David Wojnarowicz was angry enough to become a murderer, but instead he became an artist. Again and again, in his writings, he imagines himself committing savage acts— “tipping amazonian blowdarts in ‘infected blood’ and spitting them at the exposed necklines of certain politicians or nazi-preachers,” or “blast[ing] through the gates of the white house” and dumping AIDS corpses on the front steps. You can still feel Wojnarowicz’s searing, well-aimed rage, the ranting clarity, and the pressured urgency as you walk through the retrospective of his multimedia art at the New Museum.
Wojnarowicz’s story is romantic, but his work is not. His bio reads like Malcolm Lowry on a Dante jag: abused, abandoned, kidnapped; orphanage, prostitution, heroin, hustling; Paris, San Francisco, NYC; AIDS, death at 38. Wojnarowicz is a choppy artist— unstoppable when he’s on, rough and weak when he’s off. Curator Dan Cameron locates the undeniability in Wojnarowicz’s art and avoids the myth. He lets you see how this artist pushed himself until he found some metaphysical escape hatch, some sphere where suffering, incredulity, vulnerability, and queer love merge into an enraptured lamentation, where rage transforms into a love that has the power to change the world.
Wojnarowicz was a pound-of-flesh vigilante, activist, painter, photographer, printmaker, performer, musician, writer, whatever-it-takes kind of artist. As a gay man whose whole existence was deemed “unnatural,” Wojnarowicz developed a highly charged feel for nature, science, and archaeology. He lived the life of an outsider, but in his work he is something of an insider. His art brings together the three dominant strains of the ’80s: neo-expressionism, photo appropriation, and graffiti, tempered by the intensely sexual, almost classical, no-nonsense photography of his friend, mentor, and onetime lover, Peter Hujar. But first and last he is a witness.
One of the first things you’ll see in this show is a hauntingly funny series of black-and-white photographs titled Arthur Rimbaud in New York (197879). A lanky man (not Wojnarowicz) wearing a Rimbaud mask stands in various New York locations: Coney Island, 42nd Street, the gay piers. The series reveals Wojnarowicz’s aching, youthful identification with this gay icon and rebel, and a penchant for disjointed, mystical slippage: here’s this gay ghost watching over the outlaw edges of the city. It’s simultaneously ridiculous and compelling.
Next, Wojnarowicz paints and stencils over supermarket posters. In one, a buff, bare-chested soldier is shot, while in another a man sits up in bed, startled by a rumbling at the door. Here sex, death, and cartoons mingle freely. By the mid ’80s, he is making installations, sculpture, and painting on pig skulls, tree trunks, and garbage-can lids. His “expressionism” is rawer and more personal than his peers’, his “graffiti” more pointed and less arty. In 1987, a quartet of paintings based on the four elements raises his art to a new level, as he depicts a world under attack. And then his world changed.
On January 3, 1987, Peter Hujar was diagnosed as suffering from pneumocystis pneumonia and AIDS. By November 26, he was dead. A few months after that, Wojnarowicz himself tested positive for HIV. Untitled (Hujar Dead) (198889) is a painting of this crucial moment, and in a way, all his remaining moments.
A Wojnarowicz text is superimposed over a delicate, collaged border of cut-up money, broken words, maps in the shape of spermatozoa, and nine black-and-white photographs of Hujar taken just after his death by Wojnarowicz. Anyone who has experienced the enormity, the earth-stopping stillness of the moment when the life force leaves a body will recognize the profound reverence and implacable sadness of these images. Here, Wojnarowicz lingers over Hujar’s face, feet, hands, and body one last time, taking one last look; he caresses him with his camera— loves him, heals him, weeps for him, and says goodbye to him. He seems to say, “Everything is over; everything has just begun.”
The text— the longest he had ever incorporated into his work— leads you through a psychological door few of us have ever opened. It is a powerful confession filled with bloodthirsty, kamikaze scorn; a political manifesto; and a warning that “as each T cell disappears from my body, it’s replaced by ten pounds of pressure, ten pounds of rage.” It is a declaration of indignation, retaliation, and endless anger.
Wojnarowicz got caught in a crossfire of denial and ignorance. “As a society we had to endure the media spectacle surrounding the polyps in Ronald Reagan’s asshole,” he wrote,
” . . . and yet for the eight years during his presidency, he was completely silent about the AIDS epidemic.” After the silence ended, the geopolitical buck-passing began. America believed AIDS came from Africa. In Africa, Rwanda and Zambia blamed Zaire, while Uganda blamed Tanzania. The Soviet Union said it was a “foreign problem,” and France blamed Morocco. Meanwhile, back in America, the same folks who poured their hearts out for Jerry’s Kids on Labor Day burned down the houses of children diagnosed with AIDS. As Camus said, “Each one of us has the plague within us.”
After Untitled (Hujar Dead),
Wojnarowicz must have decided that painting wouldn’t do it anymore. He wanted to work faster and speak to the widest possible audience, so he turned more to photography, writing, and performance. Now Wojnarowicz’s courage, humiliation, and eye-for-an-eye fury comes into full focus, and as he acts as a witness to his own dying, the love that had been born of rage turns to terror. Cameron has included three rooms where you can hear and watch Wojnarowicz’s final readings and performances. It is a potent, painful sight; you can feel him dying. It is in these rooms that he is the most totally angry, the most totally beautiful. If it is possible to free the spirit with incantatory rage and howling passion, then you are seeing Wojnarowicz do this, and it’s devastating.
On July 22, 1992, Wojnarowicz died. Allen Ginsberg wrote Howl in 1956; in the 1980s and early ’90s, David Wojnarowicz lived it. Both Ginsberg and Wojnarowicz sing a song of America and otherness, and the last line of Howl feels written for Wojnarowicz from us all: “in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night.”