Tatjana, Veiled Head, Joshua Tree / Herb Ritts

Tatjana, Veiled Head, Joshua Tree, Herb Ritts (American, 1952–2002), 1988. Platinum print, 22 x 18 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011.19.13 © Herb Ritts Foundation

A few months ago, I attended a conversation at the Annenberg Space for Photography on Herb Ritts. Next April, the Getty Museum will present a major exhibition on Ritts, a photographer known for his iconic images of celebrities and models such as Richard Gere, Madonna, Janet Jackson, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, and Christy Turlington. I, along with many others, first discovered his photographs in the pages of Vanity Fair, the magazine for which he did some of his best-known work.

Ritts died of AIDS in 2002. One of the questions asked after the talk was, “If Herb Ritts were alive, what might he be doing today? How would his work have evolved?”

Today marks the 23rd annual commemoration of Day Without Art, a time when we pause to observe the void AIDS has created in the arts community. It’s a day where we ask...what if? What if Herb Ritts were still alive today? What about Robert Mapplethorpe, Keith Haring, or Félix González-Torres? And what about those artists who had yet to make their mark? How would the art world be different if they were still with us?

For the past 22 years, the Getty Museum has acknowledged Day Without Art because we feel it is important to remember the contributions of these artists and the many other individuals lost to AIDS.

Over the years, we have shrouded works of art, led special tours, and even closed galleries throughout the day to communicate the idea of loss. This year we’ll be screening Last Address, Ira Sachs’s 2010 film showing the exteriors of the houses, apartment buildings, and lofts where several well-known New York artists were living at the time of their deaths, marking the disappearance of an artistic generation. This haunting, meditative film is both a remembrance of that loss and a reminder of the continued presence of their work in our lives and culture. You can watch the film here.

Only four of the artists commemorated in the film lived past 50—Herb Ritts’s age when he died. The film prompts us to ask again: “What if?”