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David Wojnarowicz
David Wojnarowicz with Tom Warren, “Self-Portrait of David Wojnarowicz”, (1983–84). Acrylic and collaged paper on gelatin silver print, 60 × 40 in. (152.4 × 101.6 cm).Collection of Brooke Garber Neidich and Daniel Neidich, Photograph by Ron Amstutz

The impact of radical artist David Wojnarowicz, told through six works

We unpick the meaning behind some of Wojnarowicz’s most important artworks as a major exhibition launches in New York

Few artists encapsulate the power of fury better than David Wojnarowicz. The incendiary creative was born in 1954 to parents who soon divorced; he then spent his formative years enduring childhood abuse and hustling for money on the streets of New York City. After a short hiatus, he returned in the late 1970s to immerse himself in its avant-garde art scene, quickly finding acceptance amongst a similarly-minded group of luminaries. He was openly gay, relentlessly political, and later built a reputation as one of the most radical Aids activists in American history, famously protesting the government in a painted leather jacket which read; “If I die of Aids – forget burial – just drop my body on the steps of the F.D.A.”

This week, New York’s prestigious Whitney Museum of American Art will commemorate his life and work by launching a major exhibition, History Keeps Me Awake At Night, which will run through to the end of September. Early reports describe an expansive celebration spanning numerous mediums: from film, paint and collage to cheap, unconventional materials (some of his early works use trash can lids as a makeshift canvas), his creativity knew no bounds.

“If I die of Aids – forget burial – just drop my body on the steps of the F.D.A.” – David Wojnarowicz

Looking back, it’s interesting to imagine what Wojnarowicz might have thought of his work being shown in the Whitney’s hallowed halls. He was famously critical of the art world’s selective erasure, as well as its censorship of any work which deviated from the standard depictions of “white straight male erotic fantasies.” These words were written from experience; throughout his lifetime, only a handful of queer artists were met with art world acclaim – one of which was provocative photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whose Foundation supported the Whitney exhibition.

Wojnarowicz laments this invisibility most notably in his 1989 essay Postcards from America: X-Rays from Hell, but follows up his rage with a powerful commentary on the importance of diverse representation in art. In an uncharacteristically beautiful passage, Wojnarowicz states that genuine diversity makes him “feel there is more room in the environment for my existence, that not the entire environment is hostile”. It’s arguable that this exhibition will create the same sense of belonging for today’s queer youth, as well as providing a glimpse into the life and work of an artist who consistently shirked the ‘victim’ label, instead, fighting to his death for our rights. His struggle is written across his extensive artistic archive – here are just a handful of its highlights.

“UNTITLED (GREEN HEAD)” (1982)

Wojnarowicz’s survival instinct was evident in even his earliest work, most of which was either spray-painted onto the sides of buildings or the lids of local bins. Gradually, he began to experiment more heavily with colour. Violent imagery was commonplace and often represented through shocks of bright red, or more literally by the images of soldiers and the smashed-to-smithereens skull depicted in this arresting acrylic painting.

In his memoir Close to the Knives, originally released in 1991, he writes often about colour – especially in a series of paragraphs describing the well-documented, often severe side effects of medicinal drug AZT (“I woke up feeling like fucking doom”). Wojnarowicz describes a scene at his friend’s house and, scanning his surroundings, writes of “screaming red and green faces” contained in the film of the camera, and states a desire for a lobotomy which would enable him to see only the colour blue. The interwoven language of colour and emotion imply that symbolism had a visceral effect on Wojnarowicz – that much is evident from his work.

Familiar themes of war, violence, and the government’s willingness to fund brutal foreign intervention over Aids research may be written across “Untitled (Green Head)”,, but the overarching takeaway is that he knew how to send a powerful visual message from day one.

“ARTHUR RIMBAUD IN NEW YORK” (1978-1979, 1990) AND “SELF-PORTRAIT OF DAVID WOJNAROWICZ” (1983-84)

Over the years, Wojnarowicz created a number of self-portraits. In the late 1970s, he wandered the streets of New York in a mask of Arthur Rimbaud, a French poet described by the New York Times as a “sexually fluid renegade genius”. Not only was it a commentary on their similarities as outsiders and outlaws, it was a musing on changing societal attitudes to any sexualities which deviated from the norm.

