'Untitled Memory' is a ghostly projection the artist set up in a place he once shared with the late Axel. SHIMON ATTIE (JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK)

It was a glorious party.

There was a gym in the Castro where all the hottest boys went in the 1970s. They curled, pressed, and celebrated at a safe remove from the loathing of millions, laying their sweaty bodies out on brown leather benches.

Stretched like the Shroud of Turin, and contained within a Plexiglas box ringed by a golden frame, the actual leather of one of those workout benches hangs at the Tacoma Art Museum today.

It's a work of art by Daniel Goldstein, who made it in 1993 when the gym gave away its old, stained stuff. Goldstein didn't see it as trash. He noted a strange power in its salty, ghostly profile. He saw an animal hide that had unwittingly become a recording device, a relic from the collective body of the first generation hit by AIDS.

That piece glows and pulses at the center of a crowd of 127 artworks in Art AIDS America at TAM. Art AIDS America is an epic and a national treasure. It's the first time curators have hypothesized that this epidemic was the defining force that changed American art of the 1980s and 1990s—that American art would not be what it is now without AIDS.

That's an intriguing and daring proposition that deserves to be discussed at the highest levels of the art world. When Art AIDS America travels to New York, Chicago, and Atlanta in 2016 (it had a small preview in Los Angeles last summer), it will be at low-profile museums, despite being strong enough artistically for any of the major institutions. How did TAM pull it off?

A mound of credit goes to TAM curator Rock Hushka, who toiled on Art AIDS America for more than 10 years, and TAM director Stephanie Stebich, who backed him in producing both the exhibition and a forthcoming book.

"We'll leave the blue-chip stuff" to bigger museums, Stebich said to me.

Behind the scenes, Art AIDS America is a litmus test for what American museums can accomplish in 2015. Bigger usually does mean better in terms of permanent holdings, but in generating new ideas, large institutions are often hamstrung by their own scale, and by the pressure to behave like big businesses.

For now, it needs to be said straight up: Little old Tacoma Art Museum is doing more to advance the story of American art than any other museum in the Pacific Northwest. Art AIDS America is not perfect. Its incarnation in the galleries is far too crowded; the museum should have emptied all its galleries for this. As much as you can, push through that surface problem, even if you find it frightening to confront the messy, contradictory ideas and bodies the show manifests.

AIDS is a force that remains unspoken when many of the leading artists of our time are presented and discussed, except when their works directly reference HIV or AIDS. I'm referring to artists like Jasper Johns, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Jenny Holzer, Robert Gober, Nan Goldin, Charles LeDray, Annie Leibovitz, Kiki Smith, Keith Haring, Barbara Kruger, Scott Burton, Ross Bleckner, Catherine Opie, Lari Pittman, and Darren Waterston.

All those artists are in Art AIDS America. The lineup is impressive.

But Art AIDS America is more than a list, it's a trifecta. It has brilliant leading artists. Its rhetoric is driven by strong and bold ideas. And it introduces obscure, deserving artists like Hugh Steers and Ray Navarro (who I predict will become a new favorite after this show), both of whom died young.

Of all the artists in Art AIDS America—76 male, 21 female, and 1 trans—33 are self-identified as HIV positive, while 23 have died of HIV-related causes.

TAM curator Hushka began dreaming of Art AIDS America in graduate school, where he wrote his thesis on activist group Gran Fury. Gran Fury hovers over TAM like a visitation, in a large-scale projected re-creation of the group's landmark 1987 window display in New York at the New Museum. Its dark glow excoriates Ronald Reagan, Jerry Falwell, and other power players who threw vitriol at dying people and stymied research that might have saved their lives in the early, raging years.

Jonathan Katz is Hushka's cocurator, a devoted scholar, and an impenitent provocateur. He also cocurated Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, the landmark queer exhibition that traveled the nation picking up protests from the Catholic Church. It, too, spent a season at stalwart TAM (in 2012).

Katz happens to have worked out on those actual leather benches in the Castro. His sweat is in the gallery.

