Fifteen years ago the musical Rent took the traditions of New York's bohemian art scene and spun them into pop culture. All along, artist Marguerite Van Cook has remained true to the spirit of the underground and carried on those splendid visions of the avant-garde. Indeed, she has lived, so to speak. As central figures in the East Village artistic community, she and husband James Romberger survived and thrived at the epicenter of the New York City AIDS crisis of the 1980s.
Trained as an artist in her native England, Van Cook says she had an intellectual curiosity and yearning for public forms of expression that have propelled her to try on various colorful hats. Her band, the Innocents, once toured with the Clash. After Sid Vicious killed his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, in the Chelsea Hotel in 1978, the Sex Pistols front man called her house to look for his manager. A few days later the Innocents and some of the Clash, she says, 'played the gig that was like the Sid Vicious defense,' a benefit concert for his defense fund.
In addition to producing their own work, she and Romberger ran the Ground Zero art gallery in the East Village in the mid 1980s, and the two of them have curated together over the years. More recently she ran New York City's Howl Festival, the ad hoc tradition that keeps alive the spirit of beat poet Allen Ginsberg's revolutionary 1955 poem. She also completed a bachelor's degree in English at Columbia University and has gone on to master's work in European studies at the university.
The 1980s were so traumatic, she says, that she found it 'almost impossible not to make art' about AIDS. Her most HIV-specific work was a collaborative effort between her, her husband, and renegade HIV-positive artist David Wojnarowicz: a three-part comic book called Seven Miles a Second. Wojnarowicz, a former child street hustler whose provocative work was held up by conservatives as an example of why the U.S. government should cut funding to the National Endowment for the Arts, died of AIDS-related complications in 1992. Afterward, Van Cook and Romberger took Wojnarowicz's diaries, which chronicled his death, and used them for the story of the series' final installment.
She and Romberger learned of their own respective HIV infections in 1997. They have a 25-year-old son, who is HIV-negative. After her diagnosis, Van Cook says she suffered through seven years of often poor health, including a bout of meningitis, the need for a hysterectomy, and complications from hepatitis C coinfection. Today, she has found inspiration, both for her own physical perseverance and for her artistic vision, in her community gardening efforts. 'I was watching these things grown and just hanging on,' she says. 'It was the idea that if I could live through this bulb cycle, I can get through this.'
She's also examined the physical changes HIV and antiretroviral treatment has brought onto her body'through an exploration of amphibians, which she feels serve as a poignant metaphor. 'This disease changes you and you're in between two worlds, more or less,' she says. 'Because there is a really strange sensation to being in a different place to those people who are healthy. You start to live in this very amorphous condition. So I made these images of women as frogs: growing flippers and tails. Because your body really does change. And it is really difficult to cope with.'
At the end of the day Van Cook is a dyed-in-the-wool social activist but 'always with a twist, if possible,' she says. 'I've always tried to keep a fabulous edge to it!' After reading recently released data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the high prevalence of HIV among urban gay men, she felt the age-old call to action.
'I'm horrified. It's terrifying,' she says. 'I feel personally delinquent. I should've been back out in the trenches. I'm already thinking, What's the slogan that goes on the street now?'