Memorial receives around 3 million visitors a year. Learn more about the Memorial on Wikipedia. See an interview with Maya Lin on the PBS series Art21 here.


Works by Rod Rhodes were included in the Consecrations exhibition. Learn more about Rhodes here.


Westley, California, 1939. Photo by Dorothea Lange.A flood refugee from southeast Missouri. Photographed in Westley, California, April 1939, by Dorothea Lange. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Farm Security Administration (FSA) was a Roosevelt administration effort during the Great Depression to address American rural poverty. Its innovative photography program (1935-44) engaged photographers and writers to document and report on the plight of poor farmers. Images such as those by Dorothea Lange rank among America's iconic images.

Learn more about the FSA and its photography program on Wikipedia. Many of the FSA photographs can be browsed courtesy of the Library of Congress.


Photographer Jane Rosett and her partner Jean Carlomusto curated an interactive memorial project titled AIDS: A Living Archive. See additional images here.


Bill Jacobson, Interim Portrait #378, 1992. Chromogenic print.Bill Jacobson, Interim Portrait #378, 1992. Chromogenic print.

In 1993 New York University's Grey Art Gallery presented a solo exhibition by Bill Jacobson (b.1955) titled Interim Figures. Visit the artist's website to see more images.


See the Listening Guide to the Sokolowski interview above, 8:10, for a discussion of Day With(out) Art.


Hillary Leone (b.1962) and Jennifer Macdonald (b.1958) had a 10-year collaborative relationship creating art that addressed social and political issues such as the AIDS pandemic, censorship, and the marginalization of those viewed as "other." Their work included objects and installations, including works with braille executed on sandpaper.

Read a description of a 1999 retrospective exhibition here. View a similar braille-on-sandpaper work work here.


BBarbara Kruger, Girl, Don’t Die for Love, 1992. Offset lithograph. Collection of Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.arbara Kruger, Girl, Don't Die for Love, 1992. Offset lithograph. Collection of Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.

Barbara Kruger (b.1945) is well known for works emblazoned with bold slogans that carry multiple, sometimes contradictory, meanings. The work referenced by Sokolowski was shown in a 2005 exhibition at Washington University-St. Louis' Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum titled Inside Out Loud: Visualizing Women's Health in Contemporary Art.

Watch an interview with Kruger on the PBS series Art21.

Adrian Kellard, Man of Sorrows, 1989. Latex on wood with wire mesh. Collection of MOCRA.Adrian Kellard, Man of Sorrows, 1989. Latex on wood with wire mesh. Collection of MOCRA.

Adrian Kellard was the subject of MOCRA's 2011 exhibition Adrian Kellard: The Learned Art of Compassion. View the exhibition website here, or listen to a MOCRA Voices episode discussing his life and work here.


See the Listening Guide to the Sokolowski interview above, 15:20 and 19:55, for discussions of the Red Ribbon.


Robert Farber, Western Blot #19, 1990. Mixed media on wood panels. Courtesy of the Robert D. Farber Foundation.Robert Farber, Western Blot #19, 1990. Mixed media on wood panels. Courtesy of the Robert D. Farber Foundation.

Bubonic plague is a bacterial disease that has killed millions of people across the century during various outbreaks. The most notable was in 1347--an event known as the Black Death--which took the lives of one-third of the population of Europe. Learn more about bubonic plague on Wikipedia.

A number of writers and artists have drawn parallels between the Black Death and the AIDS pandemic. Among them is Robert Farber, whose 2000 retrospective exhibition at MOCRA included a number of works juxtaposing the words of medieval victims of the plague and contemporary people living with HIV/AIDS.

Read more about the exhibition Robert Farber: A Retrospective, 1985-1995 here.