15 March 2011

David Wojnarowicz

[16 March will be ROT’s second anniversary. I’m very pleased to have made it to that benchmark, and I hope to keep the blog going for some time into the future. This profile of artist and activist David Wojnarowicz, whose work I got to know after his death, will serve as the anniversary article, the 159th I’ve published on the site. While I haven’t written all the articles, I have selected them all, and my one intention has been to keep a variety of topics and ideas before the readers. I think I’ve managed that to a small degree at least, and I hope my choices have been interesting—and, in some way, instructive. I’m sure readers of ROT will find the subject of this profile, who found himself once again at the center of recent controversy, one of the most fascinating in the two years of the blog. ~Rick]

On 1 December 2010, Martin E. Sullivan, director of the National Portrait Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution, removed a video from its exhibit Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture which, according to the museum’s website, was “the first major museum exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture.” (In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll state now that my late father had been a docent at the Portrait Gallery for several years in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.) The video, A Fire in My Belly, was made in 1986-87 by artist David Wojnarowicz, a painter, photographer, videographer, sculptor, writer, and activist (among other things) who died of AIDS in 1992 at 37. Fire is a kaleidoscopic, two-part film (one part’s 13 minutes long, the other’s seven) of scattered scenes, many filmed in Mexico, intended to communicate the suffering of people with AIDS—it was made at the time Wojnarowicz saw his best friend die of the disease and when he learned he had it also—but Wojnarowicz used multifarious images to make his point. One of the scenes, 11 seconds long, included in the four-minute excerpt at the museum, displays ants crawling over a crucifix. It was this scene that riled William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, who claimed that the video was anti-Catholic “hate speech” and galvanized several prominent conservative politicians and public figures to pressure the Smithsonian to remove the offending clip from the exhibit. (On a holiday trip to Washington, I saw Hide/Seek, which ran from 30 October 2010 to 13 February 2011.)

Explaining why A Fire in My Belly belonged in Hide/Seek, New York Times art critic Holland Cotter wrote:

And crucial elements missing from much of the exhibition—personal and political anger, formal rawness, overt spirituality—are embodied in that work. In a sense the video was missing even when it was here: it was edited down for the occasion to barely 4 minutes from 20. But to have removed it entirely because of ideological strong-arming was to violate the premise and the promise of the show: difference was sent back into hiding.

I’ve said before (most notably in “The First Amendment & The Arts,” 8 May 2010 on ROT) that I’m close to a First Amendment absolutist. With few exceptions, I oppose suppression of artistic or intellectual expression, censorship by government action or private intimidation. I especially oppose it when its a matter of someone’s sensitivities being offended. (Not everything you don’t like is hate speech.) We’re grown-ups: we should be able to take that and fight back like adults—speaking out and protesting. Suppression is just not an acceptable method of fighting expression you don’t like. We shouldn’t have to run off to tattle to the principal every time someone calls us a name. (Ironically, it’s usually the schoolyard bully who does the name-calling; in this case, the bully is the tattler.) There’s no Constitutional protection against hurt feelings. And Wojnarowicz had a valid point to make: like Terrence McNally in his 1998 play Corpus Christi, also an object of attempted suppression (including again by Donohue and his organization, which ironically claims to stand for free speech), Wojnarowicz had long been angry at the Catholic Church’s treatment of homosexuals and the Church was often one target of his activism. (Also like McNally, Wojnarowicz was raised Catholic. He had some horrific childhood memories of brutal treatment by the nuns who taught him.) In other words, this wasn’t just a blind gesture of anti-Catholic antagonism—the artist had something to say that even the Church should hear. In the New York Times, Michael Kimmelman called the video “a spiritual cri de coeur.” Leo Shapiro, the stage director whom I’ve mentioned often on ROT, believed that artists are society’s oracles. “The point of an oracle,” Shapiro asserted, “—you support the oracle, you don’t support what it says. It doesn’t always give you good news.”

Wojnarowicz wasn’t unfamiliar with this kind of clamor during his lifetime. Some of you may recognize the artist’s name as the plaintiff of a lawsuit that derived from another controversy over his art some two decades ago: David Wojnarowicz v. American Family Association and Donald E. Wildmon in 1990.

