In 1992, more than a decade into the AIDS crisis, the red ribbon was suddenly everywhere. It was a red piece of fabric, folded into an upside-down “V” and pinned at the fold. The ribbon appeared on the lapels and bodices of celebrities at the Tonys, Oscars, Grammys, and Emmys, on models as they walked runways, and on the coats and jackets of everyday people trying to show that they cared about the epidemic.
It quickly became divisive. To some, it was a simple but sweet gesture of compassion and solidarity at a time of tremendous death and suffering. To others, it was shallow “accessory activism” that absolved wearers of having to fight, in legislatures and on the streets, for more funding and better policies for people living with AIDS.
It was definitely intended as the former by the small group of New York City gay men who, in 1991, named themselves Visual AIDS and came up with the idea of the ribbon. One of them, Patrick O’Connell, put it this way to The New York Times: “People want to say something, not necessarily with anger and confrontation all the time. This allows them. And even if it is only an easy first step, that’s great with me. It won’t be their last.”
O’Connell—who had known he was living with AIDS since the mid-’80s and became the founding director of Visual AIDS, an organization that to this day still benefits and supports artists living with HIV—died on March 23 in New York City at the age of 67 from AIDS-related causes, his brother told The New York Times.
A Life Shaped by the AIDS Crisis
O’Connell was born in New York City in 1953, majored in history at Trinity College, became director of an arts center in Buffalo, New York, in his 20s, and returned to New York City shortly thereafter to work for a downtown gallery representing artists including Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman. In the ’70s, according to the Times obituary, he was gay-bashed by a group of teens upon leaving an East Village gay bar, leaving him with a broken arm and a lifelong scar from skin grafts he needed. In the mid-’80s, he not only found out he had AIDS but got sober and joined 12-step groups after years of alcoholism.
In 1989, O’Connell got involved in Visual AIDS, which launched in order to mobilize the art world’s response to the epidemic. As director of the group (whose cofounders were Robert Atkins, Gary Garrels, William Olander, and Thomas Sokolowski), O’Connell oversaw not only the red-ribbon campaign but iconic projects including Day Without Art (in which galleries and museums would shroud a piece of art to reflect the loss of art and artists due to AIDS), Night Without Light (in which the New York skyline would go dark for 15 minutes), “Every Ten Minutes” (a church bell tolling every 10 minutes to symbolize the interval between AIDS deaths), and “Electric Blanket” (photos by artists like Nan Goldin, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Peter Hujar of people living with AIDS and AIDS activists).
“Patrick was interested in a visual response to AIDS,” said Peter Hay Halpert, O’Connell’s longtime friend.
Even as countless people in the early ’90s wore the AIDS ribbon, many others—particularly AIDS activists—saw it as a hollow, no-stakes alternative to the more confrontational and policy-driven activism of groups like ACT UP, or even to the work of service groups like GMHC, which provided healthy meals, legal advice, errand-running buddies, and other forms of support to people living with AIDS.
At the time, ACT UP member Ann Northrop said of the AIDS ribbon: “I wouldn’t be surprised to see [then-President George H.W.] Bush himself wear one someday—that’s how banal it’s become. The element that is missing in the ribbons is anger. People can be sympathetic from here to sunset but that won’t stop a quarantine.” (In 1992, politician Mike Huckabee had suggested that people with AIDS be quarantined.)
Halpert said he talked to O’Connell nearly every morning on the phone for most of the past 16 years, as well as attending galleries, films, and other events with him. After he left Visual AIDS in 1995, said Halpert, O’Connell lived on disability payments and involved himself with 12-step meetings. In 2000, O’Connell’s second life partner, James Morrow, died of cancer. (Ironically, O’Connell had told POZ magazine in 1994 that he and Morrow, who was HIV negative, had grappled with the reality that Morrow would very likely outlive him.)
A Sharp Wit and an Eye on His Legacy
Halpert, who left New York City last year to start an art gallery in Colorado, said that he and O’Connell spent so much time together partly because neither of them drank. “He didn’t have to worry I was going to say, ‘Let’s go get a drink,’” said Halpert.
O’Connell was “acerbic, with a piercing, sharp laugh,” said Halpert. Once, he and O’Connell went to see one of the Twilight movies together. Robert Pattinson, about to confess to Kristen Stewart that he was a vampire, said, “There’s something I need to tell you.” Recalled Halpert: “And Patrick yells out, ‘I’m gay!’”
Halpert and O’Connell were part of a regular dinner group they jokingly called The Fantastic Four, which also included the photographers Barbara Nitke and Allen Frame. “Patrick was so charming, beautiful, and compelling,” recalled Nitke. “He had a grace. He was the same with anybody. He’d go outside a restaurant to have a cigarette and strike up a conversation” with people experiencing homelessness, she said. “He’d tell long, winding stories. He loved people and was full of life.”
In addition to loving gallery-hopping and vampire and horror movies, said Halpert, O’Connell also loved Broadway, Sondheim, and pro tennis, “especially Rafael Nadal’s butt.”
O’Connell, being an AIDS longtime survivor, had extremely drug-resistant HIV and took up to 40 pills a day, said Halpert. “He had pneumonia a couple of years ago and never really got better.”
Halpert said that a mutual close friend told him that O’Connell had stopped taking his HIV meds about six months prior to his death. “I think he just ran out of gas,” said Halpert, who, because of COVID, had not seen O’Connell in person since early 2020. “His life had gotten difficult, and he was having trouble moving around his apartment in Washington Heights, which he hadn’t set foot outside because of the pandemic.”
Yet, said Halpert, despite O’Connell not being professionally active the past few decades, “He was very conscious of his legacy being what he had done with Visual AIDS. Through his illness, he found his mission in life.”