Tra Publishing talks with Doug Meyer, a conceptual artist and designer based in New York City, whose book Heroes: A Tribute celebrates the lives of prominent creative figures lost to AIDS and AIDS-related illnesses in the early years of the epidemic. We discuss the impetus for the book and the importance of remembering these creative figures.
Through mixed-media portraits, Meyer celebrates the lives and accomplishments of forty-nine pioneers from the worlds of art, design, film, and dance—people such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Keith Haring, Rudolph Nureyev, Freddie Mercury, Rock Hudson, John Duka, Tina Chow, Klaus Nomi, Halston, and Angelo Donghia. In addition to honoring the individuals portrayed, Meyer hopes with his book to highlight their contributions for younger generations.
Meyer's work ranges from creating site-specific spaces to curating museum exhibitions. His recent work focuses on three-dimensional art pieces, including the heroes’ portraits and his ongoing Cameos series. He has created collections of fabric, wallpaper, rugs, lighting,and tiles with his brother, fashion designer Gene Meyer.
What was the genesis of Heroes: A Tribute?
In 2015 I was asked by Pamela Jaccarino of LUXE Magazine to create a space for the annual DIFFA (Design Industry Foundation to Fight AIDs) dinner. This led to the idea and creation of the Heroes Project. In this earliest iteration I created 19 portraits of some of the early creative victims of AIDS. In 1981, one of my dear friends was among the first people to die of a mysterious disease originally referred to as GRID (or Gay-Related Immune Deficiency), which was the original name for the disease currently known as AIDS. GRID was first mentioned in a May 11, 1982 article in the New York Times. In this article, the term “A.I.D.” (Acquired Immunodeficiency Disease) was also mentioned. In the early days of AIDS (1982–1985), the terms “gay cancer” and “gay plague” were also used. That death affected me greatly. Over the course of the next two years, I went to some 79 funerals for people I knew, or had worked with, or had gone to school with. It was a frightening time.
And after you created that first exhibition, you kept working on it and increasing the number of portraits?
Yes. There was a great response to the exhibition, and it went on to be shown in three more venues in different cities – at Liz O’Brien in New York (as well as the original showing at DIFFA), NisiB in Miami, and Dragonette Ltd in Los Angeles. Along the way, I kept adding to it.
Eventually you expanded it to 49 heroes, and each portrait is different in terms of style and materials. What were your artistic intentions and what media did you use?
I felt it important that the technique, materials, and style of each work be as diverse as possible (I did not want the viewer to be bored by a repetitive stylistic hand). I employed everything I could muster up, including drawing, painting, sculpture, photography — all combined in various forms to create works that were uniquely different — to give the appearance that each object was made by different hands.
My initial goal was to honor those creative souls whose contributions were so profound and whose deaths were so untimely. I had hoped not just to pay homage to people I admired, but also to bring them to the attention of younger creatives and others who had not had the opportunity to know them or their work.
What were the responses to the exhibition?
In so many instances at the openings there were people who went cold silent, people who were welling up with tears, people who came up to me and told me stories of how AIDS had affected them; people who knew one or more of the heroes and told me stories about them; people who never knew them, people who had no idea that so and so died of AIDS. All in all, it was truly remarkable how it opened up people and created a dialogue as well as offering, for some, a release. At the original DIFFA opening in New York I literally had two people who wept, and we hugged for a long time. To create something that touches people in so many different ways is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have. I am so thrilled that the heroes story can live on in print through this book.
What do you hope the book will achieve?
In today’s digital world, if something has not been digitized it’s almost as if it does not exist. As younger generations increasingly access literature and historical information through digital media, the unique, obscure, underground, avant-garde and simply older or dated works are just not known. Unless these works exist on the internet somewhere, it’s almost as if they never existed at all. I believe that documenting the past and those who were its innovators and ground breakers is an important task. As I myself get older I realize a driving force for me is to create works that could in some-way leave my mark on the planet. I find it so sad and horrifying that these 49 heroes seem to have fallen out of contemporary cultural memory. My intent for both the Heroes Project and this book is to expose a younger generation of these individuals whose contributions, talent, and even existence have been forgotten or perhaps nearly lost in today’s digital world.
Switching from the book as a subject to your own artistic background, how did your career evolve? When did you know that art and design were for you?
I was born In Louisville, and by the time I was 10 years old I had an art studio in my basement. Every day after school, I would create art works in various media — painting, drawing, papier-mâché, silkscreen, and more. At 16, two days after I graduated from high school, I moved to New York City to attend Parsons School of Design where I studied painting. During that time, I immersed myself in New York’s nightlife, going to Studio 54 an average of four nights a week as well as other venues (Mudd Club, Crisco, The Garage, and Xenon) and met tons of people, including artists, designers, celebrities and writers.
What was your career path after college?
After Parsons, I took a hiatus from the actual making of art. Instead I started working for various art dealers in New York, especially Holly Solomon, who was a mentor to me. She was one of the big art dealers in SoHo in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s and had been one of Andy Warhol’s muses in the 1960s. Holly taught me a lot about collecting art and also that art can be something you live in. When I first went to her apartment, I realized that as an artist, I could create these livable installations, which really affected how I worked for the next 15 years or more, creating site-specific installations and room interiors. Since then, I’ve gone on to a fairly broad career — from designing rugs, tiles, textiles, and more to painting and sculpture and art installations to interior design — but it all stems from my desire to have art permeate all that I do.