Like an irate guardian angel, the American artist David Wojnarowicz was there when we needed him politically 30-plus years ago. Now we need him again, and he’s back in a big, rich retrospective, “David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Wojnarowicz (pronounced voyna-ROH-vitch),who died at 37 in 1992, was one of the most articulate art world voices raised against the corporate greed and government foot-dragging that contributed immeasurably to the global spread of AIDS. Yet he was far from a one-issue artist.
From the start, he took outsiderness itself, as defined by ethnicity, gender, economics and sexual orientation, as his true native turf. And from it he attacked — through writing, performing and object-making — all forms of exclusion and oppression. Not long before his AIDS-related death, he wrote, “I’m convinced I’m from another planet.” In 2018 America, he would have felt more than ever like a criminal migrant, an alien combatant.
Alienation was the driving theme of the life story he told, repeatedly and often, a tale romantically massaged but based in fact.
He was born in Red Bank, N.J. in 1954. His father, a merchant marine, was an abusive alcoholic. After his parents divorced, Wojnarowicz lived in foster homes and went to Catholic school. A shy child, he immersed himself in suburban nature. Already attuned to the vulnerability of innocence, he adopted stray animals as pets. By his teens he was having sex with men in exchange for cash, which became a means of support after a move to Manhattan.
Although he barely squeaked by in high school, he was deep into self-education. Reading Jack Kerouac, Jean Genet and the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, he bypassed the Aquarian 1960s, and went, via Beat culture, straight to the anti-authoritarian outrage of punk. For several years, he identified as a poet — in my view, he was never not one — and then his focus changed and broadened.
By 1979, he was in the East Village. He collaborated with friends on a band called 3 Teens Kill 4 (they made music with toy instruments and tape recordings), and started cruising the derelict shipping piers — the so-called gay “sex piers” — along the Hudson River, some near where the Whitney now stands. He shifted from poetry to art, operating outside, and sometimes in pointed opposition to, a traditional art world context. Uninvited, he stenciled images of fighter planes and falling figures on SoHo walls. He painted murals on the West Side piers. For his early gallery-ready work, he photographed three male friends wearing a cutout mask of Rimbaud’s face in different spots around the city.
A set of “Arthur Rimbaud in New York” photographs, along with the original paper mask, opens this show, organized by two Whitney curators, David Breslin, the director of the museum’s collection, and David Kiehl, a curator emeritus. The image of Rimbaud as a loner bad boy — shooting up, masturbating, prowling Times Square — embodied Wojnarowicz’s early view of what an artist should be: a guerrilla infiltrator, disrupter of what he called the “pre-invented world” that we’re all told is normal, a world of fake borders, gated hierarchies and controlling insider laws.
Despite his anarchistic impulses, Wojnarowicz was a methodical worker, a planner. The Rimbaud series was carefully developed through notebook drawings, examples of which are on view. Self-taught, he painted the way certain writers write, with deliberation rather than grace, putting down one word, one idea, one image at a time, wedging and stitching them into a dense visual weave.
By the mid-1980s, he had refined this practice and was ready to expand the scope of his art from local applications (posters advertising his band) to more ambitious ends. A vital catalyst for change was the photographer Peter Hujar (1934-1987). They met in 1980, were briefly lovers, and Hujar soon assumed the role of mentor, encouraging the younger artist to stretch himself, which he did.
Although it’s sometimes said that Wojnarowicz’s work turned political only after he received an H.I.V.-positive diagnosis in 1990, the show reveals otherwise. A salon-like central gallery is lined with large-scale pictures from the mid-1980s that are basically the equivalent of the history paintings produced by Nicolas Poussin and Thomas Cole, big-thinking panoramas that addressed contemporary politics in a classical language of mythology and landscape.
True, Wojnarowicz’s formal means — stenciling, spray painting, collaging — are anti-academic. But his fact-and-fantasy images of existential violence and degradation, past and present, are in an old allegorical mode. With its allover collage of rifle targets, national flags and United States currency, the 1986 painting that gives the show its title could easily be re-dated to 2018. So could the quartet of 1987 paintings named for the four elements: Earth, Water, Wind and Fire. Each depicts an ecological Armageddon, though there are other things going on too.
The picture called “Water” is set in an oceanic version of outer space, with darting sperm for stars and a mother ship, seen in cutaway view, packed with visions of fecundity and sexual warmth. And “Wind (for Peter Hujar)” has a sense of airiness and release that is unusual for this artist. Above a chunk of charred earth, liberatory images rise: a blue sky, an open window and a floating bird’s wing.