By the time a later self-portrait of the artist engulfed in flames was being created in 1983-84, America was in the midst of its Aids epidemic. Little was known about the lethal disease, but the tail end of 1983 saw the first discrimination case filed by Gay Men’s Health Crisis against a New York doctor. The virus was increasingly gaining a stigma and, as an openly gay artist, Wojnarowicz bore the brunt of this stigma; it’s why his work bristles with urgency and burns – in this case, literally – with anger. From looking at this portrait, it’s clear that he saw himself as a man swathed in the flames of a chaos which would never succeed in disrupting his defiance.

“A FIRE IN MY BELLY” (1986)

A Fire in My Belly – arguably Wojnarowicz’s most controversial work – was never completed. Comprised of clips shot in Mexico city interspersed with a now-iconic scene depicting the artist with his mouth stitched shut, the video work caused huge controversy some 20 years after his death. Religious protestors took specific aim at a crucifix crawling with ants; instead of understanding the imagery as a critique of institutionalised religion, or of conservative homophobia, or – in his words, a commentary on parallels between the ant world and human society – they protested the film and succeeded in having it removed from the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian. Unsurprisingly, there was an enormous backlash.

This story exemplifies the growing power of Wojnarowicz’s posthumous legacy, but the film’s most famous scene reflected the attitude amongst Aids activists that silence in the face of cruelty would no longer be tolerated. Months later, iconic activist movement ACT UP was formed.

“UNTITLED (BUFFALO FALLING)” (1988-89)

Few artworks created during the height of the Aids epidemic exemplify its devastation more poetically than this, which later went on to become the artwork for U2 benefit single “one”, released in 1992, the same year of Wojnarowicz’s death. The metaphor of the strong, powerful buffalos tumbling one by one to their inevitable death clearly represents the quickly-mounting death toll. In the United States alone, 100,000 Aids cases were reported in 1989.

But activism was starting to work, and prevention guidelines were finally being issued. The epidemic was far from being over, but collectives such as ACT UP were starting to galvanise the seeds of change which have since led to the discovery of groundbreaking treatment like ART (antiretroviral treatment) which can now suppress viral loads of HIV to “undetectable” levels. In other words, the legacy of Wojnarowicz and radicals like him, led to medication which now allows HIV+ people to have unprotected sex without fear of transmission; images like these were powerful enough to penetrate public consciousness and generate real change.

“ONE DAY THIS KID” (1990)

Surrounding this rare photograph of Wojnarowicz as an innocent child is an incendiary, nuanced essay which highlights what too many people still don’t understand; that discrimination is structural, societal, and often subtle. His moving words describe parents passing misguided information to their child – misinformation which builds and builds until it forms the kind of deeply-rooted discrimination we still see today.

His use of his own adolescent self as a motif of innocence also proves that he understood the power of humanisation. Especially in the 1980s, press outlets dehumanised queer people through the language of disease: HIV+ people in particular were described as a walking threat to be avoided at all costs. By looking back to his childhood, Wojnarowicz succeeds in appealing to human nature; the combination of powerful, urgent essay, and sweet, unquestionable innocence creates an arresting dichotomy which led to this becoming one of his best-known works.

“FACE IN THE DIRT” (1992)

For obvious reasons, symbols of mortality recurred throughout Wojnarowicz’s work. In this image – lensed by Marion Scemama and shot in Death Valley – the artist’s face is almost entirely covered by dirt, a premonition of his long-awaited death which eventually came just months later. It’s a powerful image which represents life slowly slipping away, but it’s also an image of resilience and confrontation.

It only takes a glance at Wojnarowicz’s work to see that he never shied away from death; in fact, he often described his frustration with society’s reluctance to look it straight in the eye. His life was plagued with obstacles, but his fury was never tamed. As his physical health eroded, his fighting spirit remained in tact. In this context, the arresting photograph can be seen as a portrait of a man who refused to surrender to the rising dirt even as he breathed his last breaths.

History Keeps Me Awake At Night runs at New York’s Whitney from 13 July until 30 September 2018