“David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night,” on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York through September 20, presents the artist and AIDS activist’s paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, videos, and music. Here we look back in A.i.A.’s archives to our December 1990 issue, in which art critic Lucy Lippard profiled Wojnarowicz, examining his troubled childhood, important friendships—with other East Village artists, such as Peter Hujar and Kiki Smith—and aesthetic influences, and discussing the political undercurrents of his work. The artist, whom Lippard copiously quotes, comes across as a combative but deeply ruminative figure, as keen on discussing spirituality as he was on denouncing the Catholic church and United States government’s hypocritical stance towards homosexuality. “In his determination to make the private public, he has gone beyond specific thematic material to forge a unique combination of politics and spirituality, of the known and unknown,” Lippard notes. Wojnarowicz died from AIDS-related complications two years after this article was originally published. He was only thirty-seven years old. We present Lippard’s essay in full bellow. —Eds.
The best art being made today is by people who are bucking the system. David Wojnarowicz is one of them. As a highly visible AIDS activist he was briefly notorious in 1989 for having been scapegoated by the NEA in the Artists Space skirmish (as a writer in the catalogue, he had the nerve to name names in a text entitled “Post Cards from America: X-Rays from Hell”). In June 1990 he brought suit against Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association.1 More important, as an artist he has cut through the sentiment and guilt surrounding the AIDS crisis and made art directly about homosexuality. In his determination to make the private public, he has also gone beyond specific thematic material to forge a unique combination of politics and spirituality, of the known and the unknown.
When I first saw Wojnarowicz’s work in the early ’80s I liked it, but figured he could be just another Lower East Side artist kid—hot now, soon to burn out. Wrong. Although it hasn’t yet been generally acknowledged in the art world, Wojnarowicz is one of the more brilliant fugitives to land on this cultural island—something of a renaissance man who can write, paint, make photographs, films, music, performances and installations without missing a beat.2 Even now, years after I started to love his paintings, I find it difficult to describe their robust poetics. They map a territory I recognize but don’t really know. They blow me away.
I got serious about Wojnarowicz’s work after seeing his ”Four Elements” exhibition at Gracie Mansion in 1987. The show’s centerpieces were four brightly colored 6-by-8-foot paintings: Fire, Earth, Water and Wind (for Peter Hujar)—a good point at which to begin scrutinizing this complex oeuvre. Each painting contains components of the personal iconography Wojnarowicz has developed over the years: animals, maps, tornadoes, volcanoes; a nebula/cellular series of concentric circles, handless clocks, snakes, wrecked trains, brains sizzling with electricity; a window with curtains blowing in the wind, homoerotic vignettes, a skeletal prehistoric bird head; collaged supermarket advertisements, U.S. currency, music sheets and other printed matter; and a blank-eyed, bared-teeth, big-eared mask that might be either a self-portrait or an image from a recurring nightmare. These elements are repeated erratically throughout his work, giving birth to new meanings each time they are freshly juxtaposed.
Fire is irregularly quartered, the vignettes and painted collage images formally anchored into each section while playing off each other’s content. A broken classical male figure is dwarfed by a jar containing a viciously fanged snake’s head. A huge beetle foraging in a forest is struck by lightning crackling from a celestial brain, heralded by a vernacular devil. A monkey with a club (probably a reference to one of the artist’s rare heroes: the Russian cosmo-monkey who got loose and bashed up the instrument panel of his craft/prison) hovers over a volcano circled by a tail-eating snake with a handgun. An ad for a car battery is commercially charged with “Potencia!!!” These magnetic references, however personal, attract new associations from every viewer.