Wojnarowicz’s essay in the exhibit catalogue for Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, Artists Space’s 1989-90 show about the devastation of AIDS on the art community curated by photographer Nan Goldin, was assailed by such NEA opponents as then-North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms and California Congressmen Dana Rohrabacher and William Dannemeyer, members of what Paul Mattick of The Nation called “Helms and Co.” “Postcards from America: X-Rays from Hell” (reprinted in Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration by David Wojnarowicz [Vintage Books, 1991] and David Wojnarowicz: Tongues of Flame, edited by Barry Blinderman [University Galleries of Illinois State University, 1990]) engendered the wrath of conservative culture warriors because they claimed that public funds were used to publish the essay, which they had found offensive. (Wojnarowicz had called John Cardinal O’Connor, the Archbishop of New York City, “This fat cannibal from that house of walking swastikas” and described how in his imagination he’d “dowse Helms with a bucket of gasoline and set his putrid ass on fire,” for instance.) This scrutiny brought Wojnarowicz onto the radar screens of the conservative activists who had already threatened the NEA over an exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs in 1989 and would again over the “NEA Four” in 1990.

(In September 1989, the private Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., planned to host Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, inaugurated by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. The Perfect Moment, supported by an NEA grant, had run at the ICA in December and January 1988-89. Mapplethorpe decided to show a series of photographs that he’d explored shortly before his death on 9 March 1989 and the directorship of the Corcoran and several members of Congress were shocked when they saw the new works, which included homoerotic male nudes and depictions of gay sex. The museum refused to go forward with the exhibit and its organizers turned to the non-profit Washington Project for the Arts, which showed the photos in July and August 1989. The Perfect Moment went on to Boston and Cincinnati, and in April 1990, the director of Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center was indicted on obscenity charges for mounting the show. Although the CAA director was acquitted, the episode marked a serious point in the struggle between the forces of censorship and the advocates of free and open expression in the arts.

(In June 1990, NEA chairman John Frohnmayer, appointed by George H. W. Bush a year before, rejected grants for four performance artists—Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, Tim Miller, and John Fleck—due to “political realities.” This action was followed by a requirement that all NEA grant-recipients sign an anti-obscenity pledge. Many artists refused and rejected their grants, among them Joseph Papp of the New York Shakespeare Festival, now the Joseph Papp Public Theater. Stephen Sondheim turned down a 1992 National Medal of the Arts, awarded by the president and administered by the NEA, because he felt it would be hypocritical due to President Bush's policy concerning the Endowment; he accepted the award five years later from President Bill Clinton. In September 1990, the NEA Four, as they were by then known, sued the Endowment and the government settled in June 1993, admitting most of the charges of political influence in its grant-making decisions. The politicization of the arts agency went further than the four artists in the suit: additional targets included other performance artists, filmmakers, art publications, exhibitions, and performance venues. President Bush even made specific mention of a painting by David Wojnarowicz during his ex parte communications with Frohnmayer. Later, when Anne-Imelda Radice became interim chairman after Frohnmayer’s dismissal, the Endowment continued its content-based decisions by excluding gay and lesbian artists and projects. The NEA Four were awarded their original grants, but the Endowment ceased funding individual artists.)

From November to January 1990-91, Exit Art in New York’s SoHo mounted David Wojnarowicz: Tongues in Flame, a retrospective. Because the University Galleries of Illinois State University in Normal had originated the exhibit with an NEA grant, Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association launched a campaign against Wojnarowicz, combing through the show’s catalogue looking for sexual imagery. Wildmon then published in a pamphlet opposing funding for the NEA, sexually explicit excerpts of several of Wojnarowicz’s works and an image of Jesus as a drug addict from another painting. Wildmon sent the pamphlet to all members of Congress, among thousands of others, and in May 1990, Wojnarowicz sued Wildmon for libel and copyright infringement under the New York Artists' Authorship Rights Act. Wojnarowicz argued that since the published details were only small elements of the much larger paintings, they didn’t fairly represent the whole works. Wojnarowicz v. AFA was heard in June in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, attracting attention because of the issues. In August, the judge enjoined AFA from distributing the pamphlet further, but awarded the artist only $1 in damages. (Wojnarowicz apparently never cashed the check: it was among the papers and exhibits of the legal case from his effects that were donated to NYU and included in Reality and Realism: The Vision of David Wojnarowicz, a 1999 exhibition at the Fales Library, the rare materials collection within Bobst Library.) With the low award, both sides declared the outcome a victory.

