Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Art History


Kevin D. Murphy

Committee Members

David A. Gerstner

Sally O’Driscoll

Subject Categories

History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology | Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies


Although scholars increasingly scrutinize late twentieth-century American art produced in relation to social movements organized around feminism, anti-racist politics, health activism, and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) identity, scholars usually fail to address the importance of printed ephemera as a medium of artistic expression. Ephemeral materials, such as posters, are cheap to make and print. They are typically distributed illicitly via un-commissioned wheat-paste campaigns in urban public space. Collectives tend to make their designs copyright-free to encourage wide distribution. Particularly in the era before digital social media, these materials were central to the ways in which communities coalesced in urban spaces and created networks nationally though mail distribution. Within art history scholars tend to focus on the formal properties of design and the content of posters. This oversight of the structural capabilities of ephemera (i.e. its different modes of recirculation, its impact on the mobilization of activist projects, and the ways in which its placement and distribution can transform spaces) makes it difficult to grasp the full scope of artists’ contribution to social movements and broader social moments such as the culture wars. My dissertation counteracts the privileging of video art in accounts of AIDS activist art and introduces visual ephemera as an innovative and influential medium by examining three art activist collectives. Whereas video camcorders, a newly available technology in the 1980s, became a key tool for the documentation of confrontational activism and empowering depictions of people with AIDS, posters were used as a means of communication – within communities impacted by HIV/AIDS and between marginal and mainstream publics. The use of printed materials to address the exigencies of AIDS activism was central to the reinvention of queer art activism in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

This dissertation systematically discusses three art collectives that represent distinct phases of artistic expression and modes of address. First, the Silence=Death Project, which created an eponymous poster in 1986 to unify and mobilize an activist response to the AIDS crisis. Second, Gran Fury produced sex positive imagery and changed media representations of people with AIDS, and homosexuals in general. The work of these two collectives contributed to the groundswell of sex positive, confrontational activities that emerged around the AIDS activism of ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power formed in New York in 1987). As a result in the early 1990s activism focused more broadly on sexuality, rather than exclusively on HIV/AIDS, emerged in the groups Queer Nation and Dyke Action Machine, explored in chapter 3. The lesbian public art collective fierce pussy, discussed in chapter 4, offered a feminist and lesbian critique of both queer and mainstream representational politics in the 1990s. Finally, the concluding chapter serves as an epilogue and looks at the individual practices of two artists associated with these groups (Gregg Bordowitz and Zoe Leonard) and a late work by fierce pussy. By placing the output of these collectives within the socio-historic, cultural, and aesthetic contexts of New York in the 1980s-1990s, this dissertation is a case study of political art during the divisive culture wars of the late twentieth century.

My focus on the role of printed ephemera, as a practice of embodied collectivity, foregrounds the importance of an urban context to the development of queer art activism in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A prime example of ephemera art and its reengagement of aesthetics and the political is the collective the Silence=Death Project (1986-1987), which created the poster SILENCE=DEATH in 1986. This work became associated with the rise of “direct-action” activism as ACT UP New York. Visual ephemera were central to the means and ends of direct-action activism, and SILENCE=DEATH is a prime example of this phenomenon. The emblematic poster galvanized gay men and lesbians into a politicized and self-empowered, self-identified queer generation. On the heels of the Silence=Death Project, the collective Gran Fury (1988-1995) organized and became known as the “propaganda ministry” of ACT UP at the height of the ACT UP’s influence (1987-1993). Through commissioned projects Gran Fury expanded cultural activism towards mainstream publics with an array of ephemeral works including billboards and posters. The controversial reception of sexually explicit posters provides a means to examine the political and aesthetic effects of ephemeral reproduction and distribution. Through the slick graphics of AIDS cultural activism, as represented by the Silence=Death Project and Gran Fury, ACT UP’s signature style was created. Yet, these graphics were ultimately challenged on aesthetic and political grounds: conflating AIDS with gay men, too male-focused, too dogmatic, and/or too closely connected with capitalist advertising. In contrast, fierce pussy (1991-1994), asserted the issue of sexual difference through form, with the visual and conceptual rhetoric of its posters, which highlighted the androcentrism associated with Gran Fury.

By the mid-1990s most direct-action activist art collectives, such as the Silence=Death Project and Gran Fury, had disbanded. Artists from these groups began exploring themes related to their singular experiences of AIDS in individual projects. I argue that the development of two bodies of work – one collectively produced activist body of work, and one individually produced studio-based body of work – is paradigmatic of the generation of queer artists who emerged during the AIDS crisis.