Gran Fury

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This article is about the activist group. For the automobile, see Plymouth Gran Fury.
This graphic was one of many created by Gran Fury in response to the lack of awareness regarding the AIDS pandemic.

Gran Fury was an activist/artist collective consisting of 11 members who spawned from ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) in 1988. The members of the group included Richard Elovich, Avram Finkelstein, Amy Heard, Tom Kalin, John Lindell, Loring McAlpin, Marlene McCarty, Donald Moffett, Michael Nesline, Mark Simpson and Robert Vazquez.[1] The name "Gran Fury" references both the Plymouth Gran Fury, the specific car model used by the New York Police Department for their police cars, and their anger about the government's response, or lack thereof, to the AIDS pandemic. During their active years in New York between 1987-1995, Gran Fury used the cityscape as an exhibition space to raise awareness and urgency of the AIDS epidemic. Before the conception of social media, the collective's appropriation of mass-media language and use of various material including: posters, stickers, T-shirts, billboards and postcards, simultaneously produced provocative, stylish and satirical public projects. Gran Fury's combination of bold graphic design, guerilla dissemination tactics, public intervention, and art institutional support to communicate the urgency of the AIDS epidemic in the light of a pacifist Reagan government.[2] Gran Fury acted as ACT UP's unofficial propaganda ministry, creating work that used the same strategies as advertising to reach a wider audience.[3] Action, not art, was the aim of the collective.[4]


Gran Fury, Let Them Die in the Streets, 1990, enamel signage.

Gran Fury started out with poster sniping (illegal wheat-pasting of posters on vacant signage) and Xeroxed flyers. These were inspired by an ACT UP aesthetic and due to their limited funds. A year later their tactics changed when they wanted to reach a larger audience. The public interventions of Gran Fury's site-specific work on buses, bus stops, billboards was eventually legitimized by an article published by Douglas Crimp in the AIDS issue of October in Winter of 1987. Crimp made an argument that connected Gran Fury's AIDS activism work within the context of art.[5] The result of the October article led to a kind of institutional exposure that may not have occurred otherwise where they "...went from T-shirts and posters to billboards and international exhibitions" such as the Venice Biennale in 1990.[5] As Gran Fury became well-known within the AIDS activist and art world spheres their projects began to be funded by Museums, AIDS organizations and Biennales. Gran Fury moved to become more like an ad campaign, along with producing issues for magazines that would address AIDS.[6] Their tendency to work with bold content and large-scale posters was one of their trademarks, and assisted in delivering an urgent and important message in a loud way.[7]

Selected Works[edit]

"Let the Record Show"[edit]

In July 1987, William Olander (1950 - 1989)[8], an ACTUP member and curator of the New Museum in New York City, invited ACTUP to make an installation in "...the window by the museum entrance on Broadway"[9].A neon SILENCE=DEATH symbol crowned the display, with a pink triangle below. The pink triangle was appropriated from the Nazi marker for gay men imprisoned at death camps furthering the analogy between the AIDS crisis and the Holocaust. The neon piece became part of the New Museum’s permanent collection, and the SILENCE = DEATH graphic was widely disseminated through T-shirts, wheatpastes, and other printed ephemera.[10][11] The graphic was a reaction to an 1985 editorial in the New York Times written by William F. Buckley as well as the silence by the Reagan government.[2] Entitled Let the Record Show the work featured cardboard silhouettes of six public figures—televangelist Jerry Falwell, columnist William F. Buckley Jr., US Senator Jesse Helms, Cory Servaas of the Presidential AIDS Commission, an anonymous surgeon, and President Ronald Reagan—posited as AIDS criminals and set against a mural-sized photograph of the Nuremberg trials. Concrete slabs positioned under each figure offered evidence of their crimes, from misrepresentations of AIDS to ignoring the issue altogether as in the case of Reagan's notorious public silence, in the form of personal quotes. One reacted, for example, to a 1986 New York Times editorial by notorious arch-conservative William Buckley, who proposed that all persons with AIDS “...should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to protect the victimization of other homosexuals.” [12]

Venice Biennale[edit]

