December 1, 2008

A Day Without an Artist: Ray Navarro

Around the era that effective combination therapies for HIV were first being developed, so was the internet. This means many artists who died young have few references in cyberspace. In light of this fact, I'm using today's post--World AIDS Day--to remember an artist and friend who died of AIDS. I encourage other bloggers to do the same. If you do, leave a link to your post here by clicking the comment button.
I got to know Ray Navarro when we were both in Michael Asher's Post Studio Art class at CalArts. At the time we were both dating fellow students; I was with Patrick who was in the graphic design program, and Ray was seeing Anthony from the dance school. I remember one night, after the four of us had gone to a queer video screening in West Hollywood, we headed back to the place in the Hollywood Hills where Ray and Anthony were house sitting. The home was owned by an art director, and feeling fairly tipsy, we all plopped on a circular bed that overlooked Cahuenga Pass. Ray pulled out the landlord's Emmy award, and we all took turns holding it and giving acceptance speeches.

After graduation, Ray got into the Whitney Program and Patrick and I moved to Seattle, so our paths diverged. We did communicate infrequently through letters and phone calls, and I got to hear about his involvement with DIVA-TV and Act Up. About the same time I started volunteering for an HIV risk-reduction program in Seattle, which led to my move from art to behavioral psychology.

Because of his involvement in video activism, there are a few mentions of his work here and here, but none of his artistic prduction is on line.

In 2001 Ray's mother Patricia Navarro received The Spirit of Hope Award from Being Alive, Los Angeles. In her acceptance speach, she remembered Ray, and I've exerpted the remembrance here:
In 1988 Ray Navarro moved to New York to continue his art education at the Whitney Institute and quickly became an active member of ACT UP New York.

Ray went to New York in August, and the following June was the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. He went up there with his lover Anthony, and while they were in Montreal his lover came down with PCP, and was in a hospital in Montreal. They called me, and it was devastating. That was the first I knew about AIDS in our family. Anthony recovered... and all I could think of... well, I don't have to tell you all that I could think of. But I couldn't say anything. Thank god I had the wisdom to know not to say anything.

I don't want to hear about this, Raymond, I want to hear about your studies." It was incredibly insensitive, and I'm ashamed to say, as an old activist, I was not encouraging to my son being an activist -- I wanted him to study.

Ray refused to get tested until he came back to New York City and went to an anonymous test site. I knew nothing about any of this. All he said was, "I will not go to a doctor" and he told me the reasons, and I said, "Oh my god!" He'd been telling me about all this stuff, but I hadn't really been listening. I had just been saying, "You shouldn't be going to these meetings and going to these demonstrations."

When Ray did get tested, it took him a while to actually tell me he was positive, and that he was fine, he was seeing a good doctor -- Grossman, and Joe Sonnabend. Of course, these names meant nothing to me then. He said that now that they had this drug [AZT], that everything was going to be wonderful.

Around six months later, Ray called to say he was in the hospital because he'd had a seizure in the subway. Within a week or two of that he was diagnosed with TB, which at that time was AIDS-related complex -- it wasn't considered an opportunistic infection. He went home after being in the hospital for something like two or three weeks and the next day became so ill with a headache that he went back to the hospital with cryptococcal meningitis -- and was very, very sick. I tracked down where he was, because he wasn't home.

Ray was sitting in bed, holding court, and they were all sitting around telling him about the action they'd just done. One of his friends had just come back from a show that she'd had in Brussels. Somebody else had just come back from tearing down the Berlin Wall, and he was passing around chips of the wall. These were all artists -- some were with ACT UP, some weren't. He had all these people in his room, and the minute I saw his face I knew he was okay. He was still very, very sick, but he smiled, I guess just at my being there. It was very emotional -- it was very emotional. I took a break and went in the waiting room. That was the first time that I saw the "Silence=Death" image, because they all had the buttons.

Everybody was really excited to see me -- they'd heard about me, they'd heard about my political activities in California. I'd become very involved in Chicano politics in Ventura County, and I got involved with a service organization.

Ray was very, very, very sick. I met these incredible people who just wanted to do anything they could. It was a real proud thing to see the circle of friends that he had, and how incredibly well he was thought of -- I mean, just brilliant. It made me feel good as a parent, and I really don't know what I would have done without all those people, because they became my extended family. There were a lot of dynamics going on with his lover -- they had been having a lot of problems, and I didn't know the extent of them until I was popped down in the middle of their lives. That was real stressful -- all the dynamics between these two men living with AIDS.

