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An AIDS Activist’s Erotic Art Collection is on Display in San Francisco

An AIDS Activist’s Erotic Art Collection is on Display in San Francisco

Buzz Bense
The Buzz Bense Archive

Buzz Bense had an eye for the artistically erotic. 

It all started when a portfolio of trippy, color-saturated, homoerotic drawings by an unknown artist were given to AIDS activist Buzz Bense by his dentist. Bense took the anonymous drawings, which dated back to before and during the mid-70s, to show off at his safe sex club Eros in the heart of San Francisco's Castro District. "The cartoon-like outlines and blazing color are reminiscent of the work of Peter Max or the Beatles' movie Yellow Submarine," Bense wrote. "However neither of them featured big dicks falling out of jock straps, blow jobs, butt-fucking or psychedelic pricks."

Though Bense passed away in November 2016, the drawings are now on view at the Center for Sex & Culture in San Francisco as part of the exhibition, Psychedelic Sex from Buzz Bense's Gay Stash: A Memorial Exhibition. Here, co-curators Alex Fialho and Dorian Katz discuss Bense's life, legacy, and approach to art and activism.

Buzz Bense

Alex Fialho: Tell me how you first came to meet Buzz and work with him at the Center for Sex & Culture?

Dorian Katz: I met Buzz in 2011 at the CSC when he dropped off nearly 200 safe sex posters he had collected. As the CSC's gallery director, I decided to make a show and dreamed of making a book. You, me and Buzz created both with SAFE SEX BANG: The Buzz Bense Collection of Safe Sex Posters.


Alex: He was an avid collector of smutty art and sexy activist graphics. That poster collection was a trove of HIV awareness campaigns from the 1980s into the 2000s.

Dorian: He was a dedicated art patron. His home and the walls of Eros were packed with exquisite gay erotic art. He showcased and collected work from dozens of artists, like Hector Silva, Belasco, Kent, Lou Rudolph, Greg Day, Go Hirano, Steve Postman, Beau and Jon Gatto and Robert W. Richards.

Alex: Working with you and Buzz on SAFE SEX BANG was when I found my voice in relationship to intergenerational causes of social justice and activism, particularly the history and immediacy of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Buzz led by example: he asked probing questions, spoke from the heart and cared deeply for his community.

Just weeks before he passed away, Buzz shared the suite of psychedelic drawings with us that are now on view at CSC. He asked that they be shown and written about, and the exhibition you and I worked on provided the backdrop for his moving memorial service in January 2017. Of course, Buzz's cruising curatorial eye was spot on with his interest in these ravishing drawings. They shine like stained glass windows of vibrant, colorful sexcpades. What's your take on them?


Dorian: I see drawings made by a community insider with connections to gay men and other cultural reference points. I embrace him as a queer, erotic art ancestor. The drawings are infused with '60s and '70s-era psychedelia renown in San Francisco, rich with psychedelic rock 'n' roll posters, fashion and decor. They also feel very at home with other collections at CSC made by local communities deeply invested in their new sexual freedom--they have a palpable joyfulness to them.

Alex: This exhibition features 51 drawings from Buzz's collection, and his statement from when they were shown at Eros. The CSC now holds the Buzz Bense archive--what else is in the stash besides the safe sex posters and these drawings?

Dorian: Buzz's archive has awards for AIDS education, catalogues and prints from the Tom of Finland Foundation, business records from Eros, photos of its renovation, calendars for a sex education workshop he ran, projects he worked on for National Condom Week and Hot and Healthy Times, and his design portfolio. Buzz used his skills as a graphic designer, sex educator/activist, and community leader to fight the stigma of AIDS, save lives and create a place for safe sex to flourish.


All artwork is anonymous, photography of the art by Alex Fialho & Dorian Katz

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