Most of Wojnarowicz’s short life was fraught with hardship. If it wasn’t artistic or political, then it was personal. Born in Red Bank, New Jersey, on 14 September 1954, he dropped out of the High School of Music and Art in New York City, where he’d moved with his mother, at 16 and ran away from home to escape a violently abusive, alcoholic father. (David’s mother had divorced his father, a sailor on passenger ships, when the boy was two and gained custody of David and his brother and sister, but the children’s father kidnapped them and they lived with him, moving frequently and subject to constant abuse until David was nine. The father eventually returned the children to their mother, but they continued to live in fear of him until he hanged himself in 1981.) After hitchhiking cross country and back between 1970 and ‘73, Wojnarowicz settled again in New York City, living for a time on the streets and working as a prostitute (among other things). He recorded some of this life in a graphic (and autobiographic) novel, Seven Miles a Second (DC Comics, 1996), created with artist and cartoonist James Romberger. The world in which Wojnarowicz lived is also preserved in the monologues he transcribed from some of the people he met on the streets, published in The Waterfront Journals (Grove Press, 1996). The artist’s own journals have also been published: In the Shadow of the American Dream: The Diaries of David Wojnarowicz (Grove Press, 1999). His world’s also visible in much of Wojnarowicz’s art, especially his paintings, which often contain images and sometimes words reminiscent of his childhood. Sadly, when he died of AIDS on 22 July 1992—he was diagnosed in 1987, the year his closest friend and former lover, photographer Peter Hujar, died of the disease—he hadn’t gotten very far chronologically from that childhood.

As early as 1970, Wojnarowicz began writing and taking photographs (with a stolen camera and film) to document his life and the life he saw around him, and also as a way to take control of his life, which was already painful and difficult. His first major project, which he developed between 1978 and ’79, was Arthur Rimbaud in New York in which Wojnarowicz photographed a friend wearing a mask of Rimbaud’s face in various places around the city as he engaged in different activities—riding the subway, standing in an abandoned warehouse, masturbating on a bed. (Some of these pictures were in Hide/Seek. Wojnarowicz especially identified with the French poet, along with Jean Genet and the Beats, particularly William Burroughs, who was also a friend, and Jack Kerouac.) At the same time, Wojnarowicz was making short films like Heroin, made not only about addicts but by them; stenciling burning houses or falling people on the sides of buildings throughout the city; and playing in a band called 3 Teens Kill 4—No Motive (from a New York Post headline). He was bearing witness to the history that the official record didn’t tell because, the artist thought, “People should witness things. They should, at the very bottom level, be witnessed.” This might be called the artist’s creed and would be the prevailing impulse of Wojnarowicz’s art in all the forms, including his writing—perhaps particularly his writing—and it often alluded to his own life, especially his childhood, which he said he always carried with him.

By the ‘80s, Wojnarowicz devoted his art to chronicling the gay sex scene in the New York City. He frequented the piers and abandoned warehouses along the Hudson and photographed, painted, or described the life he witnessed. At the same time, he began to show his art in all its forms—painting, sculpture, photographs, videos and films, collages, mixed-media—in galleries in the East Village, becoming an important venue for challenging art. Wojnarowicz was experimenting with any medium he could find, it seemed without restriction. In 1982, he let loose 30 “cock-a-bunnies”—he’d rubber-cemented tiny rabbit ears and tails onto cockroaches from his apartment—at the Beast Show, a star-studded event at P.S. 1, an art center in Long Island City, Queens. His visual artworks were eclectic in their use of media, ranging from conventional canvas, to masonite, maps, photographs, trash-can lids, “found objects,” and such unlikely material as loaves of bread and plastic sharks—and he often incorporated texts into his paintings, along with other visual media. He painted in acrylics and spray paint, on top of his own works and on supermarket posters. He was also appearing in the works of other artists as a model or subject, and many of his own works were collaborations with other East Village artists. His first important show was Fast, a group exhibit in 1982 at the Alexander F. Milliken Gallery in SoHo and in 1985 (and then again in 1991), one of his pieces was included in the prestigious Whitney Biennial. After that, his reputation for both shocking and insightful, pointed and moving work grew, spreading beyond New York’s downtown art scene. By the ‘90s, he was participating in exhibits not only in California, Illinois, and Ohio, but Paris, Cologne, and Madrid. In the end, as Richard B. Woodward wrote in the New York Times three years after the artist died, “he was an angry, East Village misfit who mined his own troubled life—as an abused child, a young street hustler and a gay man with AIDS—for his work. Especially in his last year, he boldly explored his outcast state, brimming with rage against political or religious power that would brand him a pariah.” He was angry at the forces that wanted him just to disappear, that treated him as if he were invisible. He wasn’t invisible anymore!

Two years before Wojnarowicz’s death, at the time of Tongues of Flame, Shapiro, who knew and admired the artist, said: “One of the things he sets a clear example of is the function of the artist in this society. You know, they always talk about like the canary in the mines—the ones that die first. . . . This is what Wojnarowicz’s function is: he was literal cutting edge.” Wojnarowicz offered his art as testimony of life he felt no one else acknowledged. According to writer and cultural critic Cynthia Carr, “Art was his way of witnessing. On some level, the work was about putting information out there, exposing what’s usually hidden and creating cultural counterweight. Where the marginal were ignored, he would exalt them.” In the words of artist Adam Kuby, who pointed out that the artist’s work wasn’t just about politics and AIDS:

Wojnarowicz illuminates connections that are present but unseen, and creates associations that help us understand the web within web of our complex existence. Through startling juxtapositions he describes the real ecology between man and nature, economics and the environment, compassion and compulsion.