Earth, also divided into quadrants, has a dark, compelling center circled by a pulsing green “cabbage” of cells (leaf mold) leading into a brown filigree of roots/veins that forms a cross. The earth is moved by an ant in one corner, a bulldozer in another. A gray cowboy rides a steer as a snouted kachina mask pushes through the undergrowth; a red bridge/aqueduct and skeletal rib cage hover over a train wreck caused by, or exuding, mysterious worms of light (which are actually three stages of germinating seeds, as in school science projects). The painting is marked by an overwhelming textural and tactile density, while Water has an appropriately fluid structure. An amoebic form is divided into a grid of black and white rectangles dominated by images of lesbians and gay men making love—and pictures of the microscopic organism that causes AIDS. Over this are superimposed further enigmatic vignettes: a spotted frog with the photo of a car on its belly, a bandaged hand reaching from a prison cell for a daffodil in a snowstorm, a swirling sea about to engulf a black ship, all on a background of spermlike tadpoles made of maps. This painting (a prime target of the AFA’s “pornographic” anti-NEA flier) was brought by Wojnarowicz’s lawyers to the Wildman trial in full-size reproduction.
Wind is structurally more complex. The grid has gone underground, only partially visible in the sparse, right-angled lines diagramming a nuclear reactor. The image at the painting’s top center—the place traditionally reserved for angels, visions, the Resurrection or Ascension—is a painted window opening in the sky, its white curtains blowing around a vulval aperture from which a red umbilical cord emerges, attached on one side to a red, screaming newborn in a dark hospital towel and on the other to a strange little scene of two men, one a headless parachutist about to jump (“like being born but more conscious”3). This cluster is balanced by a great multicolored wing (after Dürer), a memory of Icarus. The near-symmetry of the upper section disappears at the bottom right, where the clouds part to reveal a ruined gray earth, a man turning away from an obsolete machine/bird head being struck by a gold-outlined tornado. The landscape is gray, devastated, industrial. (Robert Smithson would have loved these paintings.) Despite the intensity of each vignette, the images are spread serenely across the canvas in what feels like a limitless space.
Wind, which makes synchronicity almost tangible,4 is one of Wojnarowicz’s most transcendent paintings, emotion distilled. He made it during the period of the impending death of his best friend, photographer Peter Hujar, author of the compelling Portraits in Life and Death, whom he met when he was 26 and credits with being “in a great way responsible for everything that I’ve done. . . . Essentially Peter was the audience for everything I did. It was like finding a member of one’s tribe. . . .”
When he made “The Four Elements,” Wojnarowicz had recently returned from Mexico. He has traveled a lot in the last 15 years, hitchhiking, riding freights, later renting cars, in the United States, Europe and Latin America. “I’ve always loved being anonymous and moving around, traveling,” he says. “In fact, that’s the most powerful state for me to be in. Away from any references. I love that moment. That’s where my life makes sense. That’s where I get things for working. I try to do it as much as I can.”
I picture him speeding through the night, voyaging, the torn maps that figure in his paintings and his occasional sculptures (a map-covered child in flames, a map-covered animal skull holding the globe in its teeth, a map-covered shark and snake, a 1984 painting of two men standing in water, kissing, over a world map). The map is at once a symbol of potential freedom and a metaphor for the unquestioned structures of government.5 “By tearing through maps,” he says, “I erase borders; borders create ownership and wars.”6
Wojnarowicz never studied art, but his affinities lie with Surrealism and Dada, subverted by the formal and emotional influence of comics. While his paintings lack the preciousness that marks the work of virtually all the Surrealists (with the frequent exception of Max Ernst), his unconscious does seem to have run along the tracks laid by Magritte, de Chirico and Ernst, exhuming imagery like the floating business-suited man, ants on an eye, the train, machine parts and isolated biologies and anatomies. This was more evident in Wojnarowicz’s early work such as the Ernstian Bill Burroughs’ Recurring Dream of 1978, whose Egyptian references predict Burroughs’s recent novels, Cities of the Red Night and Western Lands.
Perhaps after his accrued experience of high art, Wojnarowicz developed the highly original structures that characterize his mature work—the piling on of pattern and vignetted images, the mix of pop and classical culture, the layering of chaos over order, horror over serenity. Some of his works, like Silence Thru Economics—a photo of a man with eyes closed, his lips sewn together—or Bread Sculpture—halves of a bread loaf sewn together—resemble classical Surrealist objects. But Wojnarowicz has typically taken the image over the edge into reality. The Fall 1990 cover of High Performance is a photo of the artist from the film Silence= Death by Phil Zwickler and Rosa von Praunheim. His lips are sewn together; blood oozes from the wounds.
