David Wojnarowicz, Arthur Rimbaud in New York, 1978–79, (printed 1990). Gelatin silver print, 8 x 10 inches. Courtesy the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W, New York.
“Memory figures large in David’s life: As a young adult, because of the images he has to overcome in order to heal from his past,” writes Amy Scholder in her introduction to In the Shadow of the American Dream: The Diaries of David Wojnarowicz. Scholder calls him “David” because they were friends. Although I am from a generation born a few years before his passing, in this piece I also call him by his first name. Why? Because of my years of identification with him and his “iconoclasms” meaning his art, activism, writing, and life¾all which permeated me at my first encounter almost a decade ago when I saw a map-covered burning boy, trapped restless in an inflamed world.
Until his passing from complications from AIDS at the age of 37, David strove to overcome and transform the wounds of his childhood, one marred by an abusive, alcoholic father. His teens were spent as a hustler, while his fervor for writing and art-making pushed him to survive, eventually finding refuge among downtown types and inside white cubes. Following his death, his legacy has only continued to gain relevance and stature, leading to three summer shows at locales formative for his own biography—Chelsea, West Side piers, and the Village, where he hustled for a living and scavenged for art making. Since then, the sites have been ‘cleansed’ to provide space for the new, leaving few traces or remnants. Luckily, we have his art to remember through.
David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (Burning Boy), 1984. Collaged maps and acrylic on mannequin, 51 x 22 x 26 inches. Courtesy the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W, New York.
The Whitney Museum of American Art’s long-awaited survey of David’s oeuvre, entitled History Keeps Me Awake at Night, curated by David Kiehl and David Breslin, focuses on his painting, street art, and lens-based practices, and steps away from the piers he frequented for cruising and inspiration, fruits of which appear at The Whitney. (A museum ironically posed spectacularly overlooking these very same piers). As the largest institutional undertaking dedicated to his work since the New Museum’s Fever: The Art of David Wojnarowicz curated by Dan Cameron in 1999, the exhibitionmaneuvers through work which persistently rages and challenges authority. “His sense of urgency, his self-taught understanding of society and history, his growing frustration with the roles society, commerce, and politics had in meddling with our natural humanness,” explained Kiehl in our email conversation. His art is intrusive, for some it might even perforate the distinction between the abject and holy to the point of discomfort, as manifested in A Fire In My Belly (1986-87), a thirteen-minute Super 8mm film, composed of abrupt sequences of Mexican streets and theatrical shots at David’s New York apartment. Equally surreal, regardless whether candid or fictitious, are its frantic moments, such as the under-aged street performer breathing fire (proceeding his Burning Child sculpture from 1984), lips sewn with a blood-saturated thread, or, infamously, ants crawling over a crucifix. The film's 2010 removal from the National Portrait Gallery attests to the potency of his transgression, blurring distinctions between the wretched and revered.
Another work that has stayed with me, even shaped me, is the series of photos of his friends behind cardstock Arthur Rimbaud masks, created during his first venture into the East Village scene in 1978, just after visiting Paris. The 19th century Symbolist, who once wrote, “I managed to make every trace of human hope vanish from my mind./I pounced on every joy like a ferocious animal eager to strangle it,” appears in these surreal photographs on grimy corners of New York, either perched on a filthy subway seat, sandwiched between exhausted straphangers, or shooting up with a needle dangling from his inner arm. At the time, David was in no way aware, beyond their mutual mastery of transforming suffering into fire, that he would share with Rimbaud the fate of departing this earth at 37. His entire canon chronicles his suffering and insight up to the point of his death. To me, he is the Cassandra of the art world—at last, being heard.
Of the summer’s two other exhibitions, P.P.O.W’s exhibition of his rarely-seen installations features the work that so affected me when I was young—Untitled (Burning Child) (1984), a sculpture of a young boy, completely enshrouded by a world map, engulfed in fire bursting out from his limbs, rendered in papier-mâché. As I stood before it now in 2018, this burning child, running from itself, from a colossal world delinquent and brash to its own mishaps, struck me as the very world we live in today. That child has been me, David, all of us, who feel the heat of invisible flames—not as an entitlement, nor a strain—but as the heat of endurance through art.