Robert Blanchon
by Mary Patten

Robert Blanchon, an artist and professor who lived and taught in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, died in Chicago on Monday night, October 4th. The cause of death was complications from AIDS-related illnesses, which he braved throughout a long and difficult struggle. He was 33.

After earning his Masters of Fine Arts degree in 1990 from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Robert moved to New York City, where he worked at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. In 1995, he moved to Los Angeles, where he taught at the University of California at Irvine and the California Institute of the Arts. He was an extremely popular, challenging, and dynamic professor.

An artist who worked in the tradition of conceptualism, Robert employed various mediums, primarily photography. His work plumbed various tropes of gay life in the ’90s -- endless stacks of sympathy cards, hankies and their codes, stains and waste, tattoos, textual and iconographic references to plagues past and present. He used self-portraiture to skewer art-world pretensions (which he shamelessly shared), dismantle received ideas about human personality, as well as to flaunt his own beauty.

“Untitled (Protection)” (1992) was a letter from Robert to his parents revealing his HIV status and his mother’s rambling, evangelical reply. In one of his more recent works, “Wave (0-10)” (1997), he stood waist-deep in the ocean, photographing oncoming waves in a futile search for symmetry and perfection, trying to capture two images exactly the same.

He organized fictitious events for the art world that exposed social and political posturing, for which he has been fondly described as the trickster. A member of ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), he created a sticker in 1990 bearing an official portrait of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley inscribed with the text “I will not get AIDS” -- the phrase used in one of the city’s abandoned awareness campaigns. His videotape “Let’s just kiss + say goodbye” (1995) was screened at national and international festivals. He was a prolific writer and edited “A wretch like me” in 1995 for the Chicago-based journal WhiteWalls.

His work was featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions, most recently at Marc Foxx and L.A. Municipal Art Gallery in Los Angeles and “Disappearing Acts” at Bound and Bound and Leslie Tonkonow galleries in New York City in 1998. Robert’s recognition by the art world in the last three years was bittersweet, given his deteriorating health.

He returned to Chicago in 1998 to teach at his alma mater.

While packing up Robert’s apartment after he died, some of his friends discovered a piece, “Cyclops,” made a year earlier, which now seems strangely predictive: a set of eyeglasses whose lenses had been fused into one. By mid-August 1999, Robert had lost all vision in his right eye. Although he never let go of the possibility of living, he despaired at the thought that he would never ride his bicycle again. The utter cruelty of a visual artist robbed of sight was perhaps too horrifying to bear. And yet, in spite of his suffering, Robert never lost his sense of humor or his interest in the world outside.

Robert is survived by his parents, an aunt, one brother and a sister, a sister-in-law, his devoted dog Bugger, and his many, many friends, lovers, students, and colleagues, who will miss him dearly. Memorials/celebrations of Robert’s life and work were held at the Schindler House in Los Angeles in November, and at the Arts Club of Chicago on December 13.

Donations in Robert’s memory are gratefully accepted at The CORE Center, an outpatient facility jointly administered by the Cook County Board and Rush Presbyterian Hospital, which offers a full range of services for people with HIV/AIDS, irrespective of income. Please write Kathi Braswell, 2020 West Harrison Street, Suite 2-264, Chicago, IL 60612. (312) 572-4509

From POZ , February 2000. Reprinted with permission. Copyright 2000 POZ Publishing L.L.C.