David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night
WHITNEY MUSEUM | JULY 13 – SEPTEMBER 30
My partner and I were recently tested for HIV at a local clinic that doubles as a thrift store. The test was free, and our negative results were instant. Afterward, we talked about the contrast between the medical experience we had and that experienced by queer and trans people in 1980s New York, who often waited two weeks for their results, all the while steeped with fear and palpable mourning. Certainly, this experience is still true for many today. As a queer person born the decade following Reagan and the peak of the AIDS crisis in the United States, my relationship to the world inhabited by queer artists like David Wojnarowicz (1954 – 1992) is a specific one. My queerness is indebted to the decades-worth of activists who organized for legal protections, established accessible clinics like the one we visited, and created safety in community. While some of the cultural and political context has advanced, I am constantly aware of the methods by which queer and otherwise marginalized bodies have been, and continue to be, policed and made vulnerable, especially as we face another administration explicit about its many biases. History Keeps Me Awake at Night is an urgent, stunning retrospective of an artist who, across media, coupled rage with tenderness to create images and calls to action that reverberated with viewers in the 1980s just as much as they do with visitors to the Whitney Museum today.
Curated by David Kiehl and David Breslin, the show immerses you in Wojnarowicz’s world of sound, sculpture, photography, and painting. Maps as symbols of nation, money as symbols of capitalism, and houses as symbols of heteronormativity are destabilized in Wojnarowicz’s work as the artist fades, repeats, and burns them in his posters and paintings. In these works, the use of stencils and repetition communicates urgency by insisting on their presence and permanency; juxtaposed with generous material vulnerabilities like paint strokes and fingerprints, the physical demarcations of process and material convey a kind of generosity and assert personal subjectivity.
Along with such symbols, Wojnarowicz conjures histories of industrialization and colonization, of myth- and art-making. Somehow, the narratives simultaneously present intimate histories of friends and lovers, histories of close communities and personal geographies. These motifs are present in the 1986 titular painting in which a man sleeps while a second figure points a gun at the viewer and a pillar of Supermarket ads is toppled by a headless horseman. In this painting, and others, we see Wojnarowicz’s dreams: fiery hauntings of money and violence blend with the tenderness of queer affection and community.
Wojnarowicz’s work often includes the image of a bed as a metaphor of intimacy. He depicts it as a place for sleep, for embrace, and, most devastatingly, as a place of fragility and illness in his 1988 triptych of Peter Hujar moments after dying. In the black-and-white photographs, Wojnarowicz captures Hujar’s last moments in tender, tight crops of his mentor’s open-mouth, frail fingers, and feet uncovered by the hospital sheet. Wojnarowicz’s beds recall Félix González-Torres’s 1991 Untitled (billboard of an empty bed), another powerful image of loss and intimacy made by an artist who died of AIDS-related complications. Both artists’ work asks who is able to rest, with whom, and with what consequences. Through this line of questioning—particularly at their sociopolitical moment—they make the private public with images at once transgressive and vulnerable.
After rooms of sculpture (a display of plaster “alien heads” from 1984 are standouts of his early work), video (notably A Fire in My Belly [1986 – 87], Wojnarowicz’s unfinished, unflinching footage from Mexico City viewed from gray museum cushions), and paintings, an empty gallery—its white walls lined with white benches facing a large window—beckons you to sit and listen to audio recordings, made in 1992, of Wojnarowicz reading excerpts from his books and other texts. This moment of reflection is effective and affecting.
In the next gallery, a wall text tells of Zoe Leonard showing Wojnarowicz her prints of clouds (which were on display at the Whitney earlier this year as part of her retrospective, Survey) and feeling “guilty and torn” that the work was “so apolitical on the surface.” David encouraged Zoe not to give up beauty, stating that having beauty was what they were fighting for. Across the gallery are three paintings depicting delicate flowers: I Feel a Vague Nausea, Americans Can’t Deal with Death, and We Are Born into a Preinvented Existence (all 1990). Wojnarowicz thought it was a “luxury to sit and paint flowers.” When he does so in these paintings, he not only achieves beauty, but—through stitching smaller images into the composition board and overlaying intimate, narrative texts—political impact.
Wojnarowicz also made an impact as an active member of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), which recently protested the show’s historicizing of the ongoing AIDS crisis. The protest was initiated by a college student, Ariel Friedlander, and it involved members who held articles reporting recent cases of violence and disparity faced by people living with HIV today. In their response, the Whitney agreed with the protesters’ proclamations, and the action is now mentioned in the wall text for Untitled (ACT-UP) (1990), a two-part screen print, which was used to raise money for the activist organization. In it, text overlays an image of bodies underwater in the first panel, and stock values overlay an image of the United States painted to resemble a bulls eye, in the second.
It is crucial in this current landscape not to relegate the work of Wojnarowicz or the AIDS crisis to the past. Policies, litigations, and allocations to reproductive and legal services are making queer and trans communities, low-income communities, communities of color, and people living with HIV increasingly more vulnerable. There are still 1.1 million people living with HIV in the United States today, and the virus continues to disproportionally affect gay and bisexual men of color. History Keeps Me Awake at Night, and exhibitions like it, tell a critical history of resilience while reminding us of the continued need for community and action.
is a poet and curator living in Brooklyn, New York. His poetry and criticism has been featured in Bushwick Daily, ArtCritical, and Long River Review, and the Brooklyn Rail, among other publications.