DocArt Trauma: Eric Avery’s AIDS Works

Eric Avery, Blood Test (1986), molded paper woodcut, 48 x 16 inches. Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA. Purchased with the gift of Sue Reed, class of 1958. Courtesy of the artist.

Eric Avery, Blood Test (1986), molded paper woodcut, 48 x 16 inches. Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA. Purchased with the gift of Sue Reed, class of 1958. Courtesy of the artist.

A forearm is stretched full length, veins up. The fist is clenched, a cord knotted around the lower bicep. We’ve all been there—when our blood is taken or, in a different human context, when we give blood—but not everyone has felt the intensity of fear, or been able to represent it in such a visceral way, as Eric Avery did in Blood Test (1986). The print is colossal: the hand and arm fill a four-foot plank that tapers, crowding against the limb’s outline. The forms are cut grossly, with repeated visible gashes by knives and gouges. Distended, ropey veins mar the inner arm and a white scar interrupts the base of the bicep.

To give only three of many possible characterizations of the artist: Avery is a gay man, an artist and a physician, specifically a psychiatrist. Blood Test documents his first HIV test, taken in 1986 when death was the certain outcome of AIDS: “My pretest counseling indicated that I was at risk for getting a positive result. During the stressful two weeks while I waited for my results (HIV negative), I drew my arm and cut the image.”1 To draw blood and to draw its representation is a strange enough confluence of language, but to compound this with the verb “cut,” with its implication of bleeding . . .

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  1. Eric Avery’s website, http://www.ericaveryartist.com, consulted 10 May 2016. See this website for the artist’s biography and a catalog with images of his prints and art actions. The actual, complex processes of making many of the prints are often illustrated, as well as the sources of many of the images in earlier artworks. []