David Wojnarowiczby Jan Avgikos
“History is What Keeps Me Awake at Night”
Whitney Museum of American Art
July 13 – September 30
“Soon All This Will Be Picturesque Ruins: The Installations of David Wojnarowicz,”
July 12 – August 24
“The Unflinching Eye: The Symbols of David Wojnarowicz”
Mamdouha Bobst Gallery at Failes Library
July 12 – Sep 30, 2018
August through September is Wojnarowicz’s season here in New York with three important exhibitions sprawling retrospective at the Whitney, “History Keeps Me Awake at Night”; “Soon All This Will Be Picturesque Ruins: the Installations of David Wojnarowicz,” at P.P.O.W, Wojnarowicz’s gallery since 1989; and the presentation at the Fales Library at NYU of selected papers and writings from the artist’s archives. It’s time to dig in¾there’s lessons for us all.
Let’s start with history:
Read David Wojnarowicz’s Biographical Dateline, written by him in 1989, published in the catalogue to accompany his first retrospective exhibition, Tongues of Flame, and it becomes indelibly clear that in his youth and teenage years he suffered enough brutality to last a lifetime. Remarkably, he gradually found his way out of the hellhole of living on the street and turning tricks with creeps in Times Square to make art. As he recalls, it was tremendously therapeutic to realize he was “truly queer” and, in 1972 – 73, to begin to live openly as a gay man. By the mid-70s, he gathered momentum writing, drawing, and making photographs. By the late 70s he had given his first public reading, began to publish poems in small journals, and produced his Arthur Rimbaud in New York photographs (1978 – 79). Sporting a photocopied mask of Rimbaud¾the flaming Romantic poet and Wojnarowicz’s surrogate¾an otherwise anonymous male body, a stand-in for a stand-in, appears to haunt the seedy streets he had once called home.
We know the way physical and psychological trauma works: You never get away from it. He might have been off the street as a hustler, but as an artist he continually returned to derelict precincts to document the malaise that almost claimed him. In his book, Close to the Knives, he describes as a hustler, on more than one occasion, he had narrowly escaped being murdered. His practice took root in the remnants of the Downtown Scene and nascent new art in the East Village, with its reputation for youthful exuberance, a raucous sense of freedom and rebellion, and all around trashiness. Sure, you could take over an abandoned pier falling apart into the Hudson River and make art there. Artists such as Gordon Matta-Clark and Vito Acconci had already paved the way. That’s exactly what Wojnarowicz and his artist friends did in 1983 at Pier 34, a hulk of warehouses and docks collapsing into the water. At the Whitney, (with a sound track playing in the background from the band Wojnarowicz was in, “Three Teens Kill Four—No Motive”) a slide show captures the staggering wreckage of the site and the interlopers’ wild art-making. The scene had the flavor of the Times Square Show one year later in 1984, but way more perilous and strictly off-limits. Trespass was the ideal metaphor for that generation’s brazen ideas about art.
A wealth of aesthetic misdemeanors proliferates in Wojnarowicz’s art in the early ’80s. His exhibition in 1984 at Civilian Warfare gallery, Metamorphosis, was East Village “bad” at its best, and featured a fleet of twenty-three crudely fashioned plaster heads, all made from the same mold and variously decorated, reminiscent of mercenaries, thugs, gladiators, torture victims, aliens, and robots. They share DNA with stencil works from the early ‘80s that are animated with a repertoire of soldiers dodging bullets, cartoon he-men firing machine guns, explosions, and other emblems of combat. It was as if everything that had ever interested him as a boy still held him in thrall, but with added metaphorical weight.
Gore and carnality are the bedrock of his visual work. The startling vanitas, Installation #5, produced in 1985 at the Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage, was a full-scale skeleton banquet splattered and drenched in blood. In paintings of the mid-80’s Wojnarowicz mastered visual overload. The complex iconographies in Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water (1986), are all about the end of the world, with interludes of pleasure, as described in an orgasmic barrage of imagery. It’s like an epic dream, without beginning and without end. Fold the references one way and the symbols yield an examination of masculinity and power; fold another way to reveal a growing visual vocabulary to represent homo-erotic experience. Two men kissing became an emblematic motif, and Wojnarowicz produced it in every medium he worked in. It became a hallmark of the grand, inclusive, coming out party that took place at the tail end of Modernism.
In the video America: Heads of Family, Heads of State (1989 – 90), Wojnarowicz loops a nature film showing a snake eating prey, and footage of pitiful circus animals made to perform stupid tricks, and images of a poor mistreated dog unable to stand. They make you wince and convey pain palpable enough to underwrite the anger and rage and sense of helplessness Wojnarowicz experienced at the end of his life. What doesn’t make sense most when it’s 1988 and you’ve been diagnosed with 2nd stage AIDS , and the country you live in condemns you for being gay, and some of your friends don’t want to know you anymore? And, it just goes downhill from there. That was the year that Peter Hujar, the most meaningful person in the world to him, died. The last work Wojnarowicz completed before his own death, Untitled (Sometimes I Come to Hate People), 1992, is a large black-and-white photograph of a pair of dirty bandaged hands reaching out like a beggar, or the proverbial hands of a leper. Text is silk-screened in red over the image and conveys his despair on the verge of death. “Sometimes I come to hate people because they can’t see where I am. I’ve gone empty. . . . I can’t abstract my own dying any longer. . . .”
The snake eats the mouse, the animals are on their last legs. There is no escape. Cast into the role of pariah, he amplifies what he was all along—he transforms his rage, and the gravitas of imminent death, into an extended shining moment in his art. Still contemporary, though it’s been more than a quarter of a century since his death, his art is a marker for our times—social, personal, and transcendent.
JAN AVGIKOS is a critic and historian who lives and works in NYC and the Hudson Valley.