Reading AIDS

In honor of AIDS Awareness Month, we look at the book and upcoming exhibit Up Against the Wall.
Author: Matthew Cook
Black and gray concentric circles behind "Up Against the Wall" written in black and "Art, Activism, and the AIDS poster" written in pink

COVID-19’s ubiquitous presence and media coverage can have a blinding/muffling effect on other local, national, and even global issues. And because it’s new(ish) and happening right now, there’s an accompanying urgency and significance that commands attention and activism.

This is how we felt about HIV/AIDS 35 years ago.

Each year, World AIDS Day, December 1, reminds us that the global epidemic that is HIV/AIDS is still here. It also emphasizes the need for a worldwide effort to raise awareness, generate research funds, and support the people living with HIV—approximately 37.7 million.

The Memorial Art Gallery (MAG) commemorated this year’s World AIDS Day as part of its Celebration Series, which provides opportunities to engage in and learn about specific cultures and communities through experiences, including performances and presentations. The World AIDS Day event, “Global Solidarity, Shared Responsibility,” had both. Attendees enjoyed several musical and dance performances as well as a preview of the major collaborative exhibition Up Against the Wall: Art, Activism, and the AIDS Poster, opening at the MAG on March 6, 2022.

Accompanied by a wide array of cultural, medical, scholarly, and social activities, Up Against the Wall will showcase approximately 200 of the posters in the University of Rochester’s AIDS Education Posters Collection. A gift from Edward C. Atwater '50 (1926–2019), the collection, held by the Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation (RBSCP), contains more than 8,000 posters and is one of the world’s largest single collections of visual resources related to the disease. The entire collection has been digitized and is freely available online.

Although it has passed, World AIDS Day launched themes that can be carried through AIDS Awareness Month (December) and into the next year. In the United States, the theme was “Ending the HIV Epidemic: Equitable Access, Everyone’s Voice.” For the global community, UNAIDS made the rallying cry: “End inequalities. End AIDS. End pandemics.” Up Against the Wall will provide visual context that makes these themes especially poignant.

Right now, anyone who missed the MAG event and is in the Rochester area can visit the River Campus and see a tapas-sized sample of posters on display in the RBSCP until the end of January 2022. However, another, far more accessible and comprehensive way to preview the exhibit is to buy the book.

"Silence = Death" written in white in an otherwise black space, except for a pink triangle
"Silence = Death," 1986
New York, New York
Creator: Silence=Death Collective

Taking its name from the exhibit, the book Up Against the Wall: Art, Activism, and the AIDS Poster is currently available for purchase at “THE STORE @ MAG.” Need references? Here’s some of the buzz the book has received so far.

The Daily Heller

Steven Heller is the author, coauthor, and editor of more than 200 books on design and popular culture. He was also the senior art director at the New York Times for 33 years. He now maintains a blog, The Daily Heller, on the design and culture website Print.

In a November 10 post, Heller tells the story of when he first became aware of AIDS. It wasn’t something he heard. It was something he saw—a sticker that carried the phrase “Silence=Death.” He shares the story as a preface to his exploration of Up Against the Wall. Get the whole story.


Jeff Spevak begins his exploration of Up Against the Wall with, “The image is so stunning it takes your breath away.” Of course, given the

nature and size of the AIDS Education Posters Collection, he could be describing hundreds of posters. But the image he’s referring to is titled “Final Moments.”

Spevak’s story features the collection curator and coeditor of the book Jessica Lacher-Feldman, exhibits and special projects manager for RBSCP. In addition to providing context on “Final Moments” and other posters, Lacher-Feldman offers insight on Atwater’s collecting. Check out the curator’s commentary.

Bay Area Reporter

In San Francisco’s LGBTQ newspaper, Jim Provenzano says that although Up Against the Wall has a scholarly focus, “the text is readable to a wider audience, and makes an essential addition to any collector of health-focused and activist art.”

Provenzano also offers a… spicy take on HIV/AIDS as it relates to the current pandemic. His opinions are his own. 


The non-profit online magazine offers an excerpt from “Worlds of Signification,” written by Jennifer Brier, associate professor of gender, women’s studies, and history at the University of Illinois Chicago, and Matthew Wizinsky, assistant professor at the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning at the University of Cincinnati.

Brier and Wizinsky describe the posters in Up Against the Wall as “a visual record of the complex ubiquity of AIDS” and exemplary of what cultural theorist Paula Triechler meant when she described AIDS as an “epidemic of signification.”

The Xtra article also shares two “deep captions” from Up Against the Wall. Sneak a peek. ∎

If you would like to learn more about the book, Up Against the Wall, or the AIDS Education Posters Collection, contact collection curator Jessica Lacher-Feldman, exhibitions and special projects manager for RBSCP, at For more information on the upcoming exhibition at the Memorial Art Gallery, please visit


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