Hyun Mi Oh is a writer, filmmaker and design entrepreneur. Her friendship with Hugh Steers took root in downtown New York in the late ’80s and deepened after she moved to Los Angeles, most meaningfully through letters that trace the painter’s personal and artistic growth during the final years of his illness. Here, Hyun Mi reflects on her friendship with Steers for Visual AIDS and shares images of the letters that Hugh wrote to her. The reflection was originally posted on the Yale AIDS Memorial Project website, where other moving tributes to Steers can be read.

Hyun Mi will be in conversation about Steers’s life and artwork with Nicola Goode, Steers’s friend and former roommate, as well as Visual AIDS Programs Manager Alex Fialho, at the Los Angeles Art Book Fair (LAABF) on Friday, February 12, at 1 p.m. at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA; more information here. Visual AIDS will launch the Hugh Steers monograph in Los Angeles at the LAABF from February 12-14.

I was always late. For our cof­fee and din­ner dates, our long walks and talks in Cen­tral Park, for vis­its to his stu­dio and the many club hops that shaped our nights. I can see him sit­ting on a stoop or stand­ing on a street cor­ner expec­tantly look­ing out for me--sometimes wor­ried, never mad--and the delight spring­ing to his face when he spotted me. No one since has ever been quite as happy to see me as Hugh was every time we met. This mem­ory vis­its me often, the image of him wait­ing for me.

Long before his diag­no­sis, Hugh took time seri­ously and couldn’t bear to waste any of it. I remem­ber after our grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony while most of us were milling about dazed and con­fused, Hugh was packed and dressed to board the train for New York where he was to start his job at the Dia Art Foundation the next morn­ing. No boozy farewells for him, his eyes were on the prize: to become an artist of the first order. There was also the real­ity of sup­port­ing him­self, hav­ing lit­tle access to the sto­ried wealth he descended from. His family came with heavy bag­gage, though none of it bear­ing any of that old money. Hugh was on his own. He saw the steps ahead of him so clearly: to per­fect the paint­ing techniques nec­es­sary to build a sin­gu­lar and endur­ing body of work, then to go out and hus­tle it. For Hugh this meant a monk­ish dis­ci­pline, and even more impres­sive, a refusal to aban­don fig­u­ra­tive paint­ing at a time when few were buy­ing or even con­sid­er­ing represen­ta­tional art.

Our friend­ship blos­somed after Yale, first in New York, then most mem­o­rably in the let­ters we exchanged once I moved to Los Angeles to become a film­maker. We both knew he was HIV pos­i­tive by then. Long dis­tance calls were expen­sive, so we con­sciously dipped back into an epis­to­lary mode, exchang­ing let­ters, music and clip­pings of writ­ing and ideas that thrilled us. Mostly, we con­soled each other through our hap­less attempts at love. Hugh talked about what the dis­ease was doing to him and his work. He was hes­i­tant at first to make his ill­ness a sub­ject in his paint­ings, think­ing it would make them merely topical or social com­men­tary. Inevitably though, liv­ing with AIDS quick­ened the pulse of his work and acted like a cru­cible to dis­till what was most vital and pre­cious to him.

In a let­ter after one of his art shows proved less than ground­break­ing, he wrote: “I sort of feel like Bette Midler’s descrip­tion of the Rose, ’She gave and gave ’til no one gave a shit.’ In the cre­ative arts, one spends all this time in iso­la­tion work­ing and nobody knows or cares what you’re doing.” Still, Hugh pressed on and grew ever more deter­mined in his approach to paint­ing.

I’ve finally come to accept my lack of facility or capacity to convincingly shift styles as a virtue... I think I value single-mindedness, a “burn all bridges” approach. To me it signifies the Artist has put everything on the line and that lends power to the work.

Hugh was right about his art. His paint­ing evolved into a sin­gu­lar style that grew in inten­sity and focus, and near his death, took flight. In his last series of paint­ings, “Hos­pi­tal Man,” a heroic, angelic fig­ure, gives exquis­ite form to Hugh’s reck­on­ing with death.

My Hospital Man series is coming along nicely. In fact, it’s literally taking off. I have this idea for a painting where Hospital Man is ascending off the canvas upper-right, his body visible only from the chest down, nude under his billowing hospital gown and sporting some lite [sic], airy white sling backs (not the usual mega-platforms). Lower left is a supine Adonis “expired” after sex or illness. I’m really going off, but I think my technique is there to make it work. Remember how we talked about one’s art creating one’s consciousness rather than exposing some pre-existing truth?

Pour­ing every­thing he had into his work--his humor, rage, intel­li­gence, and most of all, his ten­der heart--he took his own death in hand and pulled off a sub­lime exit. Hugh soared.

I am rarely late now. After Hugh died, run­ning late would often trig­ger the image of him wait­ing for me, and oh, the remorse! It took me to mid­dle age to finally catch up to Hugh’s burn­ing sense of time and pur­pose and return to a long deferred dream to write. If I’m lucky now, I have 20 years to become a writer I would want to read. It feels late in the game, but then I remem­ber what Hugh was able to do in a hand­ful of years. I can hear him say­ing, “Girl, what are you wait­ing for? Get to work.”