STATEN ISLAND, NY — Long-time friend and colleague Timothy Ledwith describes native Staten Islander Louis Fulgoni as “a complicated guy.”
Fulgoni was “great fun a lot of the time.” But as a gay man who came of age in the 1950s, he was also a rebel at a time when there was rampart discrimination and widespread non-acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, said Ledwith, a writer/editor who formerly worked with Fulgoni, a graphic designer and artist. Ledwith said Fugoni suffered adversity in his community and within his own family because he was a gay man.
“But most of all, Louis was a creative person who was driven to make art constantly, which is why he left behind such a rich artistic legacy,” he said.
Having long been concerned about the looming possibility of HIV infection since AIDS was first identified as disappropriately affecting gay men in the early 1980s, Fulgoni was diagnosed with the illness in 1987.
“During this time, he became even more prolific as an artist, perhaps sensing that he had no time to lose. … It was still a tough diagnosis to handle at a time when there were no effective treatments for AIDS,” said Ledwith.
Fulgoni succumbed to his battle with AIDS at age 53 in 1989. Behind, he left friends and family, including his life partner Michael McKee. He also left a legacy of his work, much of it never widely viewed by the public — until now.
“It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why Louis’s artwork was seldom exhibited, or why he never had a solo show,” says the virtual retrospective at www.LouisFulgoni.com. “Suffice it to say here that he was not particularly adept at promoting his work, nor very motivated to do so. Like many other artists, and most people generally, he sometimes may have been held back by a fear of rejection. … Decades later, his art still illuminates the context of his life and times.”
Recently, McKee and Ledwith teamed up to produce an online exhibit — featuring more than 200 paintings, prints, collages, masks and drawings — of Fulgoni’s life-long body of work.
“By tracing the arc of Louis’s creative journey, this exhibition finally rectifies an omission in the art historical record. By reclaiming his place in that history, it also seeks to illuminate the wider, but often forgotten legacy of working artists lost to AIDS in New York and beyond,” says the exhibit’s website.
“And beyond this dynamic body of work, the retrospective also offers insights into who Louis was as a person: specifically, as an out gay man who lived and worked on his own terms.”
THE MAN BEHIND THE PAINTING
His artwork was everything to Fulgoni.
Born on Staten Island, he lived in the then largely Italian-American enclave of East Harlem for the first few years of his life. But his family later moved back to Staten Island where he attended elementary school, New Dorp High School, and later commuted from the borough to the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. Fulgoni later relocated to Queens and then to Manhattan.
“Having grown up as an only child, he spent a lot of time alone, and he used sketching and drawing as a means of both occupying and expressing himself,” said Ledwith.
After earning a degree in illustration in the late 1950s from School of Visual Arts, Fulgoni worked as a full-time graphic artist at the NBC Television network for several years. In this time at NBC, he created graphics for the Tonight and Today shows and other programs, said Ledwith.
But his true calling was fine art. He spent time expressing himself through painting, drawing, printmaking, creating collages and, in his later years, mask-making. He sketched people he knew; painted scenes from places that had an impact on him, like his family’s long-time Staten Island home; and made masks representing anxiety during the height of the AIDS crisis.
“His influences ranged from Giovanni Battista Tiepolo in the 18th century to Andy Warhol in the 20th,” Ledwith said. “His work also often reflected his state of mind and the times in which he lived – like his often homoerotic prints and collages in the sexually liberated 1970s, and his more foreboding masks and paintings made during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.”
BATTLE WITH AIDS
Diagnosed with AIDS in the summer of 1987, Fulgoni came down with a case of Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) — a very common illness among people with compromised immunity. Fulgoni recovered from PCP and resumed “a fairly normal life” for the next year and a half, said Ledwith.
But in early 1989, the illness started to take a toll on Fulgoni. He started losing weight and was diagnosed with Cryptosporidiosis — a parasitic infection that people with healthy immunity can manage, but one that can be lethal for the immune-compromised.
“Louis spent most of the last six months of his life in decline at NYU Medical Center in Manhattan, with Michael at his side the entire time. He died almost exactly 33 years ago, on July 26, 1989,” said Ledwith.
CREATING A VIRTUAL INTROSPECTIVE
McKee and Ledwith had been talking about organizing a retrospective of Fulgoni’s work ever since he died.
“Unfortunately, we never achieve the momentum or made the right connections to secure a physical gallery space that would accommodate his large and varied body of work,” said Ledwith.
While taking a virtual class in the fall of 2020, Ledwith thought it was the perfect time to mount a virtual retrospective of Fulgoni’s work. McKee agreed, and the retrospective began to take shape.
This project was made possible in part by a New York City Department of Cultural (DCP) Affairs grant from Staten Island Arts, as well as public funding from the DCP.
“It has been a great pleasure and also a relief to get this retrospective done at last. We want the world to see this amazing body of work,” McKee told the Advance/SILive.com
See the exhibit here: www.louisfulgoni.com.