An artistic dialogue about Proposition 8 at SFMOMA


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Since 2008, the issues of Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California, have been clamorously debated, but at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the topic is addressed with what is meant to be quiet deliberation in the exhibition ‘The Air We Breathe.’

Curator Apsara DiQuinzio watched the debate over Prop. 8 develop. ‘So often events unfold around us in the world and artists don’t often get to actively participate,’ she said. The show evolved from her book proposal in response to a Teiger Foundation solicitation for ideas that were ‘outside of the box.’


DiQuinzio commissioned 30 artists and eight poets to produce works on the subject (a few contributed older pieces that were pertinent) and approach it from any stance they liked. She sought diverse artistic styles, mediums and voices; among the artists are Raymond Pettibon, Lily van der Stokker, Amy Sillman, Simon Fujiwara and Martha Colburn.

Many of the pieces are subdued, personal gestures between two lovers. ‘The fact that the artists approached the subject indirectly enabled a kind of reflective, thoughtful space to consider the artwork,’ DiQuinzio said.

Los Angeles artist Elliott Hundley’s collage was conceived as a valentine to his lover, who reciprocated by writing a song titled ‘The Air We Breathe’ (also the title of the 1938 poem by Langston Hughes that is referenced in the wall text). The song lyrics appear as cut-out words in the assemblage, along with string, bits of red-and-white striped flag-like images, tiaras, rings and ribbons.

‘You Need a Civil Rights Bill, Not Me’ by D-L Alvarez is a simple drawing of two women blissfully riding a motorcycle together.

The artists involved are gay, lesbian, straight and transgender.

‘It was really important to me to have a balanced mix because I don’t necessarily believe this is a gay or straight issue, nor is it just an American issue,’ DiQuinzio said of including international artists as well.


An untitled oil painting by Colburn shows two women in the midst of a medieval battlefield stealing their last kiss before what is presumably their imminent death. The writer and poet Eileen Myles was commissioned to write an essay responding to the artwork. ‘She very perceptively likens this image to a history painting of a subject that’s never before been visualized,’ DiQuinzio said.

Prose and essays from poets including John Ashbery, Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian and Anne Waldman are interspersed among the artworks and published in the accompanying book.

DiQuinzio, who previously worked at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, hopes that visitors can consider the subject outside the polarizing landscape of politics. The show runs through Feb. 20.


A reading of Dustin Lance Black’s ‘8’

The Fight for Prop. 8

-- Liesl Bradner

Images: From top, D-L Alvarez’s ‘You need a civil rights bill, not me’ (2011); from the artist, © D-L Alvarez, courtesy Regen Projects. Raymond Pettibon’s ‘No Title (Paint fills them...)’ (2003); pen and ink on paper; from the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles, © Raymond Pettibon. Martha Colburn’s untitled painting (2011); water-based oils and collage on board; from the artist, © Martha Colburn. All photos by Don Ross.