For Shapiro, who also saw his own art as testimony, “It’s very brave work,” for, as Living Theatre co-founder Julian Beck asserted, “The avant-garde artist travels a dangerous road.” Beck characterized such artists as “the advance guard, the ones who were looking for trouble, who were taking the risks, the fools and the heroes.” David Wojnarowicz was one of these men: “One lesson from childhood,” Carr also observed. “The neighbors knew about the violence in his household. They witnessed it. But nobody intervened. David promised himself that when he saw injustice, he would not be silent.” Until his death (and apparently even beyond), he never was. Personally shy and reticent, art and writing gave him a way to say what he couldn’t in a social setting. His prominence eventually taught him to talk about his work and his feelings, and he spoke out whenever he could and wherever he found a platform and through whatever medium he found effective—visual art, video, performance, writing, speaking. He did it all—and he got very good at it. And it landed him under the microscopes of people like Wildmon, Helms, Rohrabacher, Dannemeyer, Pat Robertson, and George H. W. Bush. In his essay for the catalogue of Fever: The Art of David Wojnarowicz at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York in 1999, the first retrospective of Wojnarowicz’s work after his death, Dan Cameron, then senior curator there, wrote:

In the most fundamental historical terms, Wojnarowicz appears to have been the leading voice in the first generation of artists to come of age in the AIDS era, for whom the relationship between the private and the political was powerfully evident.

Wojnarowicz quite simply put himself out there, his heart upon his sleeve for daws to peck at. And peck they did.

It became the artist’s mission to call attention to any injustice he perceived in American society, especially (but not exclusively) where it concerned the gay community. As we’ve seen, he targeted the Catholic Church for its treatment of homosexuals, but he didn’t limit his anger to religious institutions. He railed against politicians, the government, health-care bureaucrats, and journalists, too, but his largest target was American culture itself. Wojnarowicz saw himself as on the outside—but he wasn’t looking in, his nose pressed against the window glass. He wanted everyone else to get out. He often wrote of “the preinvented world,” the programmed society that promulgated rules by which we are all forced to live, not for the good of all but so those who make the rules can control us better, the world where the wilderness has been chopped up into property by fences and no-entry signs—

the world of the stop light, the no smoking signs, the rental world, the split rail fencing shielding hundreds of barren miles of wilderness from the human step; the place where by virtue of having been born centuries late one is denied access to earth or space; choice or movement. The bought up world; the owned world—the world of coded sounds; the world of language; the world of lies; the packaged world; the world in metallic motion.

Wojnarowicz said he recognized this as a teenager “after my first motorcycle ride.” One morning, he realized “that government and god were interchangeable and that most of the people in the landscape of my birth insisted on having one or both determine the form of their lives.” In a 1988 interview in Arts Magazine, the artist explained:

[T]he world is a place we’re born into with a preinvented existence, where everything’s been laid out. Perhaps the most radical thing you can do, then, is use your imagination. With all these different indicators seeming to press on you wherever you go—stopping for a traffic light, walking on the sidewalk instead of the middle of the street, the imagination, too, is shaped somehow. But I still think there are keys that can unlock it, you can break through a lot of things . . . like socialization.

The conformity he thought society demanded, turning us into “a tribal nation of zombies,” was not where the imagination lived. In that same interview, Wojnarowicz said of one of his large paintings from The Four Elements series:

Earth is about the idea of architecture coming from an unconscious impulse. It’s the same thing I said before about preinvented existence where the imagination is formed by all these signifiers we’re surrounded by. And that’s where I think the most radical thing lies; inside that imagination where we can leave that pre-invented world. That’s where real freedom is.

Homogeneity, which Wojnarowicz called “a one-tribe nation,” is an illusion anyway, because within that society are several tribes. One runs the government with false promises, propaganda, and a strong arm; one comprises the reporters and commentators who “work hand in hand with the government” to con the people so that they never “break through the illusion and examine the structures of their world.” Finally, there’s the tribe that sees the truth through the manufactured haze. This diatribe appears in Wojnarowicz’s essay “In the Shadow of the American Dream: Soon All This Will Be Picturesque Ruins,” published in Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, which came out in 1991, the year before the author died. His rage was well established by then, of course; he’d seen the marginalization, the repression, the denial of anyone who dared not to conform—sexually, politically, religiously, intellectually, culturally. Of course Helms and Co. would go on the attack. David Wojnarowicz was dangerous! The people who see the reality, he warned, want action:

A civil war and a national trial for the “leaders” of this country, as well as certain individuals in organized religions, is the soundtrack that plays and replays in the heads of members of that tribe. Some members of the tribe understand the meaning of language. They also understand what freedom truly is and if the other tribes want to hand them the illusion of hope in the form of the leash—in the form of language—like all stray dogs with intelligence from experience, they know how to turn the leash into a rope to exit the jail windows or how to turn the leash into a noose to hang the jailers.