My son was very pissed off because the drugs he was on interfered with his ability to write. He wanted to finish some jobs that he had so that he could concentrate on getting well. He was a media activist and one of the founders of a group within ACT UP called DIVA, and their job was to document everything. They used their tapes to indict police -- not only to gather their history and to document their actions, but to use against the police to prove that they'd been brutalized. They were very instrumental in making some changes, in terms of how street activism was handled by the police. It scared the shit out of the cops. If they only behaved because they didn't want to be shown on tape behaving badly, it didn't matter. They still did manage to injure some people very seriously over the years.

Ray was in and out of the hospital three or four times during the eight months that he lived after March.He lost his sight and lost his hearing within the first three weeks that I was there, from the treatment with the amphotericin. The first night that he lost his sight, he tried to get out of bed, and he fell and injured himself. And the hospital put him in restraints...I went in the morning and he was in restraints, and he was pissed off. By then he was responding to the fluconazole treatment. At that time it was not the standard of care.

He stayed in the hospital -- I think that time was for three months. It was from March to May. And he never was able... they tried everything, but he never got his sight back, and his hearing was always affected. I told the hospital that we wouldn't pursue any charges of negligence for his having fallen out of bed... as long as I could have somebody stay with him any night, and who did not have to be a registered nurse... and they agreed. So we had a master calendar, and all these people from ACT UP, and from the Whitney Institute, and all these other people that he'd met... people from the Bronx and Brooklyn would come in and sit with Ray, so that I could go home and sleep. He was actually in the hospital the entire time I was there, those eight months, more days than he was out of the hospital.

When he was out of the hospital, he would go and stay in his apartment and I would stay with one of the mothers from the Mothers Support Group. I got to New York on a Tuesday night. The following Monday I went to an ACT UP meeting, and the following Tuesday, and every Tuesday night thereafter until I left, I went to a Mothers Support Group meeting. I went to ACT UP meetings because it helped my spirit. The Mothers Support Group helped my breaking heart.

There was a time while Ray was sick that I wanted it to be over -- isn't that a terrible thing to say? It was so exhausting. And shortly after that, Ray had a psychologist call me and tell me that he was really tired and didn't want to continue, and the only reason he was hanging on was for me. I told her, "For god's sake, tell him not to. I wish he would talk to me about this. "She said, "He can't." We never talked about it -- it was all through other people. But he was really an incredible person -- I'm very proud to have had anything to do with him.

He had already told me, "When I decide, I'm going to just die and I need you to help me." I had made a promise to him. I couldn't keep any promise that he could go home. I told him, "You can't make me give you that promise, because you're too sick. It may end up killing you just to get you into the apartment -- don't ask me to do that. "He agreed that was not fair, but he wanted me to make arrangements for him to be able to leave this world when he wanted, and I contacted people. We got together with an attorney, who said, "Do you really want to put your mother through this?"

His doctor agreed to put Ray on a morphine drip when the time came. His doctor was an incredible man. We had a meeting of the attorney, myself, and his lover -- I insisted on his lover being there. I always included his lover in everything.

Some of the girls from ACT UP took 26 candles and put them on the piano -- Ray had had his twenty-sixth birthday a month before on October 6. Christine and I had gotten his ashes, and a lot of friends had been to an Audre Lord conference just a couple of weeks earlier, and brought him back a T-shirt. We wrapped the T-shirt., and taped it around the box holding his ashes.So there he was sitting on the piano, with his 26 candles -- the chairs were all in circles. The most moving part was when one of the ACT UP members asked everybody to stand up and call out "presente" three times, which was a salute that they did in Latin America.

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  1. Hi Michael,

    When I read the other day of your intention to discuss an under/unrecognized artist to commemorate "A Day Without Art" on December 1st, I immediately thought of Ray. I have many fond memories of Ray during those years when we were all students together.

    Thank you for raising his memory, sharing your thoughts, and for sharing the words of his mother.

    Very fitting.

  2. Some other posts of the day:
    Dennis Cooper:
    David Ehrenstein:
    Stephanie Vegh:
    Feel free to add additional links to the comments section.

  3. A wonderful blog entry, and a nice remembrance of a talented individual who helped make a huge social impact. Thank you.

  4. Ray's presence was very inspiring in How to Survive a Plague. It's sad to hear he did not live past 26, but his message (and the footage he shot) came through this documentary. Thank you for this further light on him from the words of his mother.

  5. I met Ray in at the Temporary Contemporary in 1985. He already was a bright star as an artist and a person! It is both very wonderful and heartbreaking to see him and his work in How to Survive a Plague. Thank you for this site.


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