The harsh and iconoclastic exuberance of Dada is also perceptible in Wojnarowicz’s adaptation of montage techniques. However, the artists he reminds me of most are Frida Kahlo and William Burroughs. He shares with Kahlo the weight of pain and the freedom of vision, the use of art as a healing process for damaged lives, an occasionally raw technique disguising subtle content. Like Burroughs (an early influence who later wrote a blurb for Wojnarowicz’s book, Sounds from a Distance), Wojnarowicz balances aggressive violence and pessimism with transgressive, life-affirming vitality.
The contradictions that infest any thinking person’s life are particularly evident in Wojnarowicz’s various art forms, which are pervaded by empathy for the human condition and anger at human actions. His preoccupation with social justice—or the lack thereof—is highlighted by titles like The Newspaper as National Voodoo: A Brief History of the U.S.A., The Death of American Spirituality, Fear of Evolution, A Painting to Replace the British Monument in Buenos Aires and Crash: The Birth of Language/The Invention of Lies. He talks about making an X ray of civilization (which he refers to as the “preinvented world”) and says that he is
beginning to believe that one of the last frontiers left for radical gesture is the imagination. At least in my ungoverned imagination I can fuck somebody without a rubber or I can, in the privacy of my own skull, douse Helms with a bucket of gasoline and set his putrid ass on fire or throw Rep. William Dannemeyer off the Empire State building. These fantasies give me distance from my outrage for a few seconds.7
His imagination is overlaid on history, and sometimes on transhistorical time. Cursed or blessed with a cinematic memory for both images and conversations, Wojnarowicz writes:
Inside my head behind the eyes are lengthy films running on multiple projectors; the films are images made up from information from media. . .some of the films are childhood memories of the forests I lay down in; the surfaces of the earth I scrutinized and some are made up of dreams. Sometimes the projectors run simultaneously sometimes they stop and start but the end result is thousands of feet of multiple films crisscrossing in front of each other thereby creating endless juxtapositions and associations. . . . THE EYE/THE SPHERE/THE GLOBE/THE WINDOW OF CONSCIOUSNESS/THE PORTAL TO SLEEP AND WAKING/THE ENTRANCE TO THE CINEMA OF BIOLOGIC THRUST.8
Peter Hujar, he recalls, “demanded that you bring it all right up to the front and not deny things.” Wojnarowicz has “always believed in gesture . . . loved drawings by people who didn’t know how to draw . . . [because] the energy was more direct than with somebody who’d studied and developed a style.” But his populist and confrontational approach notwithstanding, “the quietest things I’ve always kept in,” he says. “My work has always been intuitive. For some reason, I always felt ashamed of that. I think it’s also what kept me from being cynical. Trusting myself. Finding some hope in terms of change.”
For a long time Wojnarowicz was also somewhat embarrassed by what he perceived as the extreme literalness of his paintings:
I always thought my work could be read like boom, boom, boom, boom. There’s so much art out there that doesn’t read. The information is so oblique that you can’t get it unless there’s a library next to it. Creating an elite in the art world, in terms of who gets the joke or can understand the information, is no better than what happens in the larger social structure. You see group shows where there are bits of things that touch you but they are really just a few steps above a blank.
Too true. In June 1989, I was wandering through a group show called “Quiet Trauma” at the Milford Gallery in New York, wondering why the traumas were virtually invisible, why so few artists can say what they think; why the fear that it is uncool to show feelings on the surface, to explain one’s work in titles or captions, seems so universally internalized. In the midst of a decidedly gray viewing experience I came across Wojnarowicz’s contribution—a small collage painting, whose red angular patterns frame and are overlaid by nine photographs of Peter Hujar a moment after his death, a $20 bill, germs/sperms; in the central area is a long, excruciatingly angry and agonized typewritten text about AIDS, political neglect and the experience of having been diagnosed as HIV positive.9 The work was electrifying in every sense that art can be, and the rest of the room simply vanished. This was not a quiet trauma, nor was it a passive commentary.
