Over the years you may have seen graphics, paintings, and films by David Wojnarowicz, and read his writings, but his retrospective at the Whitney coalesces into a sum greater than art. Rarely has an artist’s life been as intricately entwined with the objects on view — a visual life story.
Wojnarowicz was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, in 1954. The Voice began covering his art and activities in 1983, writing with an intimacy that at times matched the artist’s own intensity. As C. Carr put it in her August 1992 obituary (which includes her emphatic italics), “David Wojnarowicz died of AIDS last week. He was his own best chronicler and the epidemic’s visionary witness. Seeing the larger meaning of each life, each death, came so naturally to him. His paintings found the universe in a grain of sand. His writing traced the epidemic unfolding in a single body, now the repository of so many voices and memories and gestures of those who didn’t make it. AIDS had sharpened an already keen sense of mortality, a feeling that was rooted in his brutal childhood and in his teen years spent living on New York City’s streets, hustling.”
Carr’s heartfelt testimonial is below, along with reviews and observations from more than a decade of Voice reporting, when Wojnarowicz was just starting to make a mark on downtown, and then on the world. The Whitney exhibition David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night is on view through September 30.
In June 1983, Wojnarowicz and artist Mike Bidlo led a group of artists in taking over an abandoned enclosed pier jutting into the Hudson River. As Richard Goldstein reported, the space opened up vast possibilities: “For some artists, the pier represented a chance to work in limitless scale, to paint with brush or roller fixed to the end of a broom and then stand back 40 feet from a work in execution — an unprecedented privilege for those who live in cramped East Village apartments.”
The concept of such an encompassing vista seems a metaphor, in retrospect, for the incredible reach of Wojnarowicz’s accomplishments. When he was 24 years old, the artist began photographing friends around New York City, each of whom wore a cutout mask for the series Arthur Rimbaud in New York. The images in the Whitney show are striking — denizens of the demimonde portraying one of modernism’s original and lasting artistic outlaws — partly because of the simple formal intervention of placing the two-dimensional mask on figures in real-life settings, thus achieving a weird and powerful visual shift in the photographs.
By 1990, Elizabeth Hess was following Wojnarowicz to the aptly named Normal, Illinois, to report on this quintessential New Yorker’s reception in the heartland: “The next morning, the show of 50 paintings, photographs, and sculptures by a homosexual artist who talks about post-diagnosis art, rather than postmodern art, opens to the public. ‘When you say you have AIDS most media people think you’re nothing but a disease on two legs,’ Wojnarowicz says to a local reporter, who quotes him.” Later, Hess adds, “It’s no secret that David Wojnarowicz is living with the virus. In his performance he makes it painfully clear that people with AIDS are alive and kicking. Kicking the government, the church, and anyone who propagates the lie that gay people are getting what they deserve.”
A few months later, Hess reports on Wojnarowicz’s battle with Donald Wildmon, “the reverend from Tupelo, Mississippi, [who] has been working overtime to destroy the National Endowment for the Arts. To accomplish this, the director of the American Family Association has developed a rewarding method. First he whips up censorship controversies, then he milks them for everything they’re worth, depositing the money in the AFA’s tax-exempt bank account.”
When Hess phones Wildmon’s organization to ask for details on the group’s attack on Wojnarowicz’s art, she is put through to “someone who identified himself as Allen. ‘Hi, Elizabeth,’ he said. ‘We have no comment for The Village Voice.’ Allen hung up on me so fast I was left listening to a dial tone.”
Nothing like the courage of one’s convictions.
In November 1990, Hess compares and contrasts shows by Wojnarowicz and Jean Michel Basquiat. She quotes Wojnarowicz: “ ‘When I was a kid I went into the back yard and tried to dig a hole to China with a shovel and a bucket. After an entire afternoon I hadn’t even left New Jersey.’ This text, printed on two of Wojnarowicz’s photos, is funny. But the artist still hasn’t left home. In both exhibitions, Basquiat and Wojnarowicz dig through the rubble of their memories.”
Less than two years later, Wojnarowicz is dead. “He had a last Christmas on the IV-drug user’s ward at Cabrini, saying of the junkies, ‘They accepted me right away,’ ” Carr writes in her obituary of Wojnarowicz, in the August 4, 1992, issue. “But he hated the chaos and noise, the televisions blaring and people shouting and carolers bumming everybody out. It was like trying to get better in a subway car, he complained.” The caption to the photo in Carr’s piece sums up what one feels at the Whitney exhibition: “David was someone who recreated himself with his art; who came to believe the truth of his experience and desire.”
In the following issue, Guy Trebay reports on a group of 300 mourners who engaged in a “spontaneous funeral march” for the beloved artist. “As the procession snaked through the East Village, drums beating, curious restaurant patrons pressed against windows. A woman stood on a street corner outside a yuppie eatery to applaud. On Avenue A a bicyclist stopped and silently raised a fist. At the intersections, marchers split off and automatically formed human chains to block traffic, a tactic learned from years of demonstrations made necessary by the epidemic.”
The next month Hess weighs in again, arguing that Wojnarowicz, working amid a plague that made the political as personal as it could get, had succeeded “in resisting pre-conceived notions of ‘good’ art — which are not unconnected to preconceived notions of ‘good’ family values.”
The following year, C. Carr reports on a film then in progress about Wojnarowicz’s life, which was partially based on his “infamous essay,” Postcards From America: X-rays From Hell. “Like so much of his writing and painting and photography and installation, ‘Postcards’ describes the larger meaning of a single struggle — this time, that of an anxious friend with disappearing T cells who sits at his kitchen table saying, ‘There are no more people in their thirties. We’re all dying out.’ While David’s work always had a layer of moral outrage, this essay burned with apocalyptic visions of real enemies (‘fat cannibal’ Cardinal O’Connor) and fantastical retribution (dousing Jessie Helms with gasoline), and concluded with the furious directive to ‘throw my body on the steps of the White House.’ ”
We’ll conclude with an early Voice take on Wojnarowicz by Goldstein, from a wrap-up feature about 1983’s cultural heroes and villains (which includes a Peter Hujar photo of the artist that has the formal and emotional gravitas of a Max Beckmann painting). The short item appeared in the January 3, 1984, issue, and Wojnarowicz got a big thumbs-up: “The artist makes his work in the field and brings it to market wherever it fits. As an aesthetic nomad, he’s the spirit of East Village art.”