History Keeps Me Awake at Night
A New Exhibit at the Whitney Illuminates the Brutal, Provocative Outsider Art of David Wojnarowicz
by Hank Trout
Born in Red Bank, New Jersey, in 1954, David Wojnarowicz became one of the most prolific and most provocative artists in the New York City art world of the 1980s and 1990s. A genuine renaissance man—painter, photographer, writer, filmmaker, performance artist, singer/songwriter—Wojnarowicz was also an avid, dedicated AIDS activist until he himself succumbed to the disease in 1992 at age thirty-seven.
“David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City is the first full-scale re-evaluation of Wojnarowicz’s incendiary work in nearly twenty years, curated by David Breslin, Director of the Collection, and David Kiehl, Curator Emeritus. The exhibit opens on July 13 and runs through September 30, 2018.
After a rather harrowing childhood (his parents divorced when he was two years old, abandoning him to the care of a succession of temporary homes and abusive relationships; he was a victim of childhood abuse and, during his teens, was a street hustler in New York City), Wojnarowicz (Voy-na-ROW-vich) graduated from the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan. He hitchhiked around the U.S. and, after a time living in San Francisco and then in Paris, Wojnarowicz settled in New York City in the late 1970s, when the art scene was enjoying a gritty renaissance, particularly in graffiti art and avant-garde work that mixed media. He quickly became one of the renaissance’s most prolific and most important artists, showing his paintings and photographs and collages at important galleries like Civilian Warfare and P.P.O.W.
Wojnarowicz began to make art that explored “the outsider,” and particularly queer outsiders like William S. Burroughs and Jean Genet, both of whose portraits he made. He seemed to have a special affinity with French queer poet Arthur Rimbaud. For his series Rimbaud in New York (1978–79), Wojnarowicz made a mask from a xeroxed portrait of Rimbaud and photographed his friends wearing the mask in quintessential New York City locales—the subway (of course), the piers, diners and delis, Coney Island. The juxtapositions in these photographs (e.g., Rimbaud in a meat packing plant) can be jarring and eerie as Wojnarowicz becomes the little queer kid looking for role models among “the other,” the misfits, the outsiders, trying to place them in the everyday New York he knows.
Throughout the 1980s, Wojnarowicz filled some of New York’s prominent galleries with his photography, collages, sculptures and paintings. In his 1984 series Metamorphosis, he used collaged paper, papier-mache, glass, rocks, plaster and plastic toys to create masks, sometimes brutally ugly masks, meant to disturb us with their not-quite-human glares. He also made his paintings and collages with eclectic materials—spray paint on garbage can lids, for instance, as well as Masonite, wood, and old grocery store posters. His eclecticism seems to stem from his rejection of maintaining (and becoming known for) any one particular style or method of creating.
Although he collaborated with several New York photographers and artists such as Nan Goldin, perhaps his most fruitful and important association was with the photographer Peter Hujar. Photographs of Hujar often show up in Wojnarowicz’s collages of the time and Hujar was often Wojnarowicz’s portrait subject (see Peter Hujar Dreaming/Yukio Mishima: Saint Sebastian, 1982 for example) and vice versa (the Whitney exhibit also features many photos that Hujar took of Wojnarowicz). The two became lovers as well as collaborators. When Hujar died of complications from AIDS in 1987, Wojnarowicz and friends were there with him. David Breslin told me that when Hujar died, Wojnarowicz asked his other friends to leave the room and let the two of them be alone. Wojnarowicz then took photos of Hujar’s body; three of those photos—of Hujar’s head and face, his hand, and his feet—figure prominently in the exhibit. Wojnarowicz also took some super-8 movie footage of Hujar for an unfinished film he was working on; that unfinished film is also featured in the exhibit along with other films by the artist.
That same year, 1987, Wojnarowicz discovered that he too was HIV-positive. As a result, his art became much more direct and brutal in its attacks on systemic homophobia and on a government that seemed, in its inaction, to want AIDS to kill off all the young gay men in the country. Like some of his contemporaries [see Martin Wong (A&U, December 2016)], he began to incorporate more written word into his paintings and collages. (See, for instance, We Are Born into a Preinvented Existence, 1990). Perhaps the best known of these collages, because of its brutal frankness and jaw-dropping sense of innocence corrupted, is Untitled (One Day this Kid…), 1990.
Front and center in the piece is a xeroxed copy of a photo of David himself as a young boy, reminescent of a studio portrait or an advertisement of some kind from the 1950s or early 1960s, the very picture of rustic innocence with his freckled cheeks, large ears, and a look of goofy mischief in his eyes, in a plaid shirt and clip-on suspenders. The text that surrounds him is a paragraph detailing the grim future facing this kid, a future full of “men who develop a fear of this kid [and] will attempt to silence him with strangling, fists, prison, suffocation, rape, intimidations, drugging, ropes, guns, laws, menace, roving gangs, bottles, knives, religion, decapitation, and immolation by fire.” He will be threatened with electro-shock therapies, drugs and brainwashing. And, we learn in the last sentence, “All this will begin to happen in one or two years when he discovers he desires to place his naked body on the naked body of another boy.” It is the most raw, most visceral condemnation of systemic homophobia that I’ve ever seen. I literally gasped the first time I read the text. The juxtaposition between the seemingly happy-go-lucky innocence of this young boy and the future that Wojnarowicz knows he faces, full of opprobrium from our government, condemnation from religious bigots, and routine violence, is downright brutal, its impact indelible.