Being known as an artist-who-has-AIDS saddens and infuriates Wojnarowicz: “I wish there were some way that people could see the structure of the whole thing so that you could be treated as an entire complex human being and not as this receptacle of death.”10 Yet one result of his encounters with AIDS over the past decade has been the rare appearance of an art (by him and others who have followed his lead) that deals directly with the disease, its causes (social and physical) and its ramifications, rather than indirectly performing the function of mourning or glorifying a (sex) lifestyle. Also fighting the homophobia endemic in our society and the suppression of sexuality that long precedes AIDS, Wojnarowicz calls for artists to picture and to responsibly explore the topic of homosexuality.
His photographic “Sex Series” of 1988 was partially inspired when a work of his depicting homosexual activity was rejected from a Paris show on sexual themes; purporting to be “liberated,” the show focused primarily on “images of straight white male fantasies,” including an “occasional lesbian image.”11 The “Sex Series” began with an accident in the darkroom Wojnarowicz inherited from Hujar, where he began to print many years’ worth of his own old black-and-white negatives. The eight 18-by-21 I/2-inch photomontages are printed as negatives and usually consist of a principal image framed or punctuated by small circular insets, which Wojnarowicz has related to surveillance photos, to suppressed information and to cells seen through a microscope. Most of the circular cameos contain explicit homoerotic or occasionally heterosexual scenes. The reversal to negative suffuses them with a nocturnal glow and generates unexpected sources of light and energy, haloing heads, cocks, bony hands. The larger underlying images are often quite ordinary to begin with—a speeding train, a plane disgorging parachutes, a house next to a water tower—but they take on, through the inversion of light and dark, a menacing, oneiric aura. Wojnarowicz has a formal, highly idiosyncratic camera eye, but the tonal reversal provides an eerie distance that makes these photographs look “appropriated” whether they are or not.
Other photographic composites from 1988-89 include Spirituality (For Paul Thek)—a close-up of a gory crucifix with ants crawling on Christ’s face balanced by six smaller squares of classic Wojnarowiczian images (clock, men dancing, money, kid with mask, the Futurists’ machine-as-god and a photograph of an early victim of AIDS with cigarette smoke pouring from his mouth like the spirit leaving the body). The recurrence of Catholic and more general religious imagery in Wojnarowicz’s work is double sided. On one (positive) hand it refers to his travel experiences and to popular culture:
Going south of the border I found myth to still be very much alive and with it the sense of connection to the ground people walked on. . . . Popular culture still carries the most spiritual reverberation. As adults we are pressured to leave myth and thus spirituality behind. . . .12
On the other (negative) hand, there are his memories of a sadistic Catholic school where he was beaten and forced to kneel on a bag of marbles. These memories have since been exacerbated by his fury at the Catholic Church’s indifference to the fate of the gay community. He rages against what he perceives as Cardinal O’Connor’s preference for “coffins to condoms,” and attacks the Vatican’s obsolete positions on homosexuality, which Wojnarowicz compares to human sacrifice: “The government has prosecuted Christian Scientists who don’t allow medical treatment for their families. If you look at information as preventive medicine, why is the Church allowed to have lobbyists on the Hill, block safe-sex information, be on AIDS advisory boards?”
Wojnarowicz’s refusal to deny his own sexuality and his insistence on publicly representing it is a potent form of resistance to the “preinvented world.” “When I concentrate on issues of sexuality in my work,” he says, “a lot of people say that’s better left to the bedroom. I say bullshit, because I’m completely surrounded by one form of sexuality; it’s represented in every ad—whether it’s cigarettes or beer or whatever, there’s always one prescribed sexuality that makes me feel invisible.”13 (He retaliates by making heterosexual love temporarily invisible in his own work.) Now AIDS, and the Catholic Church’s rabid homophobia and rejection of contraception, abortion and safe sex, threatens to altogether deny nonreproductive sexuality and the comfort it offers. It is as though a puritan society has finally found a way to implement its primal fears.
Eros and Thanatos have long been the batteries charging Wojnarowicz’s art as well as his life. Animals—seen by the culture as sexual symbols because of their “freedom”—often appear in Wojnarowicz’s work, but he seems to identify equally with their vulnerability. Denied familial affection as a child, homosexually initiated before puberty, he sought human contact in the dangerous arena of hustling . . . and of art. Wojnarowicz’s spirituality is inseparable from his politics. He points out that
spirituality has become a dirty word in this society because of the destructive nature of organized religion and the controls exerted by its human structure. Myths get played out only in pop culture, in the forms of toys and cartoons, animals, monsters and fantastic creations.
