New York-based artist Eric Rhein views his work as something of an ever-evolving, organic memoir. Each of his pieces builds to a whole, tracing back to what came before, connecting to deeply personal experiences. It’s fitting then that his most recent creative project, Eric Rhein: Lifelines, released in November, is a monograph-memoir that tells the stories of his own life and those he’s known and loved through the intimate photography and artworks he created from 1989 to 2012.
“It’s an unusual art book in that it does function as a memoir and how I see myself and the world sees myself in the experiences that I have lived,” says Rhein , 59. “A throughline of the book is the interconnection of what has come before and what we are seeding and gardening for the future.”
Rhein’s work is something of a historical document of the AIDS crisis, painting a very human face on a dark time in the nation and the world. Through the book, he documents his own journey living with HIV—from the period of his diagnosis, to his health decline and near death to ultimately a new lease on life that came from the development of more advanced antiretroviral medications.
It isn’t just his story. The monograph-memoir uses self-portraits and photographs of his lovers and friends, as they navigated their relationships and differing health trajectories against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic as it swept through the nation in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly impacting the LGBTQ+ community.
The book spotlights more than just photography. He includes images of watercolors and paintings he made while in the hospital as well as selections of “Leaves,” an AIDS memorial he created out of wire drawings, made to honor 300 people he knew who were impacted by HIV and AIDS. Interspersed through the collection of his art are essays by National Book Award-winner Mark Doty and Paul Michael Brown of publisher Institute 193.
For Rhein, art and activism are part of his family. He grew up with a college art professor father, a mother who nurtured and supported his creativity, and an uncle, Elijah “ Lige ” Clarke , who was an influential early gay rights activist.
Rhein moved to New York’s East Village in 1980 where he became a part of the area’s rich arts scene. Many of the people commemorated through his “Leaves” project were artists he knew from this community who died from complications of AIDS.
Rhein’s work has been shown globally in places like the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Pera Museum in Istanbul, and at New York’s Lincoln Center, among others.
Penta caught up with Rhein, who now lives in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, to hear about five of his favorite creative memoirs.
I Have More Fun with You Than Anybody , by Lige Clarke and Jack Nichols. “This is the book my uncle Lige Clarke and his partner Jack Nichols wrote about their life together, their meeting, their time in D.C. as activists, and their personal relationships. They were expansive thinkers above and beyond gay rights, they felt the liberation of homosexuals was the key to liberating heterosexuals, they were very much humanists in that respect.”
I Remember , by Joe Brainard. “ Joe Brainard is an artist who is known for his visual art, often using the medium of college. It contains sentences and phrases that start simply with I Remember . It’s very rhythmical and meditative and has associations that run through his life and experiences. It’s a beautifully done and intimate book that can be picked up and turned to various sections at random and the readers can take associations from their own life experience.”
Collaboration: The Photographs of Paul Cadmus, Margaret French, and Jared French , by Paul Cadmus, Margaret French and Jared French. “A group of artists whose book inspired the form and size of Lifelines because it's an intimate, fairly square, horizontal-size book that lent itself well to photographs. It shows their experiences in the 1950s on Fire Island—just this creative group of friends experiencing Fire Island in a very creative, almost mystical way. Even if it doesn’t have a lot of writing in it, visually, it really tells a story, a rather poetic one.”
Just Kids Illustrated Edition , by Patti Smith. “A memoir of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe . A period of time of their meeting as young artists in New York and experiences that followed. It’s beautifully written and also a vivid picture of life in New York for creative people in that time. Even though I arrived in 1980, a bit later than they did, the tone of it is something I could relate to. I also knew Robert, there’s a connection between us as artists, but also men who experienced the AIDS crisis. Robert is also included in my leaf project.”
Out of the Shadows—Marcus Leatherdale: Photographs New York City 1980-1992 , by Marcus Leatherdale. “His book features lots of people from the downtown and club scene in New York. They are images of personalities people will recognize like Madonna and Andy Warhol . It can really be seen as an anthology, a pictorial anthology of people who not only Marcus knew but I knew through 1980 through the ’90s. They are very personally and creatively portrayed.”