Robert Blanchon, "Untitled (self-portrait)" (1991) (all images courtesy the estate of Robert Blanchon)

Robert Blanchon, “Untitled (self-portrait) [detail]” (1991) (all images courtesy the estate of Robert Blanchon)

Imagine yourself in New York circa 1993. You’re walking down the street — Lexington Avenue, say, somewhere in the East 50s, a neighborhood of generic high-rises and tourists en route to Rockefeller Center. Suddenly, body parts start raining down from 20 stories above: brains and lungs, spines and tongues askew against jawbones. In no time the street and sidewalk are strewn with the wreckage of anonymous dismemberment. Except it’s all make-believe. It’s all art.

Robert Blanchon envisioned such a scene in his 1993 essay “[never realized].” That text — actually a proposal for a guerilla art intervention titled “4 opportunistic infections for public viewing and consumption” — was Blanchon’s attempt to depersonalize AIDS. He argued that HIV/AIDS iconography fell into four broad categories: portraits of a “decaying, bedridden, presumably queer white man in his 30s or 40s”; those who contracted the virus during a blood transfusion or by other nonsexual means; celebrities such as Liberace and Rock Hudson whose deaths lent a tabloid sheen to what had previously been a niche disease that killed niched people; and, finally, deviants, junkies, and other undesirables. Blanchon’s aim was to “elevate the physiological aspects of HIV to a level of reality that represents the pain, loss, and massive suffering caused by this plague.”

Robert Blanchon, "Untitled [Bodyrub in Queens]" (1987)

Robert Blanchon, “Untitled [Bodyrub in Queens]” (1987)

As the title of his essay indicates, Blanchon’s piece was never executed, but even in its hypothetical state it remains provocative and profoundly sad. In 1993 alone, more than 40,000 Americans died of AIDS-related complications. Blanchon himself joined that awful roll call in 1999, dead at age 34. His eclectic output of photographs, video, performance art, and conceptual objects never achieved the ubiquity or critical breakthrough of David Wojnarowicz, Keith Haring, Mark Morrisroe, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, or other artists of the AIDS era. But two decades after his death, Blanchon’s work is still subversive and witty, and still charged with radical queer eroticism.

Blanchon was born in Massachusetts in 1965 and received his BFA and MFA from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. Even early on, his art was playful and mordant. A 1989 poster, plastered around Chicago, shows Mayor Richard Daley with the caption “I will not get AIDS,” a bit of agitprop that points to Blanchon’s association with ACT UP. Other works from that period juxtapose sex ads with photographs of men and women who answered Blanchon’s call for volunteer models. “Hung big & thick, uncut” reads one such tagline below Blanchon’s photo of a nondescript man in a collared shirt and sweater posed forlornly in a kitchen or laundry room. These photos project X-rated counter lives into banal domestic backdrops, and suggest the rift between fantasy and reality.

Robert Blanchon, "Stain I" (1994)

Robert Blanchon, “Stain I” (1994)

After graduating, Blanchon spent several years in New York and Los Angeles, where he participated in both solo and group exhibitions. In the mid-90s, he produced some of his most memorable work, including photographs of stained underwear and t-shirts. These images simultaneously evoke the body horror of HIV/AIDS, fear of contamination, and queer fetishism. Some viewers undoubtedly find the images disturbing or repellent, while others sense their erotic allure — a tension that mimics gay sex in the AIDS era, in which every rendezvous could be lethal.

Robert Blanchon, "Untitled (sympathy)" (1994), detail top

Robert Blanchon, “Untitled (sympathy)” (1994), detail top

Throughout the early and mid-90s, Blanchon riffed on his signature theme: absence and its various potentials for liberation, mourning, or reinvention. He created a series of mock sympathy cards that read: “The family of ____________ acknowledges with grateful appreciation your kind expression of sympathy.” The fill-in-the-blank space gives these cards the quality of mass production, of grief at scale, and hint at a death toll so constant that even those affected by it are interchangeable. Blanchon explores similar ideas in his tattoos: an empty scroll between his shoulders, lovers’ hearts on his bicep with two blanks where names should be. These pieces evince conflict between the permanence of ink and the abandoned or perhaps in-progress quality of the tattoos’ dedications.

Other works take a more oblique approach to absence. A series of tinted photos called “Dingbats” captures empty carports in Los Angeles. A sense of desertion underlies these pictures, the eternal afternoon aspect of homes awaiting owners who might never return. Elsewhere, photographs of dead branches, empty and unmade beds, waves, desert textures, and chewing gum baked onto pavement monumentalize objects that belong to larger environments. Blanchon estranges these things from their native contexts and gives them a heightened singularity. To pay close attention to something is to alienate it, and in these photographs, Blanchon documents the mutability of absence. Gum embedded onto the sidewalk, for example, is a poignant memento of another time, and of a person who is now a ghost.

Robert Blanchon, "4 opportunistic infections for public viewing and consumption" (c. 1992)

Robert Blanchon, “4 opportunistic infections for public viewing and consumption” (c. 1992)

Blanchon’s most well-known works are his 1991 series of self-portraits, in which he hired street artists to draw him, and “Protection,” a piece from 1992 that pairs a letter to his religious parents in which he discloses his HIV diagnosis with his mother’s lengthy response. Both of these works are investigations of identity and perception. The former asks who we are in the eyes of others, while the latter asks whether we can ever transcend how others perceive us. “I guess what I want to hear from you now may not be what you have to offer,” Blanchon writes to his parents. “Maybe you are thinking the same thing, too.”

Robert Blanchon, "Dingbats, 3 of 7, C" (1998)

Robert Blanchon, “Dingbats, 3 of 7, C” (1998)

Like many artists diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, Blanchon worked at a manic pace, perhaps because he felt his own absence hurtling toward him. In 1999, he returned to Chicago to teach at his alma mater. On October 4th of that year, he died. Blanchon’s art continues to appear occasionally in group exhibitions, and in 2006, Visual AIDS published the definitive monograph of his work. But he’s still under the institutional radar, a protean artist awaiting rediscovery and appraisal. His best art stands with that of his contemporaries who also mounted indignant, despairing, and sometimes satiric assaults against an indifferent nation. “I am a victim of a society that perpetuates one of the oldest, ugliest, and always timely elements of humanity: the tradition of leaving the sick behind,” Blanchon wrote in “[never realized],” a statement that holds true for another generation of Americans today. It’s a statement that could have been carved onto Blanchon’s grave.

Jeremy Lybarger is the features editor at the Poetry Foundation. He has written for the Paris Review, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Boston Review, The Guardian, and more.