His ideas about death come from various cultures—the Mayans, the Egyptians: “One of the strongest feelings I have about death is that it’s a time when the energy we carry is dispersed and becomes a part of everything.”14 His very sense of time has been affected by AIDS: “Things have much more meaning . . . . [Homosexuals making art] do have a greater sense of mortality, and it’s affected what images they’ve selected. I know for myself it’s been profound. Every few months I feel like I’m taking out a new lease on my life. It’s a sense of pressure.”15 This building pressure acquired explosive potential when Wojnarowicz found he was HIV positive. He has learned to use, as he puts it, his “sexual energy as a tool against the state.” In one of his brilliant diatribes against governmental neglect (it appears in the painting Untitled, 1988), he says:
I’m carrying this rage like a bloodfilled egg . . . and the egg is starting to crack. . . . I’m a thirty-seven foot tall one thousand one hundred and seventy-two pound man inside this six foot frame and all I can feel is the pressure all I can feel is the pressure and the need for release.
For Wojnarowicz, art has been a direct tool of survival and transformation. Through a ghastly early childhood marked by parental kidnapping, alcoholism, abuse and constant moves through New Jersey, Michigan and New York, he found it emotionally important to “make things.” As early as 1970-71, when he was 16 and 17, Wojnarowicz was writing and photographing with some seriousness, although the products of his creativity were often abandoned in bus-station lockers. Risk, lethal danger, physical hardship, suffering and more abuse marked his later childhood and adolescence as a prostitute on the streets, and he makes no bones about the fact that “making things” stemmed the self-destructive tides. In his late teens, in disastrous physical and mental health, he finally pulled back from this life by finding refuge (for the second time) in a halfway house for “potential jail risks”—the beginning of rehabilitation. Working as a janitor, he found himself totally isolated, almost mute in his unfamiliarity with “normal” life and daily intercourse. He visualized his life in a dream, then in a painting, of himself as a dinosaur—”something ancient and alien.”
At 18, he left New York to hitchhike around the country and into Mexico, worked as a farmer on the Canadian border and “went to live for the rest of my life in Paris and Normandy,”16 which lasted a year. At 21 he was living openly gay in San Francisco, and had begun to understand that “my queerness was a wedge that was slowly separating me from a sick society.” In 1974 he saw Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour. In the late ’70s he started “developing ideas of making and preserving an authentic version of history in the form of images/writings/ objects that would contest state-supported forms of ‘history.'”17 Back in New York in 1978-79, he did a photo series called “Arthur Rimbaud in New York,” in which acquaintances wearing a Rimbaud mask rode the subway, masturbated and hustled in Times Square. These works belong to the history of unannounced public performance art, from Vito Acconci and Adrian Piper in the early ’70s to ACT UP today.
The years 1979-81 were an extraordinary moment in the art world when a new generation of artists appeared on SoHo’s streets and didn’t like what they saw. Many of them fled to the South Bronx and Loisaida (the Lower East Side) and there collaborated on unexpected things with unexpected people. This move, in reaction to the art world’s political apathy and the new Reagan administration’s heartlessness, opened up a stagnant scene to intense new energies, often sparked by the graffiti writers and the birth of hiphop.
From 1978 to 1982, Wojnarowicz was hanging out at the empty warehouses along the Hudson River, for sex, solitude and eventually art. Someone gave him a broken Super-8 movie camera, and he made a still unfinished and now partially destroyed epic symbolic film about the horrors of heroin, hoping to dissuade two friends from their burgeoning “experimentation” with hard drugs. As he describes it:
A person with a wrapped head, like an invisible man, would move into a room and through these endless door frames; another guy the same size, same clothing, is moving in another direction through the warehouse; eventually they collide on the rooftop, where you see the Empire State building, symbolic of the hypodermic. One shoots the other in the head, all this ketchup flies out, and when he bends down and starts unwrapping the head, it is his own face that’s revealed. Then the film cuts into a hundred people dead in different places.
