By Albert Samaha
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Seven years after his death, David Wojnarowicz, the essential '80s East Village artist, is back with a bang. Four galleries have joined the New Museum in mounting a major retrospective of his work, a new collection of his diaries has just been published, a CD-ROM is imminent, and last week The New York Times bestowed the posthumous honor of four-color reproduction on his reputation. What would David think of all this? Hard to say, given his temperament, which was a mixture of contempt for fame and sheer hamminess. He might feel pissed off but secretly delighted to see himself lionized at the New School, which is holding three seminars on his art, but how would David feel walking past Saks Fifth Avenue, where, beginning Thursday, his work will grace Versace's spring collection in the shop windows across the street from St. Patrick's Cathedral?
"These are things he may have wanted or not," says Tom Rauffenbart, the executor of Wojnarowicz's estate, and his lover for the last seven years of his life. "I never know. I mean, David's dead."
Nothing complements a radical artist like a painful death. And ever since that happened to Wojnarowicz his insides gutted by surgery, his mind drifting in what Rauffenbart describes as "a sweet dementia" his star has been rising in the firmament where art and commerce meet. At a time when high culture is remote from social reality (it better be if it wants to be funded), and gay art is as buffed as a Chelsea Boy at brunch (it better be if it wants to be bought), David stands as the emblem of a time when the outcast artist was no mere myth. His paintings, photographs, videos, and writings epitomize the risky business of being queer, bashed, and sick to death.
David was all three, and he wielded a persona out of Rimbaud with a terrible intensity. Like his hero of a century ago, David staked out a pose calculated to skewer the bourgeoisie, but, more like Jean Genêt, he felt compelled to evoke a reality so extreme and yet so tangible that you could smell the cigarette breath in his work. You still can, even though, as David once wrote, he felt himself to be "a glass human disappearing in rain."
In the years since he actually disappeared, the hate that sparked his incendiary art has been obscured by tolerance. In liberal circles, AIDS has become, if not truly manageable, at least acceptable; gay has become, if not welcome, at least winsome; and David's work has become like hiphop in the suburbs an exotic reminder of a dicier, more dangerous milieu. Though, as Rauffenbart notes, museums all over the country including the Met, the Modern, and the Whitney passed on the current Wojnarowicz show, that could change now that the Timeshas weighed in with a serious assessment of his work. But just as gay sex has gone private, David's art is being stripped of its provocation. Instead of illustrating Holland Cotter's perceptive piece with David's trademark iconography of two boys fucking or kissing, the Timeschose paintings in which no male touches another.
Saks will show a similar restraint. "We're sensitive to the fact that this is a retail store, and so we're trying not to offend anyone," says Mary Dinaburg, the store's art curator. The work she selected for display "is very edgy, even though it isn't sexually explicit." So much for Rauffenbart's advice: "Since it's facing St. Patrick's, show pointing dicks."
Yet the symbolism of a Wojnarowicz work impinging on the cathedral remains compelling. After all, David's descriptions of Cardinal John O'Connor whom he once called "a fat cannibal . . . in black skirts" were part of what got the same conservatives who are currently stalking Bill Clinton to attack the National Endowment for the Arts. A comic book based on Wojnarowicz's writings features an image of him as a giant demolishing St. Patrick's. What a strange trip it's been from those heady days to a time when this same artist could be seen as a way to "bring the Uptown/Downtown traffic together," as Andréas Kurz, the CEO of Versace Classic, puts it. "For us, Wojnarowicz was a natural choice, because of his themes of sexuality and his protest against society. Versace has always been, how shall I say, not mainstream."
Buy a Versace garment at Saks this week and you'll get a free pass to the New Museum, where you can see the work up close and purchase a T-shirt of David's burning house. He made the image as a stencil, and in the uncivilized '70s, he spray-painted it on walls all over Downtown. Today, such a gesture would brand him as a quality-of-life offender, as would the extraordinary work David did on a pier used by gay men having sex huge murals that lowered like phantom frescos from some priapic Pompeii. Rauffenbart remembers when David awoke one night at the height of his dementia, pulled the tubes out of his arms, and walked into the shower.
"What are you doing?" Tom asked.
"I'm going up to Times Square naked," David replied. It was the stuff of his art, his life, his imagination stuff you can only get away with these days in a fashion ad or at a museum.