When Hushka gave his opening remarks for the exhibition last week, in front of a group of press people, he broke down and cried. I've been writing about Hushka for 15 years, and his presence is unfailingly deadpan. I'd never seen anything like this.

Well, yes, but Art AIDS America is about Katz and Hushka, right? That feels like too narrow a reading. I think their sweat and tears are visible in this exhibition, rather than hidden, for meaningful reasons.

There are two kinds of works in Art AIDS America. First are the ones you expect. They're loud, vociferous, mournful, classics of the AIDS art genre, fearlessly explicit on multiple fronts.

They bleed: Robert Sherer's beautifully rendered sweet william flowers drawn in HIV-negative and HIV-positive blood; sadomasochistic performance rituals where HIV-positive Ron Athey and HIV-negative Julie Tolentino flirt with the reality of seroconversion.

They are sexual: A large painting by Lari Pittman called Spiritual and Needy (1991–92) is an ornamental fantasia of dripping, throbbing body parts and glowing messages like "f-me!" and "69."

And they depict illness and death, as in Mark Morrisroe's 1989 Polaroid self-portraits, so frank that they keep an element of Morrisroe irrepressibly alive.

You don't expect the works that are sly, quiet, and indirect, continuing to pump out meanings through ambiguity. They defy the notion that AIDS was a brief, "tragic tangent" that's now over, rather than a productive, present-tense line of artmaking, Katz says. That AIDS meant only death, rather than that it meant and means so very many things.

In fact, almost nothing about AIDS is over. A new HIV infection is diagnosed in the United States every 10.5 minutes, and according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that rate has increased recently.

The first gallery immediately presents the tension between expressiveness and restraint. There are segments of the AIDS Memorial Quilt and drawings that you may never recover from, they will so thoroughly rend your heart, made by Larry Stanton at the hopeful start and tragic end of his final hospital stay. There is a photograph of a trashed New Jersey bedroom that Peter Hujar took in 1985, as part of a series of civic ruin shots, not apparently about AIDS at all. Charles LeDray says his teddy bear from 1991, costumed impeccably and lying in a white-satin coffin in a glass vitrine, is not AIDS-related—but he gladly approved it for this exhibition anyway.

As Hushka and Katz like to say, even when it's not about AIDS, it's about AIDS.

It may be hard to see now, given recent museum exhibitions reclaiming the importance of feminist, performance, African American, and Latino art, but for a very long time, museums and art-history departments presented the blank stares and formal innovations of minimalism and conceptual art as the highest forms of high art in the late 20th century. The "death of the author" (and the rise of the viewer) was a popular idea in postmodernism—until those authors actually started dying, Katz notes.

But even when things got real, art couldn't. If artists wanted to be in museums, they couldn't freely express what they were experiencing related to HIV and AIDS. Any museum that got federal funding was forbidden to display work that made explicit reference to homosexuality or AIDS, thanks to a legal statute authored by then–North Carolina Republican senator Jesse Helms.

AIDS itself, sexual identity, and the ways AIDS manifested the filter of preexisting American conditions of race, gender, class, and religion? These were still all off-limits, and remained so within the genteel walls of museums (and still remain so in plenty of museums).

Artists smuggled their real lives into works that looked like minimalism, and continue to. Gonzalez-Torres is a classic example of what mainstream art history terms "postminimalist," but what Katz would simply call post-AIDS, meaning any art, even to this day (in Seattle, for example, take Lead Pencil Studio), "using subterfuge to instill expressive meanings in works that seem to have no social or political content."

Smuggling.

At TAM, you see Gonzalez-Torres's giant blue-and-silvery beaded curtain from a distance at first, at the end of an ascending pathway, and it appears light, airy, almost disco. But then you walk through it. You feel it push back. Those twinkling beads are so heavy.

Gonzalez-Torres said he wanted to be like HIV, which tricks the immune system into manufacturing the very material it's designed to destroy. He saw museums as an immune system that "protected" people from the likes of him—gay, brown, born in a communist country, painfully mortal. So he designed his art to infiltrate, to appear acceptable to the point that museums pumped it back out again. He died before he turned 39, but his art still spreads. recommended