David Wojnarowicz is among the most famous artists and activists lost during the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and early ’90s. His life and his beautiful, unapologetically political art continue to intrigue, and in recent years, they have been the subject of a biography, an Aperture monograph, a Whitney Museum retrospective, and, now, a new documentary.
Directed by Chris McKim and produced by World of Wonder (of RuPaul’s Drag Race fame), Wojnarowicz: Fuck You Faggot Fucker premieres digitally today via the DOC NYC film festival. From the outset, it’s made clear that Wojnorawicz’s archives form the basis of the documentary. The artist’s voice—heard in the form of taped journals and other recordings he produced to meticulously document his life—animate the film, and for that reason alone, it’s worth watching. But concisely telling the story of David Wojnarowicz is no easy task, as the artist left behind so much material about his life and work, and the film ultimately disappoints because it can’t find a way to crisply tell Wojnarowicz’s life story.
McKim starts Fuck You in 1989, when Wojnarowicz reached the height of his fame with his catalogue essay for the Artists Space exhibition “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing,” which catapulted him to the center of the era’s culture wars. “The bottom line [is], if I may be dying of AIDS in America in 1989, isn’t that political?” Wojnarowicz tells an interviewer by phone. “To try to pretend that the subject of AIDS cannot have a political tinge to it is ridiculous.”
The filmmaker allows the audio to bleed into the sound of a 1990 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, in which Wojnarowicz gives us insight into what motivated him to be an artist. “Whatever work I’ve done, it’s always been informed by my experience as an American in this country, as a homosexual in this country, as a person who is legislated into silence in this country,” he says as images of his work play on screen.
From there, McKim begins his detailed account of Wojnarowicz’s life, which includes an abusive father, his time as a teenage hustler in Hell’s Kitchen after running away from home, his experiences hitchhiking in 1976, and his nine-month stay in Paris. It is upon his return to New York that Wojnarowicz begins on his earliest series, “Arthur Rimbaud in New York” (1978–80), which features photographs of the artist wearing a mask of the 19th-century French poet’s face while posing in various places across the city.
Around 1981, Wojnarowicz met photographer Peter Hujar. They had a brief tryst, but remained lifelong friends, with Hujar becoming a mentor of sorts who pushed his mentee to be his best. When Wojnarowicz considered throwing away his early work, it was Hujar who told him not to. “The relationship between Peter and David is one of the most interesting relationships between artists in a very long time—more interesting than van Gogh and Gauguin,” Stephen Koch, the director of Hujar’s archives, says in McKim’s film.
Around this time, Wojnarowicz was still unknown and working at Danceteria when he cofounded the band 3 Teens Kill 4, but he quit by late 1982 to focus on his art. He staged a kind of protest against the art market by throwing cow’s blood and bones in the stairwell of the storied Leo Castelli Gallery. Although the documentary explores all this in depth, it nearly elides a crucial part of Wojnarowicz’s biography: his time at the West Side piers, the site where much of his early work was made and the location where he staged a guerrilla art project with Mike Bidlo.
McKim doesn’t give a clear delineation of how Wojnarowicz developed each of his most important bodies of work, instead focusing on how and where most of it was displayed. Wojnarowicz was included in an important group show at Gracie Mansion, which led to a solo show that got serious attention, just as the East Village art scene was itself beginning to receive mainstream interest and acclaim. From there, Wojnarowicz’s career took off, with the artist being included in the 1985 Whitney Biennial. Around that time, Wojnarowicz got weary of the art world and the gallery system.
Soon, the reality of the AIDS pandemic began to set in and afflict thousands, leading to heavy losses in the art world. In January 1987, Hujar learned that he was HIV+, and died that Thanksgiving. Wojnarowicz was in Hujar’s hospital room when Hujar passed away, and he produced deeply affecting photographs of Hujar’s body that double as artistic evidence of what happens when a government mishandles a major pandemic. The following year, Wojnarowicz was also diagnosed with AIDS.
Wojnarowicz became active in ACT UP, attending several of the group’s protests (a controversial act for some in the art world at the time). In McKim’s film, we’re shown his now-infamous leather jacket painted with the words “If I die of AIDS—forget burial—just drop my body on the steps of the F.D.A.”
With his death looming, Barry Blinderman, a curator who purchased a Wojnarowicz’s 1984 painting Fuck You Faggot Fucker from a gallery show, got to work on a retrospective, and Wojnarowicz was arguably at the height of his career when he experienced one of his greatest controversies. Wojnarowicz’s essay for the “Witnesses” exhibition condemned right-wing politicians who failed to fund HIV/AIDS research and discouraged teaching of safe sex in favor of abstinence, which ultimately furthered the spread of HIV. The NEA withdrew a $10,000 grant for the show, only to later reinstate it after much debate. Then, in 1990, Wojnarowicz landed himself in a legal battle with American Family Association, whom he sued for violating his copyright and misrepresenting his work in its mailers. Ultimately, he won $1 in damages.
But by 1991, the virus began to take its toll on Wojnarowicz. He got sick during a road trip through the Southwest, during which he meant to gather imagery for a series of experimental films that were ultimately left unfinished; he also created his famed buried face self-portrait during that period. Wojnarowicz’s health declined gradually, and he died in 1992, but by then, his place in art history was cemented. The year he died, U2 used his Untitled (Falling Buffalos) as the cover art for single “One” and the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired Fire, from “The Four Elements” series.
Watching Fuck You Faggot Fucker, which takes its name from Wojnarowicz’s 1984 work of the same name, we get a clear sense of the life Wojnarowicz lived. That’s important, but the film’s overall effect is deadening—it places too much emphasis on laying out a timeline of Wojnarowicz’s life. It doesn’t help that we never see the majority of the documentary’s interviewees. Though McKim seemingly conducted original interviews for the film, they are all presented as audio clips, making it feel as though everything presented is archival, even when it isn’t.
McKim’s film is nearly two hours, and it takes about half that time to get to the most important part of the artist’s oeuvre. He’s too focused on painting a picture of the East Village scene in the 1970s and ’80s, and as such the documentary’s heavy focus on the Wojnarowicz’s biography comes at the expense of any real discussion of the artist’s work. Little mind is paid to curators or fellow artists who might offer insights about why Wojnarowicz’s art continues to be a touchstone today.
Wojnarowicz is an artist who created some of the most poignant, hauntingly beautiful images of the late 20th century, if not the entire century. They transfix, stopping you in your tracks and demanding deeper thinking about the sociopolitical issues he is addressing. They’re more than just pretty pictures: they feature buffalos falling off a cliff, his face buried in sand, ants crawling on a crucifix, his bloodied mouth sewn shut, and, most gut-wrenchingly, a smiling little boy surrounded by a wall text that tells of the hatred, bigotry, violence he will face all because “he discovers he desires to place his naked body on the naked body of another boy.”
One wishes that, in McKim’s documentary, there were more insights like one that comes from Blinderman, the curator of Wojnarowicz’s 1990 retrospective, who tells the filmmaker: “I think a lot of the reason David is important now is because people recognize an emergent queer sensibility in David: ‘I’m not gay as in “I love you.” I’m queer as in “fuck off.”’”