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 Times has 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 Times chose 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.
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.
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
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.