Wojnarowicz was entirely unschooled. He got into the High School of Music and Art with a portfolio he’d put together one night and he’d play hookie for weeks at a time to roam the streets and hustle. He ultimately dropped out at 16 to live on the streets and never returned to any kind of formal school, learning entirely on the streets and highways of the United States and Europe, the ultimate autodidact. He was also self-taught as an artist, picking up his knowledge of style, technique, and materials from other street artists, observation, experience, and experimentation. Because he wasn’t a product of the art establishment, he had little regard for it. Just as he saw himself as an outsider in society at large—a position he believed was vital not just for his own work, but for the art world and society as a whole—he regarded himself as separate from the world of galleries and studios, patrons and collectors. It wasn’t so much that he disdained that world—he would eventually show his work in galleries, sell paintings for as much as $20,000 even in his lifetime, and see his art displayed in museums—he just never figured the established art world would be interested in the kinds of work he was doing. Like many street artists, his canvases were usually the walls of buildings and, in his case, the wrecks of cars abandoned outside his Lower East Side apartment. (He’d discovered that if he graffitied the hulks, the city’d tow them away overnight instead of the months they’d sit at the curb otherwise.)

Wojnarowicz began his art career while he was playing in his band, known as 3TK4, a “post-punk” combo that used recordings of street noises and conversations as a form of percussion. He’d hang posters he’d spray-painted in the areas near the group’s gigs. The posters disappeared as fast as he put them up, he recalled—apparently people were taking them down to hang in their homes. He began painting directly on the buildings, and he started a series of graffiti works, walking around SoHo at night and spray-painting what would become his iconic imagery—burning house, flying bomber, and cowering figure—on gallery doors. In one early piece, he dumped a 100-pound pile of bloody cow bones from a meat packer in the West Village on the stairs of the Leo Castelli Gallery in SoHo, stenciling a knife, fork, and plate on the wall along with his customary burning house and plane. It wasn’t that the artist had anything against Castelli or the art establishment. “At that time I thought galleries were a joke, that they would never touch anything this real or address issues like that.” Collectors were all about collecting, amassing art for themselves, he thought, and galleries catered to buyers, not artists. They were all about selling, “the collector structure,” art as a commodity. “I did that work just to give people something different to look at on the way in,“ Wojnarowicz explained, “something that would balance their view of what I thought was inside.” His first exhibit came when the owner of the Milliken Gallery had taken notice of his “street signs” and, after finding out from Peter Hujar who the graffitist was, asked Wojnarowicz to participate in Fast (which also included Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, two other former graffitists). That was the summer of 1982, and the young street artist soon began having his own shows. Several galleries championed his work, and I think his attitude to galleries changed—though not necessarily his feelings about collectors. He attended some of the parties to which buyers invited him, but he wasn’t comfortable hobnobbing with people who thought they knew him because they’d seen his work. It dismayed Wojnarowicz that once his work began to sell, once he’d been “validated” by the critical establishment, people would buy anything to which his name was attached. (He also learned that this world could be fickle.) He continued to see himself as an outsider in the art world; in fact, Wojnarowicz at first didn’t think of himself as an artist at all. “Artists,” according to him, “were such-and-such people,” people who were special, different from the rest of us. Wojnarowicz “wasn’t particularly an artist,” he insisted; he was just a guy with something to say who tried hard to find ways to say it—like music, writing, or installations.

Wojnarowicz’s partner in the Castelli action was bandmate Julie Hair, so he didn’t think of what he was doing as art. It was an outgrowth of his work with 3TK4 which he called “action installations.” Then Wojnarowicz met Hujar in a bar in 1979 and “we just started talking.” Hujar, 20 years Wojnarowicz’s senior, became the younger man’s brother, father, mentor, teacher, and, ultimately, the audience for all his art. Because Hujar was a photographer, Wojnarowicz began taking pictures again. He’d been writing since he left the streets—poetry, transcribed monologues of street people—but photography was another way to chronicle the world he was witnessing (and which few others, especially the established media, were recording). “Images can be used as tools of alert, or tools of organization,” explained Wojnarowicz in Aperture, an art photography quarterly. “A photographic image can be a disruption of previously unchallenged power.” The budding artist’s early visual works were photographs, like the Rimbaud series. “A camera in some hands can preserve an alternate history,” Wojnarowicz asserted. (He continued to use photography in his paintings as well as on its own. One of his most moving pieces is a photo portrait of Hujar immediately after his death, a work on exhibit in Hide/Seek.) But at one of the clubs where Wojnarowicz worked as a busboy and dishwasher another street artist, Keith Haring, also worked and Wojnarowicz saw what his fellow artist was doing as his work developed, though Wojnarowicz still thought of his own efforts as an extension of his action installations, not art. Photography quickly led to exploring other art forms, including painting and sculpture; but Wojnarowicz grew into the field almost without realizing that’s what he was doing. “Originally the early stuff I did was very simple,” he said. “I was trying to bring art back from its ‘elite’ nature, the artist as a special creature, an elite person.”