In 1990, the group became notorious for its contribution to the Venice Biennale, a.k.a. the “Pope Piece”: “The artwork paired two billboard-sized panels: one coupled the image of the Pope John Paul II with a text about the church’s anti-safe-sex rhetoric; the other a two-foot-high erect penis with texts about women and condom use.” Typical of media indifference to the underlying issue, a May 28 New York Times report on the piece wrote "In fact, much of the talk about the Aperto among the hundreds of artists, curators, dealers and critics who have converged on this city during the last week has focused on two entries from the United States that have stirred interest more for their apparent capacity to shock than for anything else. Mr. Koons' entry is the first. The other, and for political reasons more important, is a set of posters by Gran Fury, a collective dedicated to issues involving AIDS. One poster features a photograph of the Pope flanked by a text condemning the Roman Catholic Church's policy toward sex and contraception. A week prior, Giovanni Carandente, the event's director of visual arts, said they considered excluding the poster. They told the Aperto's selection committee that they considered it to be blasphemous. Aggravating the problem was its proximity to a Gran Fury poster featuring a photograph of an erect penis (an image that would have caused more of a storm in the United States than a poster of the Pope). By Thursday, Mr. Carandente apparently reconsidered, and the posters were hanging at the Aperto. But on Saturday, the Vatican was reportedly deliberating about whether to ask the Italian Government to have the posters removed." [13]

Gran Fury, 80WSE, "Read My Lips"[edit]

"Gran Fury: Read My Lips" exhibition opening on January 31 from 6pm-8pm at NYU's 80WSE Galleries.

Exhibition Dates: January 31 - March 17, 2012

80WSE is proud to announce the opening of "Gran Fury: Read My Lips," the first comprehensive survey documenting the important AIDS activist art collective's work from 1987-1995. The exhibition, curated by Gran Fury and 80WSE Assistant Director Michael Cohen will run from January 31 - March 17, 2012. The exhibition consists of 15 pieces including give-away reproductions. Gran Fury has reconstituted all but two of the works from archival documentation for this survey with the assistance of the 80WSE staff.

Naming itself after the model of Plymouth automobile used by the New York City Police Department, Gran Fury made public projects that were simultaneously scathing, provocative, stylish and often quite funny. This exhibition conveys the collective's unique voice across a wide variety of media including billboards, postcards, video, posters and painting. Photographs and records from the period help convey the urgency of the early AIDS crisis that lead many into the streets to demand reforms that changed public policy and saved lives.

Gran Fury's work raised public awareness of AIDS and put pressure on politicians, while sparking debate in sites ranging from the Illinois Senate to the tabloid press of Italy. Bridging the gap between Situationist site-specific art strategies, post-modern appropriation and the Queer activist movement, Gran Fury has been influential to later practitioners. Their work opens up a broader spectrum of understanding about the political and collective art practices that flourished in downtown New York during the Eighties and Nineties.

An 88-page full-color catalogue designed by Gran Fury with mirroring double page cover reproductions will be published by 80WSE press in conjunction with the exhibition; it is the first major publication solely dedicated to their output. As a summary of its productive career, the book reprints historical interviews between Gran Fury and Robert Gober, David Deitcher and Douglas Crimp, as well as three never-before published conversations by Gran Fury from late 2010.

Reproductions of all the major works are included as well as documentation of ACT UP demonstrations and shots of Gran Fury's works installed site-specifically. In addition, images of the site-specific works' defacement by those responding to it, and rare archival images from high points in the collective's career such as the 1990 Venice Biennial controversy are included.

In the 80WSE Windows Gallery, Gran Fury will present a 25-foot window installation, facing Washington Square Park, produced specifically for this exhibition. The installation juxtaposes images of AIDS activist and anti-Gay protestors, encouraging viewers to viscerally experience the polarization in America over health-care issues related to AIDS during the late 1980s and providing historical context necessary for understanding how and why the images in this exhibition were produced.

Works in the Exhibition:

Many of Gran Fury's most important public works --- "Kissing Doesn't Kill," "Welcome to America," and "Women Don't Get Aids," will be reproduced in large-scale mural formats. There will also be a projection of the "Kissing Doesn't Kills" video public service announcements in the gallery along with never-before-seen outtakes. In addition, the exhibition includes several notable give-aways including "Men use Condoms" in an edition of 3000 and postcards from the "Read My Lips" series. Interspersed among these works will be texts and photos that recreate the social and political context which inspired AIDS activism and the demonstrations and actions where Gran Fury's graphic interventions were used.

A third part of this project will be a Gran Fury symposium with the members of Gran Fury interviewed by noted cultural theorist Andrew Ross. The event will held at the NYU/Steinhardt Art School's Einstein Auditorium at 34 Stuyvesant St. in the East Village on February 28 at 6:00 p.m.