He was also making huge murals and environments on one pier, exploring the beginnings of his iconographic vocabulary. (In 1983, he told other artists to spread the word and work in a warehouse near Canal Street, which became the Wardline Pier Project.) In those days, when AIDS was still called GRIDS (Gay Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome), and its plague proportions were as yet unrecognized, Wojnarowicz’ps anger was focused on the world itself and then on the way art is treated within a deeply disturbed society. He first became anonymously visible when he stenciled SoHo gallery doors with threatening little burning buildings. With Julie Hair—artist and fellow member of the punk-rock band 3 Teens Kill 4 No Motive (after a New York Post headline) in which Wojnarowicz “played” tapes of street sounds and conversations as percussion—he deposited one hundered pounds of bloody animal bones in the hallway of the Leo Castelli Gallery on West Broadway. He also stenciled the walls with burning houses, bomber planes, an empty plate with knife and fork, a target-faced man and a recoiling figure for which he had become known in the East Village. The piece was called Hunger. “It was a reaction to wealth being presented as culture, to what we were horrified by on a daily basis (though I wasn’t much of a gallery-goer),” he recalls, “a reaction to what it means to get into Castelli or attempt to, or to have to devote your time to thinking about it. We were also going to set up firing squads inside of Macy’s, as a reminder of the dictatorship exported by the U.S. government. We liked the idea of spontaneity and unexpected gestures, the idea of people coming from different places by different means of transportation, creating something, and then disappearing.”
Around 1982, Wojnarowicz met Kiki Smith, who invited him to participate in the “A-more” Christmas store, run by the large, anarchistic artists’ group Colab (Collaborative Projects). The two artists collaborated on some prints incorporating psychiatric drawings and Rorschach tests Wojnarowicz had found in a warehouse—part of a cache of abandoned police files on people who were arrested in the ’50s. Also in 1982 he was in a group show at a SoHo gallery that offered him a solo show:
Some creep from SoHo thought I might be the next Keith Haring. I’d never really painted, but I said, oh, yeah, I do paintings, and I went home and put it together in three months. There was some very adamant homo art in it, a thing called Wild Boys Busting Up Western Civilization—all these naked guys having sex, armed with rifles, an explosion of civilization, money, statues, all this cultural stuff. They freaked out. They kept asking why can’t you do something like Keith that’s so positive?
The show took place but was ill attended, and things ended badly, with the gallery destroying some of the paintings through neglect and telling Wojnarowicz he was crazy. That might have been the end of his art career (always a haphazard affair in any case), but at the same time he met Dean Savard, then handing out free supplies from the art store where he worked. Savard was opening the iconoclastic Civilian Warfare gallery in the East Village and asked Wojnarowicz to show there. He made a mural on “one of those photographic things you can buy to transform your room into a tropical rain forest or whatever.” The huge work—figures painted over the surface of the moon (executed in sections in a tiny storefront on Houston Street)—was well received and so “was something else after the experience in SoHo.”
This was the moment when the “East Village Art Scene” was born. “Grace Glueck came in and started talking about this stuff called East Village art, which we privately thought was a big joke,” Wojnarowicz recalls, “but we kept a straight face through it: Oh yeah, East Village art.”
When the foreign journalists started coming we realized oh my god this is serious. It was basically a media invention, and it was interesting to watch the whole process. As soon as the real money started hitting us it all fell apart. Everybody suddenly panicked. Started thinking about their futures, their lives, great amounts of money. Most people were extremely naive, including myself. By 1986 I realized there were spotlights, and they moved around.
Although he had briefly attended the High School of Music and Art (where his huge panoramas of street battles between radicals, Black Panthers and the police—”very late ’60s”—were hidden or destroyed by teachers), Wojnarowicz’s high school career didn’t last long, and it was years before he considered himself an artist:
The first couple years I was showing stuff I was just waiting for somebody to find out that I wasn’t an artist and blow the whole thing, I felt bogus. I’d thought artists were over forty. . . . I also had a lot of loose ideas about what art might be. I knew nothing about the structure of the art world. I thought that when you had a show, then somebody bought a painting, then somebody else bought a painting, that it was a lifelong process that never stopped, that once you started, people would watch the growth of what you do. Very, very naive.