Wojnarowicz didn’t work in so many media and forms, including writing and music as well as all the visual techniques, because he was a dilettante or wasn’t serious about his work and artistic mission. His experimentation had two origins, I believe. First, it was the result of an endlessly restless and curious mind. He was continuously searching for more effective and stunning ways to communicate his ideas and thoughts. Furthermore, his major works, particularly those of his later years, were sorts of collages—if not in the literal sense, which many of them were, then collages of styles, techniques, and media. Whatever he learned eventually found its way into one of his complex works.

The second source for Wojnarowicz’s multi-media impulse was his belief that artists of the future wouldn’t be restricted, by custom or training, to one or two methods of making art. They’d be freer to choose the media and materials they used as well as the ways they applied them. (I find this attitude very like Tennessee Williams’s plastic theater concept, about which I wrote in “’The Sculptural Drama’: Tennessee Williams’s Plastic Theatre” in the Tennessee Williams Annual Review [2002], http://www.tennesseewilliamsstudies.org/archives/2002/3kramer.htm. A shorter version is in the Tennessee Williams Encyclopedia [Greenwood Press, 2004].) Wojnarowicz was simply in the forefront of this movement, perhaps taking his license from his lack of formal art schooling so he’d never been taught the rules. Of course, Wojnarowicz was never much for following rules and restrictions—even when he knew them. As artist and writer Mark Alice Durant wrote: “Wojnarowicz as painter, photographer, and writer transgresses as many formal boundaries as his content transgresses taboos.”

In fact, Wojnarowicz’s large paintings resemble nothing so much as multi-media performances. Divided into quadrants like cartoon panels, a form the artist used in his early wall paintings, or a movie storyboard, they move from image to image, idea to idea like scenes in a play, but communicating in different media and techniques. Some of his later works incorporate disparate visual media and written texts in the form of short stories, which, as in William Blake’s artwork, are integrated into the painting with the other media (see He Kept Following Me and I Feel a Vague Nausea, both 1990). His 1987 Four Elements series not only combines images from many sources (including pornography) but also diverse media. For instance, Water (from which Wildmon excerpted some sexual images for the anti-NEA pamphlet) incorporates texts. (The Four Elements—the other works of the series are Earth, Fire, and Wind (for Peter Hujar)—are reproduced in Tongues of Flame and Fever; He Kept Following Me and I Feel a Vague Nausea are reproduced in Fever. There are undoubtedly reproductions on the ‘Net as well.)

“David’s life had nothing to do with the art world,” wrote author, journalist, and art critic Elizabeth Hess, “and his work was inseparable from his life.” Cynthia Carr further explained:

David’s work emerged directly from his life. He knew little art history, had no training past high school, and made a point of not trolling the galleries to see what everyone else was doing. Exposed to unusual hardship as a boy, as a sexually active teen, and as a street person, he didn’t see his experience reflected in the culture. Art was his antidote.

In his essay in the Fever catalogue, art historian and critic John Carlin wrote:

Simply put, David was not just an artist; he used art as a vehicle for something else, not as an end in itself. David was more like a shaman, the witch doctor of our tribe, than someone purely interested in formal relations or being smart. He was a visionary whose work was deeply rooted in our collective daily lives yet constantly linked the everyday to some greater, unknowable force.

. . . .

While most young artists looked to other artists for their referents, Wojnarowicz drew upon the common experiences of Americans of his generation. He did not make art that tried to fit into preconceived notions of what art should be. He was less concerned with aesthetics than with communicating—about himself and society, about things that were real and actually happening but that no one wanted to talk about.

At the same time, though, Wojnarowicz was impelled to work closely with other artists and performers. He did a lot of solo work, to be sure, but he “collaborated incessantly,” as Dan Cameron put it. “In general, the importance of collaboration for Wojnarowicz was based on his belief that the art he produced required the support of and constant interchange with the highly creative individuals with whom he surrounded himself,” the curator wrote. I think that it had taken the young man so long to find a place where he felt he belonged, that he felt a need to work alongside others from the same community—finally, here were people who understood him and whom he understood. In fact, in his short career—it was only about 10 years—Wojnarowicz became a leader in the East Village art and culture world. Many younger artists found in him an inspiration and a model who didn’t succumb to art stardom, and today acknowledge his influence on their work.