The final aspect of the exhibition will be educational. Through a series of workshops Gran Fury will work with a select group of 15 NYU students from the Steinhardt Department of Art and Art Professions and the Gallatin Activism center, as well as 5 participants form the Village Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Center to think about the contemporary relationship of art and politics, and to produce activist and collective oriented art works in a manner that is strategically functional in the current decade. The workshop participants' artworks will be exhibited in March 2012 at the Village Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Center. The location of this exhibition is particularly meaningful, as it commemorates the Center's role as the locus of the original Act Up meetings that spawned Gran Fury.”(STEINHARDT,NYU) [14]

Sexism Rears Its Unprotected Head Installation

Practicing Art/Activism[edit]

Gran Fury purposefully intervened into public and advertising spaces to disrupt the flow of normal thoughts with their own agenda. Notably, most of their work was directly exhibited to the public outside of traditional art spaces through fliers, posters, and billboards. They often recycled their own images and texts to circulate their message beyond its initial viewers.

The collective aimed to push various individuals such as Ronald Reagan, New York Mayor at the time Ed Koch, and John Cardinal O'Connor to address the AIDS pandemic in a more practical, open way, as well as to inform the public on the importance of safer sex and clean needles. When asked about their approach of their work, Gran Fury said: “We want the art world to recognize that collective direct action will bring an end to the AIDS crisis. . . . Whenever we can, we steer the art world projects into public spaces so that we can address audiences other than museum-going audiences or the readership of art magazines.” [15] By the mid-1990s, Gran Fury found it hard to make simple works surrounding the AIDS pandemic, and started using more text making it hard for the group to relay messages as effectively as before. Gran Fury’s final piece was entitled “Good Luck… Miss You, Gran Fury,” and was produced in 1995, a year before the death of member Mark Simpson. In the piece, Gran Fury stated that the original agitprop art strategies they were using were ‘unable to communicate the complexities of AIDS issues'.[16]


The 11 main members of Gran Fury:


  1. ^ "Conversation with Helen Molesworth and Gran Fury Members: Avram Finkelstein, Tom Kalin, Marlene McCarty, Robert Vazquez-Pacheco". Retrieved 2015-11-06. 
  2. ^ a b "AIDS, Art and Activism: Remembering Gran Fury". Hyperallergic (in en-US). Retrieved 2015-11-06. 
  3. ^ Crimp, Douglas (1990), AIDS Demo Graphics, Seattle: Bay Press, ISBN 978-0-941920-16-2 
  4. ^ Kabat, Jennifer (2012), Not Enough (149), Frieze Magazine 
  5. ^ a b Crimp, Douglas (April 2003). "Gran Fury Talks to Douglas Crimp". Art Forum. 
  6. ^ Fury, Gran. "Gran Fury Talks to Douglas Crimp." ARTFORUM (n.d.): n. pag.Http:// Http://, 2003. Web. Nov.-Dec. 2015.
  7. ^ Sturken, Marita. "e9.1 Dossier - AIDS Activist Legacies and the Gran Fury of the Past/Present". Retrieved 2015-11-10. 
  8. ^ Kalb, Peter (2013). Art Since 1980: Charting the Contemporary. London: Laurence King Publishing. p. 112. ISBN 978 1 78067 326 4. 
  9. ^ Kalb, Peter (2013). Art Since 1980: Charting the Contemporary. London: Laurence King Publishing. p. 112. ISBN 978 1 78067 326 4. 
  10. ^ Meyer, Richard (1995). Nina Felshin, ed. This is to Enrage You: Gran Fury and the Graphics of AIDS Activism. Seattle: Bay Press. pp. 63–64. ISBN 0-941920-29-1. 
  11. ^ Crimp, Douglas (2003). "Gran Fury Talks to Douglas Crimp". Artforum. 
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^ "Gran Fury Press Release - 80 Washington Square East Galleries - NYU Steinhardt". Retrieved 2015-11-10. 
  15. ^ Gober, Robert, BOMB Magazine Winter, 1991. Retrieved on May 31, 2013.
  16. ^ Slezak Karas, Laura (February 2008). "Gran Fury Collection 1987-1995" (PDF). The New York Public Library Humanities and Social Sciences Library Manuscripts and Archives Division. The New York Public Library. Retrieved November 9, 2015. 

External links[edit]