Hunger Artist

The Timely Resurrection of David Wojnarowicz

The year was 1982, the venue an artists' space in Queens known as P.S. 1. There, amid the green-haired glitz of a group show featuring soon-to-be discovered East Village artists, the same lanky, scruffy dude I'd seen painting on the sex pier was presiding over an installation called Roach Bunnies. On a plaster pedestal, he'd placed cockroaches with tiny glued-on rabbit ears, and every time they scurried off, he would gently pick them up in his gigantic hands and put them back.

David was fascinated by insects, spiders, and stray mutts, and they all figured in his iconography. But as this particular piece attested, he was also interested in making art out of anything that crossed his path, from driftwood to liquor bottles and occasionally even canvas. "He was never still," says Rauffenbart. "He was always doodling and cutting and writing. If he had matches, he'd make men out of them. It was constant, constant. There was this core in David you could never touch, this dense place in him that seemed to absorb stuff like a sponge, and everywhere he went, he just soaked it up."

By now, the details of his early life are the stuff of Downtown legend. The son of an alcoholic father who beat him with boards, David hustled men for cash and comfort from the age of nine. His writing includes harrowing depictions of male rape, along with the most tender homosexual encounters, all of it related with a pain and longing that gave his most polemical statements an experiential authority. His self-portraits and performances extended the terrain of his prose, building a powerful persona: part punk, part priest, part James Dean. (Ever conscious of his image, David refused to wear anything but denim, except to funerals and obscenity trials.) But for all his basso profundo at the mike and his Cocteau way with a cigarette, David had an unguarded imagination that expressed itself most freely in his paintings. Beneath the fevered imagery, you can see the man who once spent days calming down a cat that had been singed in a fire, and the beaten boy whose screams would ring in his older sister's ears.

© estate of Peter Hujar, courtesy of James Danziger gallery

As a former caseworker, Tom Rauffenbart knew all about child abuse when he met David in the basement of a gay porn theater. Their relationship was stormy but enduring, and when David got sick, it was Tom who nursed him, dealt with his terror, and heard his dreams. "David had the most elaborate dream life of anyone I'd ever met," he says. "A lot of sexual dreams, of course, but they were very visual and complex, and he would always remember them. I know his dreams would haunt him during the day, and toward the end, they really frightened him because they were about dying. I got so sick of hearing about it when he'd tell me he'd had a dream that I'd say, 'Who killed you this time?' "

Death was no stranger to David. Even before he came down with AIDS, he had witnessed the fatal trajectory of HIV in his friend and mentor, the photographer Peter Hujar. "They were more and less than lovers," says Tom. It was Peter who gave David his lean and hungry look, and who inducted him into the Diane Arbus school of radical humanism. Both men honed each other's sensibility, but they also shared something more intangible: an attitude you might call palpability. This was partly an expression of the Eastern European mysticism in the recesses of their identity (as it was for Andy Warhol). But it also reflected a distinctly gay sense of the sacred in the profane. It's almost as if the acuity of Oscar Wilde and Arthur Rimbaud, Tennessee Williams and Frank O'Hara, had passed by cultural osmosis to Hujar and then, through the exchange of semen and soul, to David. After Peter died, David took over his apartment, and he took to wearing Peter's clothing, just as David's art now covers Tom's living-room walls.

Looking at the painting David made for Tom— more serene than his usual dreamscapes, with an almost fetal head peering out among the planets in a deep-blue celestial background— I thought of the last time I'd seen David alive. He was sleeping, and the light that fell across his body was refracted through the glass beads of necklaces he had strung over his bed. I'd known about David's fascination with women's jewelry, but now I was struck by this prism of color. It was a far more powerful metaphor than drag, something aesthetic and yet utterly infantile. Even dying, he was making installation art. It spoke to the greatest mystery about David: how a child who seemed destined to become a psychopath could grow into an artist with such power to capture the inchoate energy of his time. The answer is that, for people like David, the struggle to reconcile a painfully acute imagination with an impossibly brutal world can only be expressed through art.

In "A Hunger Artist," Franz Kafka tells the story of a man whose masterpiece is starving himself. His reputation rises at first, but then the times change, and no one is interested in the art of fasting. Still, he persists. "I have to fast, I can't help it," he explains to the manager of the circus where he ends up. But why? the manager asks. "Because I couldn't find the food I liked."

David Wojnarowicz was that kind of artist. How fitting that he should return in such a gluttonous but hungry time.

Research: André Bishay

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