The artist was generous not only with his time, appearing as a model in the works of photographers like Hujar and others, performing in films and videos for friends, speaking at rallies and protests, but he donated his work to benefits and gave money to less prosperous artists to the extent that he was often broke. Though he remained an outsider to mainstream society, as much by his own nature and choice as by establishment exclusion, he saw himself as part of a community of artists, a citizen of the East Village, and a native of the gay United States—and he supported these and other societies of which he considered himself part. Wojnarowicz was a true idealist: his art wasn’t for making money—though he took it—it was for telling his stories or making his political points. I worked with Leo Shapiro on a collage performance which included texts by many writers, including playwrights Karen Malpede and Charles Mee, and one contributor was David Wojnarowicz. (I never met the artist; he died the following year and was already too ill to attend rehearsals or meetings.) His concern for others was genuine and deeply felt and it extended to animal life of all kinds, even what Cynthia Carr labeled “the unlovable insects and reptiles.” (Wojnarowicz confessed that when he was living on the street, he shoplifted animals from pet shops, freeing them in Central Park and turning the halfway house in which he stayed into a menagerie until the residents threatened to throw him out.) Lucy Lippard, writer and curator, noted that Wojnarowicz displayed “extraordinary honesty and responsible humanity (is it too corny to call it love?) that was inseparable from the work.” His sole purpose, he said, was “to be understood and acknowledged”:

We can all affect each other, by being open enough to make each other feel less alienated. We all are able to have a profound [e]ffect on each other, a positive effect that sustains us . . . .

Félix Guattari, French activist and philosopher, wrote of the artist:

The authenticity of his work on the imaginary plane is quite exceptional. His “method” consists of using his fantasies and above all his dreams . . . in order to forge himself a language and a cartography enabling him at all times to reconstruct his own existence. It is from here that the extraordinary vigor of his work lies.

Guattari concluded that Wojnarowicz “attempts to create imaginary weapons to resist established powers,” but the artist’s overarching goal, “the most meaningful thing,” was “to make somebody else feel less alienated.” His artistic matrix, however, wasn’t beauty or even aesthetics in general. He had no interest in being “decorative.” Wojnarowicz wasn’t interested in design or composition—he hadn’t had any training in that anyway. He wanted to communicate, to show people what the world he saw looked like—even if they didn’t want to see it. He was a habitual truth-teller, even as a second-grader when he learned that everyone dies: “I remember running down the block and to every kid that I saw I said, ‘We all die, one day we’re all going to be dead!’” The kids cried and their parents decided Wojnarowicz was a sick child—because he thought everyone should know the truth. After his AIDS diagnosis, his message became not resignation but rage. As the New York Times’ Woodward concluded in his contemplation of Wojnarowicz’s work, “Choler . . . was his style.” In a 1990 interview, the artist said, “Somewhere in me, I feel that I don’t want to be polite. I don’t want that pressure of dying in a very clean way, making it easy for people. Somewhere, I want the world to have my rage and reactions.” (It was this element in Wojnarowicz’s work that Holland Cotter felt was excised from Hide/Seek when A Fire in My Belly was excluded.)

Wojnarowicz returned over and over to the same images, like the crawling ants in the video, in different applications in order to wave the red flag and I, for one, found his work disturbing, provocative, confounding, frightening, intriguing, and always, always moving. The America Wojnarowicz depicted, though, was a scary place. “When I was told I’d contracted this virus it didn’t take me too long to realize that I’d contracted a diseased society as well,” wrote the artist. As Marcia Tucker, founding director of the New Museum, wrote in her forward to the Fever catalogue, “In an articulate howl of pain, rage, and longing, Wojnarowicz spoke of a world so dark, so bitter, and so pervasive that its very existence was denied by those who had not experienced it firsthand.” Nevertheless, Wojnarowicz would say, it should be witnessed.

[As long as this profile is, it’s incomplete. David Wojnarowicz, as an artist, as a writer, and as a man, is so complex and his work so nuanced and layered that I have left out volumes that can be said about him. For that I apologize, and I urge interested readers to seek out his art, his books, and the hundreds of article by or about him. Wojnarowicz’s ideas and his work may be difficult, even harsh, but his sincerity is assured, and I guarantee you will find a fascinating subject and a compelling figure. I can tell you that once I started to learn about him from the footprints he left, I regretted not having had the chance at least to meet him when our paths almost crossed in 1991.