Even in the early days, Wojnarowicz’s overcast vision of nature and culture separated him from his comrades in the Lower East Side boom. Having experienced real danger and depravity, he didn’t need to exaggerate it. But despite his nightmarish subject matter, a sense of beauty and order has always permeated his own detailed, tightly constructed work. At that time, a lot of his friends were down on the art world, and he realized that even though he respected their disenchantment, he really did care about making things:
I thought, what are my options? I could go back to being a janitor, but I’ll be more miserable. . . . My own feelings about the art world are weird. At the bottom line it’s like the drug hierarchies. Certain people put the price on [the art], determine what it is, the amount. It’s distasteful, but economically it gives you access to time, access to thought, to a dialogue with yourself. It’s a form of communication, a whole slew of forms that can act as magnets, draw people to it, make people feel less alien in this environment. That’s how it served me. When I was a kid, being a hustler in Times Square, had I ever known of a public figure, anyone, who could have touched me, it would have been a connection, and I could have been off the streets a lot earlier.
For a couple of years in the mid- to late ’80s, Wojnarowicz was selling his art and getting a lot of attention, although abhorring the social encounters with those who bought or might buy his work. Then things went sour. “I was really confused by all this money, success. It was really overwhelming, and I was very angry. I just pulled back. Things just seemed to disintegrate.” At the same time Hujar had become ill:
This guy was my family, like a father or brother. Even in my own fears of getting a diagnosis, I’d never imagined that Peter would ever be ill or die. All I could imagine even in the worst depressions was that this guy would tell people at my who I was. . . . I was broke. The strain was incredible. I thought I was going off. The one good thing that came out of it was that I hit a point of finding out what was important to me, what I cared about in my life.
Wojnarowicz says he is “mapping out the world as I see it . . . questioning the safety zone.”18 In a period obsessed with power and desire, his work simply is powerful, and it oozes with desire on the sexual, emotional and intellectual levels. In the monumental painting Late Afternoon in the Forest (1986), the only light in the tarry dusk comes from the upper left-hand corner, where two images of the Parthenon flanking the White House gleam white—the ironic last flicker of Western civilization. The rest of the canvas presents a terrifying ruin, with the Wojnarowiczian mask-head with sewn lips ruling over the dark gray rubble. The only sparks of color are provided by an Indian warrior, a four-armed (or forearmed) angel, a tribal figure with drum, the anatomy of a bird grafted onto a plane wreck and giant red ants occupying a gothic church. The central gray image in the sharp gloom is three disembodied gears—a deus ex machina. In his writings, he compares the rusting remains of industrial civilization to an insect that has metamorphosed and left its crumbling shell behind.
Late Afternoon is a painting about death in the broadest sense, a truly fearsome scene of total desolation, a deeply pessimistic vision of the world that lacks the angry vitality of much of Wojnarowicz’s work. At the same time, the artist’s disaffection is in itself a sign of vitality, belying the loss of hope suggested by the disappearing “white light” of the dominant culture. As the French writer Félix Guattari has written of Wojnarowicz’s work in general: “The image is not only meant to exhibit passively significant forms, but to trigger an existential movement, if not of revolt, then at least of existential creativity.”19 Wojnarowicz has said that his recurrent dreams of tornadoes, earthquakes, floods and volcanoes—natural forces that take control out of human hands—”gave me faith in the nature and possibilities of change.”20 Where he once gained comfort from psychic mysteries and the other worlds experienced in dreams, he now resists all extrasensorial solace: “There is something I want to see clearly, something I want to witness in its raw state. And this need comes from my sense of mortality.”21
Along these lines, inspired by the outrageous “third death” from AIDS of his friend Keith Davis (doctors had brutally “saved” him the first two times), Wojnarowicz wrote:
Hell is a place on earth. Heaven is a place in your head. The garden is the place I’ll go if I die. I don’t believe in afterlife, really. . . . But that doesn’t mean I don’t like the idea of tiny angels or ghosts accompanying people in life and death and offering them small comforts in unimaginable ways. Gimme a dozen angels; sweet, sexy angels; little creatures that fly around like dumb bugs in the wind. . . . So this garden is where I’ll go; the gears are the residue of the manufactured world I was born into. The train is the acceleration of time; the tornado the force of displacement in death; the Indian chief a cheap WWII doll that for me translates culture into something that can be owned—less than a century ago the wholesale slaughter of Indians was commonplace and they’d have been completely exterminated if not for organization and resistance; today the homosexual in America sustains the same slaughter which is socially acceptable in most areas.22
Wojnarowicz maintains in his art an overwhelming vision of the energies that connect everything to everything else. While so many artists today seem ready to tackle the Big Questions, their approaches too often seem simultaneously well intended and faked. One senses that the questions are being addressed because “they are there,” and because mainstream art has neglected them in the last two decades and their time has rolled around again, rather than from any visceral necessity to ask them, Wojnarowicz, on the other hand, seems almost helpless before these questions, unable to avoid them. He also has the courage to take sides: “I put these things out there because that’s what I want to see out there. I want to see strength. I want to see people fighting back. I want to be part of thousands out there.”23
NB: All unsourced quotations are from the author’s interview with Wojnarowicz, Dec. 28, 1989.
1. Wojnarowicz sued Wildman for misrepresenting his art by excerpting sexual vignettes from his larger works and sending out thousands of the reproduced images as part of an anti-NEA flier. The judge ordered the AFA to cease distribution of the flier but awarded the artist only a token dollar for damages to his career (see A.i.A., “Front Page,” June and July `90, and “Artworld,” Sept. and Oct. `90).
2. Wojnarowicz has been shooting film footage since 1979. There is a film on Peter Hujar that has not been edited. Some nine others are unfinished in one form or another, though one shot in Mexico City and border towns was shown at a downtown film festival a few years ago, then dismantled. In a two-and-a-half-minute film—Making a Patriotic Beast, or Teaching a Frog to Dance—a pair of disembodied hands force a bullfrog to dance to patriotic music; it`s about making people go against their nature—the function of society, says Wojnarowicz.
3. “David Wojnarowicz: An Interview,” by Matthew Rose, Arts Magazine, May 1988, p. 65.
4. Wind is based on a precognitive nightmare involving a friend Wojnarowicz hadn`t seen for some time; he wrote to the friend to see if he was all right, described the dream, and found that the friend`s child had been stillborn that same night.
5. “Speed at All Costs: An Interview with David Wojnarowicz,” by David Hirsh, New York Native, Mar. 6, 1989, p. 30; “The Compression of Time: An Interview with David Wojnarowicz,” by Barry Blinderman, in David Wojnarowicz: Tongues of Flame, p. 61.
6. David Wojnarowicz, In the Shadow of Forward Motion, photocopied booklet, New York, PPOW, 1989, n.p. (This booklet includes detailed notes by the artist on the paintings included in the PPOW show.)
7. David Wojnarowicz, “Post Cards from America: XRays from Hell,” Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, New York, Artists Space, 1989, p. 10.
8. In the Shadow of Forward Motion. In 1982 Wojnarowicz published Sounds in the Distance, a series of remembered monologues (London, Aloes Books).
9. See Jerry Saltz, “Notes on a Painting: Not Going Gentle,” Arts Magazine, Feb. 1989, pp. 13-14.
10. Hirsh interview, p. 30.
11. Lesbian images, that is, that “reflected no understanding or sensitivity of woman to woman gestures of sexuality, but were set up to reflect white male fantasies” (Wojnarowicz in conversation).
12. Blinderman interview, Tongues of Flame, pp. 56, 58.
13. Ibid., p. 50.
14. Rose interview, p. 65.
15. Ibid., p. 61.
16. Wojnarowicz, “Biographical Dateline,” Tongues of Flame, p. 117.
18. Rose interview, p. 64.
19. Félix Guattari, introduction to In the Shadow of Forward Motion, n.p.
20. In the Shadow of Forward Motion.
21. “Post Cards from America,” p. 8.
22. In the Shadow of Forward Motion.
23. Hirsh interview, p. 30.