A memorial tribute to Patrick J. O’Connell ’75, H’99

By Peter Hay Halpert ’80

Patrick J. O’Connell died Tuesday, March 23, 2021. He was involved with the New York arts scene in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, most notably as an AIDS activist and arts administrator. 

Patrick was born in New York City. He went to Trinity College, where he was a classics scholar and a history major. He had other, equally distinguished choices for college, but he told me that he went up to visit Trinity on a perfect winter’s day, when the quad was covered with snow, and he fell in love with the beauty of the place. While he was at Trinity, he met the artists Mel Kendrick and Carroll “Tip” Dunham, fellow students who overlapped his years there. He graduated in 1975. 

Patrick worked at Artists Space in New York City and then was one of the first directors of Hallwalls, in Buffalo for a year, before returning to Artists Space. From 1976–79, between these two nonprofit spaces, he encountered the artists who would become known as the Pictures Generation: Cindy Sherman, Charlie Clough, Sherrie Levine, Matt Mullican, Robert Longo, James Welling, and others. (And to support his friends, he often scraped together enough money to buy their art). Artists Space, which was only started a few years before Patrick began working there, quickly became a leading organization in the downtown alternative arts scene, which also included burgeoning institutions such as the 112 Workshop (later renamed White Columns) and the Institute for Art and Urban Resources (later renamed P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center and now MoMA PS1). This also put him in touch with arts administrators like Helene Winer (who later started Metro Pictures with Janelle Reiring), Alanna Heiss, Bill Arning, Philip Yenawine, Roger McFarland, Marvin Heiferman, Alexander Gray, Tom Sokolowski, and others. It was during this period Patrick had a brief affair with Peter Hujar, although he would joke that “Peter was always showing me his pictures of the catacombs in Palermo; I kept wondering if we were ever going to take our clothes off.” 

It was also around the time when he had returned to the city that he was the victim of a horrible gay bashing; his arm was almost pulled off by a gang of young men. At the hospital, it was grafted back on, and he received massive blood transfusions. He maintained that he thought that was how he contracted AIDS; they weren’t screening blood back in the late ’70s. He lived with AIDS for more than 40 years.                                                    

During the early ’80s, he was “a friend of the house,” at 8BC, an East Village bar where artists including Karen Finley, Ethyl Eichelberger, Steve Buscemi, They Might Be Giants, Holly Hughes, Charles Busch, and k.d. lang performed, long before they had achieved fame. 

In 1989, he became the founding director of Visual AIDS. That year, he initiated Day With(out) Art. Announcing it December 1 on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum, he was able to get the Met and more than 1,100 other museums worldwide to participate.          

In 1990, Visual AIDS, under Patrick’s aegis, unveiled the Electric Blanket project. Created by the Visual AIDS artists’ caucus, which included Allen Frame and Nan Goldin, it was a slideshow of images by Goldin, Peter Hujar, Robert Mapplethorpe, Brian Weil, and others. It was initially projected on the façade of Cooper Union and toured—with updates and revisions—throughout the United States and in Russia, Japan, Norway, Finland, Germany, England, Scotland, and Hungary.

Working with others at Visual AIDS, Patrick created the red AIDS ribbon. “We were living in a war zone, but it was like a war that was some kind of deep secret only we knew about. Thousands were dying of AIDS. We felt we had to respond with a visible expression.” 

If you wore the ribbon or recognized its significance, “it was like Fight Club”; you were saying that you had also been affected by the disease most people preferred not to acknowledge, much less discuss. It blurred the distinction between those who had HIV or AIDS and those who didn’t, “because if you were willing to talk about it, it was assumed you had it.” 

In 1991, Visual AIDS volunteers put a red AIDS ribbon on every seat at the Minskoff Theatre before the start of the Tony Awards. That evening, Jeremy Irons was the first to step onto the stage wearing a ribbon on his lapel. The impact that ribbon had was powerful. It’s a symbol that endures today and that served as the progenitor of all the subsequent ribbons worn by people dealing with diseases, such as the pink breast cancer ribbon. The CFDA acknowledged as much when they awarded Patrick and Visual AIDS a special award in 1992, calling the red ribbon a “unifier and a pledge, a profession of love, and most of all a promise that we will not stop caring and we will not stop fighting.”              

On World AIDS Day, December 1, 1993, the U.S. Post Office issued a red ribbon stamp, commemorating Patrick and Visual AIDS’ efforts to increase awareness about AIDS. Patrick was presented with the first-day cover by the USPS. 

In addition, Patrick served on the board of the National Association of Artists Organizations (NAAO) and was an adviser to the National Endowment for the Arts AIDS Working Group.

In 1999, Patrick received an honorary doctorate from Trinity College for his work as an AIDS activist and arts administrator. As a friend later said, “He was most proud of the work he did in the late ’80s and ’90s, during a time of crisis. That was when he found his voice could be put to use.” 

In 2009, The Met opened The Pictures Generation: 1974–1984 exhibition, curated by Douglas Eklund, featuring works by Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Matt Mullican, and Cindy Sherman, from Patrick’s collection. 

In 2013, Let the Record Show, a film by Demetrea and Rebekah Dewald, documented Patrick and the artists “who shook the foundation of American culture.” Speaking passionately about their private—and highly political journeys—it provided a look at the collective spirit of activism in the face of AIDS.              

Patrick was constantly telling anecdotes based on his life experiences, but he could never tell a story in a straightforward narration. Instead, his stories meandered all over, leaving a trail of confused, bemused listeners. He took a particularly mischievous delight in sprinkling his stories with first names and making everyone wonder who he was talking about: “OK, I got Cindy (Sherman), but who was Nelson (Oh, Mandela!)?” During his active years, O’Connell met a wide range of people: Princess Diana, Penny Arcade, Billie Jean King, Larry Kramer, Patricia Cornwell, and, yes, Nelson Mandela.