[I had intended to mention Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture in the Wojnarowicz article, but there was never the place for even a brief report. So I’ll do it here, as an addendum. To be honest, I don’t have a lot to say about the exhibit. First of all, between the reviews in the New York Times (“Sexuality in Modernism: The (Partial) History,” 11 Dec. 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/11/arts/design/11hide.html) and the Washington Post (“National Portrait Gallery's 'Hide/Seek' finds a frame for sexual identity,” 5 Nov. 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/04/AR2010110407182.html), the critics, Holland Cotter and Blake Gopnik respectively, said anything I might have and I find I have little to add. Second, the show was very large: 105 pieces covering the end of the 19th century through the first decade of the 21st—essentially a history of 20th-century gay portraiture. Third, since most of the works were photographs and I’m not enamored of art photography, I can’t really comment critically on the art. Generally, however, I agree with Cotter that the exhibit was focused on “stars” and “Hall-of-Fame” art, but since I’m less familiar with this field than he is, that didn’t bother me so much. I was glad to see some of the Thomas Eakinses, Romare Beardons, Jasper Johnses, and Andy Warhols, even if I might also have been awakened to new possibilities if less-well-known artists’ portraits had been displayed. As it was, I didn’t know the work of such artists as Romaine Brooks, Cass Bird, or Minor White anyway, so I was introduced to new artistic experiences anyway. The controversy over A Fire in My Belly notwithstanding, though, I ended up feeling that the sheer volume of work in Hide/Seek made it hard for me to see the overall point of the exhibit. Cotter phrased this as “Work of gay artists was fundamental to the invention of American modernism” or “Difference had created the mainstream” and Gopnik expressed the idea as “Being gay—or being straight and paying close attention to the twists of gender and desire—makes you a better, more careful observer”; but in the welter of photographs, drawings, paintings, videos, and one or two sculptures, what I carried away was that here was a collection of intriguing work by even more intriguing artists. (I also found, like I did at the wonderful Dada exhibit some years ago, that I had to read all or most of the panels accompanying the portraits because, one, I knew so little about the work and, two, it was all so interesting and revealing.) There were some real surprises, like Men Reading (1914) by commercial illustrator Joseph Christian Leyendecker. Approaching the painting of two young, handsome men, impeccably dressed, it’s immediately reminiscent of the classic Arrow Shirt ads, and it was fascinating to learn that Leyendecker was, in fact, the designer of that ad campaign—the painting was the original ad—and that one of the men, who in context are obviously a gay couple, was modeled from the artist’s own partner. Ironically, a few of the items in the exhibit weren’t great or even good art; their inclusion in the show owed more to their message or, if you will, political impact than their artistic quality. The show was sometimes more about history than aesthetics. The excision of the Wojnarowicz video echoed and underscored that. One other point came out from Hide/Seek: The presence of works by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, a clandestine couple in the middle of the last century, seems to say that self-identification as gay has become more openly acceptable since Johns permitted his work to appear here (Rauschenberg died in 2008) as a sign that what once had to be hidden now didn’t have to be. Sadly, the message of the administration of the gallery and the Smithsonian is that some things still have to be.

[As a result of the removal of A Fire in My Belly, several artists tried to remove their work from Hide/Seek (the museum wouldn't comply with the requests) and a number of donors have withdrawn support from the Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian. Martin Sullivan, the curator of the gallery, and G. Wayne Clough, the secretary of the Smithsonian have been forced to justify their actions and have expressed regrets over their decision. The video has been made available on the ‘Net and some galleries and museums around the country, such as New York’s New Museum and Transformer in Washington, have scheduled showings in protest. In London, the Tate Modern, like the Smithsonian a national museum, held a tribute to Wojnarowicz on 22 January at which several of his videos, including Fire, were shown. In the latest move, the Brooklyn Museum has announced plans to remount Hide/Seek, including Fire in My Belly, in cooperation with the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington State, possibly before the end of 2011. As if predicting his own future impact, the artist declared: “Do not give me a memorial if I die. Give me a demonstration.” It seems he got one.]


  1. The director of the National Portrait Gallery, Martin E. Sullivan, announced his resignation on Monday, 7 May. Sullivan, who was appointed in 2008, will effectively step down in June. According to the New York Times, Sullivan is leaving for health reasons but will remain at the gallery as a senior scholar. There was no mention in the reports of Sullivan's involvement in the Wojnarowicz matter.


  2. On 17 July, Bloomsbury USA published a biography of David Wojnarowicz, "Fire in the Belly," by Cynthia Carr, former arts reporter for The Village Voice. The book, which the New York Times' Dwight Garner called "both sympathetic and compendious," is available on Amazon. The NYT review is at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/20/books/fire-in-the-belly-on-david-wojnarowicz-by-cynthia-carr.html.