As one might expect, Wojnarowicz’s work has often met with harsh criticism and controversy, even as recently as 2010, some eighteen years after his death. In November of that year, a clip from Wojnarowicz’s silent film A Fire in My Belly was exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery (part of the Smithsonian collection of galleries). The film contains a brief image of a crucifix covered in ants. This brought down not only the wrath of the Catholic League (which condemned the film as “hate speech”) but also a threat from U.S. House of Representatives Minority Leader John Boehner and Rep. Eric Cantor to cut funding for the Smithsonian if the image were not removed. The curators caved in and the image was removed; it was restored, however, when the exhibit traveled to the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington on its way to SFMOMA and the Tate Modern. Before that, in 1989, Wojnarowicz wrote an essay for the catalogue of the exhibit “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing” curated by his friend Nan Goldin. The essay was such a scorching attack on politicians and other leaders who were either ignoring the AIDS crisis or denying it, that the National Endowment for the Arts threatened to pull funding from the exhibition. This was only one of Wojnarowicz’s fights for the First Amendment rights of artists.
Like much of Wojnarowicz’s politically charged work, the remarkable photograph Untitled (Buffaloes), 1994, is a response to the slaugher of the AIDS crisis. The image of three buffaloes tumbling over a cliff (a diorama, in fact, of early Native American hunting technique) was chosen for the sleeve of U2’s single release “One” and figured prominently as an image in their Zoo TV Tour.
All of the pieces of Wojnarowicz’s art discussed here are included in this exhibit at the Whitney, along with nearly 100 others, a close to all-encompassing retrospective.
When I asked the curator Mr. Breslin, “What was the immediate impetus for this show? Why now? What is it that makes Wojnarowicz’s art still relevant?” he very quickly gave me a two-pronged answer.
First, he said, not long ago he taught a course in art of the 1980s and 1990s. He said the students at Williams College “were intelligent, interested, socially progressive young people, but they knew next to nothing about the AIDS crisis of that time.” He hopes that the Whitney retrospective will “help people like those students fill in the blanks in their education about AIDS.”
But even more important to these times, Mr. Breslin said, is Wojnarowicz’s identification with and examination of “the outsider” in society. “With today’s income inequality, our treatment of immigrants, the rights of trans people, all of our rights being in jeopardy, Wojnarowicz’s art seems more relevant, more important than ever.”
As a writer, an activist, and an artist, as a queer HIV-positive man, David Wojnarowicz continues to speak to us—and for us—decades after his death. The exhibition at the Whitney should remind us that, as their web introduction to the exhibit puts it, Wojnarowicz’s work is “too frequently treated as a footnote to a desperate period of American history, that of the AIDS crisis and culture wars. His true place is among the raging and haunting iconoclastic artists who have explored American myths, their perpetuation, their repercussions, and their violence.” To raging and haunting I would add brutal and honest and beautiful. And necessary.
For more information about “David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night,” log on to www.whitney.org.
In conjunction with the opening of the Whitney’s exhibition David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night [A&U, July 2018] on view through September 30, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art and will host a symposium on Visual Arts and the AIDS Epidemic, on July 13, 2018, from 1:00 to 5:00 pm at the Whitney. Among the artists, activists, and historians participating are Cynthia Carr, Joy Episalla, Alex Fialho, Avram Finkelstein, Frank Holliday, Alexandra Juhasz , Ted Kerr, Liza Kirwin, Svetlana Kitto, Sur Rodney (Sur), Julie Tolentino, Marguerite Van Cook, Robert Vázquez-Pacheco, James Wentzy, Fred Weston, and Carrie Yamaoka.
The Symposium is inspired by the Oral History Project of the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, which gathered memories of the AIDS crisis in the pre-HAART years (1981 to 1996) and features conversations with artists, activists, and oral historians, funded with support from The Keith Haring Foundation. The Oral History Project is a collection of forty interviews with key witnesses to the AIDS epidemic and its profound impact on the visual arts in America, in particular, in New York City.
The symposium, also funded with support from The Keith Haring Foundation, is free and open to the public with advanced registration; if you are not in New York City, the symposium will be live-streamed on the Whitney’s YouTube channel.
The Whitney Museum of American Art is located at 99 Gansevoort Street between Washington and West Streets, New York City. Museum hours are: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday from 10:30 am to 6 pm; Friday and Saturday from 10:30 am to 10 pm. Closed Tuesday except in July and August. Adults: $25. Full-time students and visitors 65 & over: $18. Visitors 18 years & under and Whitney members: FREE. Admission is pay-what-you-wish on Fridays, 7–10 pm. For general information, please call (212) 570-3600 or visit www.whitney.org.
Hank Trout, Editor at Large, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a thirty-eight-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick Greathouse. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.