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Larry Kramer

Tribute by James Saslow

Larry Kramer (1935-2020)

Not all artists are activists; not all activists are artists. Prolific and outspoken playwright, author, and pioneering AIDS organizer Larry Kramer – bless his crotchety little heart – was both. No need here for a detailed biography: the New York Times front-page obituary covered it all, from his controversial early novel Faggots to his equally controversial role in founding both Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP, and his confessional political dramas like The Normal Heart, which garnered him a special Tony award for humanitarian service.

Though not a visual artist himself, Larry attracted painters and photographers like moths to a flame. Small wonder, since his first published portrait, for the cover of Faggots in 1978, was pure eye candy: an adorable furry clone with warmly smiling come-hither eyes, his papers and spectacles evoking a thoughtful, sensitive writer. Which he was – but that wasn’t all.

The Leslie-Lohman collection is proud to include a prime example of Kramer’s visual legacy: a portrait by East Village artist George Towne featured in our 2017 exhibition “Art and AIDS: 35 Years of Survival.” Commemorating GMHC’s 35th anniversary, the exhibit showcased work by the group’s clients living with HIV and AIDS, both individuals and participants in weekly art-therapy workshops. Inspired by a news photo, Towne’s riveting oil captures the quintessential later Larry, gaunt and grizzled. Despite more illnesses than Job, his eyes still command the viewer, but now with razor-sharp moral vision; his chronically pursed lips now suggest less an invitation to a kiss than his overriding emotion of angry determination.

Perhaps the most iconic image of Larry is the portrait by Robert Giard from the ACT UP period, part of his mammoth series “Particular Voices,” for which he set out to photograph as many LGBTQ writers as he could find (other images from the group are in the Museum’s collection). In fact, Kramer was the crucial catalyst for this project; it was during a performance of The Normal Heart that Giard, a former literature student and teacher, was inspired to begin recording the literary faces of the post-Stonewall generation. He gives us Larry in his prime: chin jutting confrontationally, nostrils flared with an indignant snort at unresponsive authority. Even his dog symbolizes speaking truth to power: one day, running into foot-dragging New York mayor Ed Koch in an elevator, Kramer turned to Molly and said, “That’s the man who’s killing all of Daddy’s friends.”

Ars longa, vita brevis. Larry Kramer’s life is gone, but his images linger on, bittersweet testimony to a singular, passionate, maddening, and indispensable cultural force.

Images: (L) Robert Giard, Larry Kramer with Molly, 1989. Silver gelatin print, 1990. 14 x 14 in. © Estate of Robert Giard. (R) George Towne, Larry Kramer Portrait, 2016, Oil on board, 15.75 x 11.675 in. Gift of the artist. Collection of Leslie-Lohman Museum