Hujar died of AIDS-related illness in 1987. Wojnarowicz was with him at the end, and in a radically memorializing gesture, took on-the-spot photographs of his friend’s corpse: head, hands, feet. Some of these images are in the show as framed prints. Others are incorporated into a text painting begun the following year. In it, Hujar’s hands are dimly visible, like ghosts, behind a curtain of words. Breath-catching in their ferocity, they read in part:
“I say there’s certain politicians that had better increase their security forces and there’s religious leaders and health care officials that had better get bigger dogs and higher fences and more complex security alarms for their homes, and queer-bashers better start doing their work from inside howitzer tanks because the thin line between the inside and the outside is beginning to erode and at the moment I’m a thirty seven foot tall one thousand one hundred and seventy-two pound man inside this six foot frame and all I can feel is the pressure all I can feel is the pressure and the need for release.”
In this piece, and others that followed, Wojnarowicz unabashedly turned, as he said, “the private into something public.” He collapsed political, cultural and personal history in a way that he hadn’t before. He took his outsider citizenship as a subject and weaponized it. The move was strategically effective:It got a lot of attention, including a barrage of right-wing attacks that have persisted into the near-present.
When, in 2010, and in a mangled form, his unfinished film “A Fire in My Belly” (1986-87) was included in a group show of queer art at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, both the Catholic League and members of Congress declared it blasphemous and demanded its removal. The museum complied.
The piece is in the Whitney retrospective. It’s a harsh artifact, with conceptual blind spots. Shot primarily in Mexico, it makes Mexican culture look freakish and violent in a way one might have hoped this artist would have resisted. (His inclusion of cartoonish images of pre-Columbian sculpture in paintings feels similarly misjudged.)
At the same time, it’s the work of an artist deeply invested in dealing with mortality and spirituality, huge subjects rarely, and usually only obliquely, addressed in American contemporary art. Whether you trace his interest to residual Roman Catholicism or to the last-rites urgencies of the AIDS years, it’s real, and right there in the work.
In 1988, Wojnarowicz tested positive for the virus that causes AIDS. In 1990, he made what he knew would be a final trip out of New York. He traveled to the American Southwest with the photographer Marion Scemama. On a drive through Death Valley, he asked her to make his portrait. For the shoot, he dug a hole in the ground and buried himself in dirt so that only part of his face was visible. The picture, which is famous, comes at the end of the exhibition. Does it show the artist sinking into the earth? Or rising, Lazarus-like, from it?
For sure, his profile is high in New York this summer. In addition to this retrospective, the first of its size since 1999, there’s an exhibition of related archival material, “The Unflinching Eye: The Symbols of David Wojnarowicz,” at the Mamdouha Bobst Gallery at New York University. And P.P.O.W. Gallery in Chelsea, which has exhibited the artist since the 1980s, has a show called “Soon All This Will Be Picturesque Ruins: The Installations of David Wojnarowicz,” featuring a genre of work not included at the Whitney.
In his lifetime, Wojnarowicz became a star, though an unconventional one, unsmooth, unpredictable, unstylish even, with his clotted paint, uncouth symbols, and jabbing ideas and words. (One gallery in the Whitney is devoted entirely to the artist reading from his incendiary writings which may, in the end, prove to be his most important body of work.) There’s little about his art I would call sublime, yet I think of him as angelic. I think of him as being something like the Angel of History, as imagined by the philosopher Walter Benjamin, an omniscient being who looks back to the human disasters of the past and sees them repeating themselves in the present and future, which is exactly what’s happening in this country right now.
Who would want to stick around to watch this dispiriting spectacle? A rightly and righteously angry angel might. And the Angel of History has no choice. The winds of change, constant and strong, force his wings open but won’t let him fly. It’s his job, which is an artist’s job, to stay. So forward, with purpose and something like love, he goes.
David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night
Through Sept. 30 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Manhattan; 212-570-3600, whitney.org.
The Unflinching Eye: The Symbols of David Wojnarowicz
Through Sept. 30 at Mamdouha Bobst Gallery at New York University, Manhattan; 212-998-2500, wp.nyu.edu/library-news.
Soon All This Will Be Picturesque Ruins: The Installations of David Wojnarowicz
Through Aug. 24 at P.P.O.W., Manhattan; 212-647-1044, ppowgallery.com.