Thomas Sokolowski, 70, dies; put art in the service of AIDS activism

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Thomas Sokolowski, 70, dies; put art in the service of AIDS activism
The Metropolitan Museum of Art observes a “Day Without Art”, an event initiated by Visual AIDS, which Thomas Sokolowski helped found, to call attention to the AIDS crisis, in New York in 1996. Sokolowski, an organizer of early and influential art-world responses to the AIDS crisis and later the longtime director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, died on May 6, 2020, in New Brunswick, N.J. He was 70. Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times.

by Holland Cotter

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Thomas Sokolowski, an organizer of early and influential art-world responses to the AIDS crisis and later the longtime director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, died on May 6 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He was 70.

The cause was cardiac arrest following emergency surgery for a subdural hematoma, said Kathy Halbreich, executive director of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, and a friend and colleague.

Sokolowski began his career in museum work in the early 1980s, at a time when AIDS was seldom acknowledged publicly in hard-hit cultural spheres. He used his position as a museum professional to connect the art world and the gay community, and to put art in the service of activism. His gift for outreach, and for viewing art through a political lens, would later shape his approach to directing the fledgling Warhol Museum.

Thomas William Sokolowski was born April 9, 1950, in Chicago, the only child of William and Monica Sokolowski. His father was a house painter; his mother worked as an executive secretary.

After studying art history at the University of Chicago, he did graduate work at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, where he began (but never finished) a dissertation on Italian Baroque art.

He was hired as curator of European painting and sculpture at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1982, and later made the museum’s chief curator. In 1984 he returned to NYU to become director of the Grey Art Gallery and Study Center, where he would stay for 12 years.

While he was there, his portfolio of historical interests expanded to include new art. Under his leadership, the Grey began to engage with cultural globalism long before that notion had entered mainstream art-world consciousness.

His 1985 exhibition “Contemporary Indian Art From the Chester and Davida Herwitz Family Collection” introduced the New York audience to work that was at the time all but unknown to it. (Sokolowski, who had a sharp, often raucous wit and did not shy from hyperbole, would later claim that the show was up for two months and didn’t have a single visitor.)

The 1989 exhibition “Against Nature: Japanese Art in the Eighties,” organized with Shinji Kohmoto, Fumio Nanjo and Halbreich, similarly opened territory that had been little explored in New York museums. A third exhibition, “Interrogating Identity” (1991), for which art historian Kellie Jones was co-curator, surveyed concepts of black identity that would find widespread development in the 1990s and beyond.

Always responsive to the communities in which he worked, Sokolowski, who was gay, became involved in addressing the AIDS crisis organizationally. The Grey Art Gallery presented some of the first AIDS-themed exhibitions anywhere.

In 1987, Cuban-born painter Juan Gonzalez, who would die of AIDS complications in 1993, created a gallery window installation called “Don’t Consecrate, Mourn.” The next year the gallery presented Rosalind Solomon’s photographic exhibition “Portraits in the Time of AIDS.”

In 1994, Sokolowski and Village Voice art writer Robert Atkins organized the group show, “From Media to Metaphor,” one the most widely seen AIDS-themed shows of the day. Under the auspices of Independent Curators International, it was seen at 10 museums, including the Grey Art Gallery.

Sokolowski was also a passionate participant in broader AIDS activism. In 1988, with the number of HIV infections soaring in New York City, he convened a meeting with three art-world associates: Atkins; Gary Garrels, now senior curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and William Olander (who died in 1989), senior curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, now known as the New Museum.

Out of that meeting came the concept of Visual AIDS as a support agency for HIV-positive artists and a resource for preserving work. (Its Archive Project was created by artist Frank Moore and writer David Hirsh in 1994.) And out of the new organization’s public meetings — the first one took place at the Grey — came the idea for “A Day Without Art,” which proposed that one day a year, Dec. 1, museums and galleries either close entirely, remove works from view or in some way draw attention to the AIDS crisis.

“I was in charge of marketing and public relations,” Sokolowski recalled in a 2019 interview with historian Ksenia M. Soboleva. “I just started calling people around the country.”

By the end of the year, he said, 685 institutions, large and small, had agreed to participate. The first “Day Without Art” was Dec. 1, 1989. (The Metropolitan Museum observed it by temporarily removing one of its chief Modernist attractions, Picasso’s portrait of lesbian writer Gertrude Stein.)

A year later, Visual AIDS organized “Night Without Light,” for which buildings and marquees in Manhattan turned off their lights for 15 minutes. In 1991, the Visual AIDS Artist Caucus introduced the Red Ribbon Project, which became an international phenomenon. In New York, through the Artist and Homeless Collaborative founded by artist Hope Sandrow, Visual AIDS commissioned homeless women living in the Park Avenue Armory Women’s Shelter to produce ribbons for distribution.

In 2018, Sokolowski told the Rutgers University campus newspaper, “Visual AIDS is the most important thing I have ever done, but it’s time now for the younger generation to take charge and make changes in this world.”

Sokolowski’s work as an AIDS activist linked up directly with his background as an art historian. What he loved about the art of the Baroque, he told Soboleva, was that “it was for a higher purpose. It wasn’t just about the beautiful object; it was the beautiful object that stood in for something else. The same thing is true with some works of art of the AIDS crisis.”

In 1996, he moved to Pittsburgh from New York to become head of the Andy Warhol Museum, which was then two years old and had just as many directors. He stayed until 2010.

For several years thereafter he consulted privately for arts institutions in the United States, Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. In 2017, he became director of the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, a position he held at the time of his death.

Sokolowski, who lived in New Brunswick, leaves no immediate survivors.

His longest professional tenure was with the Warhol Museum, which he transformed into both an international attraction and a local community center. His primary mandate was to conserve and promote the work of the institution’s namesake, and he did so, touring Warhol’s work to some 49 countries. He also included topical political exhibitions of a kind that had marked his Grey Art Gallery years, which brought the Warhol national notice.

These included “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America,” based on a collection assembled by antiques dealers James Allen and John Littlefield, in 2001, and “Abu Ghraib: Inconvenient Evidence,” a collaboration with New York’s International Center of Photography, in 2004.

But as always, creating popular engagement was his primary concern, whether that was with the gay community, New York City’s homeless or the Pittsburgh working class from which Warhol came. With its open-door policy toward diversity — Sokolowski preferred to call it an “open-mind policy” — the museum had no trouble drawing young artists and students. With some older citizens, for whom art museums were remote, highfalutin places, he had a tougher sell.

Speaking to The Pittsburgh City Paper in 2010, Sokolowski recalled attending and participating in Rotary Club events in Pittsburgh in a tireless effort to promote the museum. When his resignation was announced, he recalled, someone wrote on Facebook, “Oh, he was so snobbish.”

“I felt like saying,” he said, “‘Honey, you’ve never called numbers at a bingo game at the age of 47.’”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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