David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night @Whitney

JTF (just the facts): A total of 144 pieces exhibited in 11 galleries and the vestibule on the fifth floor.

Vestibule: Acrylic and collaged paper on gelatin silver print (1983-84)

Gallery 1: Typewriter ink, fiber-tipped pen, and colored pencil on paper (1979-80); graphite pencil, colored pencil, and wax crayon on paper (1979-80); watercolor, colored pencil, and ink on paper (1979-80); ballpoint pen on paper, collaged gelatin silver prints on paper (1979); collage of offset lithographs and colored pencil on paper (1979); collage of offset lithographs (1978); colored pencil, watercolor, ink, and acrylic with collaged paper mounted on paper ((1979); 1 gelatin silver print (1980); 2 gelatin silver prints (1980); 16 gelatin silver prints (1978-79, printed either 1990 or 2004)

Gallery 2: sound recording (1983); 2 pieces of spray paint on paper (1982); spray paint on chipboard (1982); spray paint on paper (1983-84); spray paper on metal trashcan lid (1982); screenprint and lithograph in collaboration with Kiki Smith (1983); acrylic and fiber-tipped pen on supermarket poster (1983); spray paint and collage on paper (1982); spray paint and acrylic on composition board (1982); spray paint and acrylic on composition board (1982); screenprint and monotype with collage, acrylic, and thread on supermarket poster (1983); screenprint on supermarket poster (1983); spray paint on metal trashcan lid (1985); 3 works of spray paint on paper (1982); acrylic and spray paint on posters on composition board (1984); spray paint on supermarket poster (1983); screenprint on supermarket poster (1983); acrylic on supermarket poster (1983); acrylic on collaged paper and papier-mâché, metal nails, wood, and monofilament on animal skull in collaboration with Kiki Smith (1984); acrylic and collaged paper on supermarket poster (1983); silver dye bleach Cibachrome print by Peter Hujar (1984); acrylic on collaged paper, papier-mâché, and metal nails (1984); spray paint on metal trashcan lid (1982); acrylic and collaged paper on composition board (1984); collaged paper with opaque watercolor and thread on supermarket poster (1983); acrylic on commercial poster (1984); acrylic on metal trashcan lid with metal wire (1983); digital slideshow of DW’s work by Andreas Sterzing (1983-84); acrylic on paper (1983); spray paint and collage (1982); 2 gelatin silver prints by Peter Hujar (1983); 4 gelatin silver prints, acrylic, and collaged paper on composition board (1984)

Gallery 3: 11 sculptures, collaged paper and acrylic on plaster (1984); acrylic on collaged paper and papier-mâché, monofilament wire, nail, glass, rock, and plastic toys (1984); acrylic on collaged paper, papier-mâché, and metal nails (1984)

Gallery 4: acrylic and spray paint on composition board (1982); 6 gelatin silver prints by Peter Hujar (1981, 1983, 1985); acrylic on composition board (1982); spray paint on paper (1982)

Gallery 5: acrylic, spray paint, and collaged paper on composition board (1986); acrylic and collaged paper on composition board (1984); acrylic and collaged paper on board (1987); spray paint, acrylic, and collage on plywood, two panels (1987); acrylic and collage on wood, 5 panels (1987); acrylic, spray paint, and collage on wood (1986); acrylic, spray paint, and collaged paper on wood (1986); acrylic, spray paint, and collaged paper on composition bard (1986); spray paint and acrylic on board (1986); acrylic, spray paint, and collaged paper on wood (1986); oil on board (1987); acrylic and spray paint on canvas (1986)

Gallery 6: 1 Super 8 film transferred to digital video, black-and-white and color, silent, 13:06 min. (1986-87); 1 Super 8 film transferred to digital video, black-and-white and color, silent, 10:22 min. (1987); 1 Super 8 film transferred to digital video, black-and-white, silent, 15:30 in. (c. 1987); 1 Super 8 film transferred to digital video, black-and-white and color, silent, 4:05 min. (c. 1988)

Gallery 7: acrylic, ink, and collaged paper on composition board (1987); acrylic and collaged paper on wood, two panels (1987); acrylic and collaged paper on wood, two panels (1987); acrylic and collaged paper on composition board, two panels (1987)

Gallery 8: sound recording of DW reading at Drawing Center, NYC (1992)

Gallery 9: 3 gelatin silver prints (1987, printed 1988); black-and-white photographs, acrylic, screenprint, and collaged paper on composition board (1988-89); 8 gelatin silver prints on board (1989); spray paint, acrylic, and collaged paper on canvas (1987-88); 4 gelatin silver prints, acrylic, string, and collaged paper on composition board (1989); color video footage, with sound (1989) of DW speaking about NEA controversy (7:33 min.); bank check (1990); pamphlet (1990); 7 gelatin silver prints on board (1988-89); 5 gelatin silver prints on board (1988-89); acrylic and spray paint on canvas (1989); sumi ink and collaged paper on wood (1987); acrylic, watercolor, and collaged paper on canvas (1988); 6 gelatin silver prints (1988-89);

Gallery 10: 1 gelatin silver print (1988-89) 2 grids (each consisting of 14 gelatin silver prints) with watercolor on paper on board (1988-89); 1 grid of three gelatin silver prints on board (1988-89); 5 gelatin silver prints, acrylic, string, and screenprint on composition board (1990); 2 gelatin silver prints, acrylic, string, and screenprint on composition board (1990); 2 gelatin silver prints, with a chromogenic print, acrylic, string, and screenprint on composition board (1990); 5 gelatin silver prints, acrylic, string, and screenprint on composition board (1990); acrylic on illuminated plastic globe (1990); fiber-tipped pen on illuminated plastic globe (1990); gelatin silver print, acrylic, and collaged paper on composition board (1988-89)

Gallery 11: 1 silver dye bleach Cibachrome print (1990); 1 gelatin silver print and screenprint on board (1990); 1 screenprint, two parts (1990); 1 sculpture (bread, string, and needle with newspaper), 1988-89; 1 gelatin silver print (1991, printed 1993); 1 gelatin silver print (1990); 1 gelatin silver print and screenprint on board (1992); 1 photostat mounted on board (1990-91)

A catalog published in 2018 by the Whitney (here), edited by David Breslin and David Kiehl, includes essay contributions by Breslin, Kiehl, Julie Ault, Gregg Bordowitz, Cynthia Carr, Marvin J. Taylor, and Hanya Yanagahara. (384 pages, 160 color and 100 black-and-white illustrations, 9×12 inches, $65 hardcover).

Comments/Context: When David Wojnarowicz died in 1992, he was probably more famous as an impassioned AIDS activist than as a prolific and sensitive maker of things.

Obituaries and tributes remembered him as a painfully honest and gutsily self-searching writer but tended to reproduce the same few images of his art. A murky photograph from 1988-89 of three buffalo tumbling over a cliff—a close-up of a diorama at the American Museum of Natural History—brought him anonymous renown beyond the East Village when it appeared a few months before his death on the cover of U2’s single “One.” Another photograph with some currency was a self-portrait performance from 1991 in which he had covered his body in dirt and small stones, leaving only the mid-section of his face (dark eyebrows, closed eyes, nose, open mouth, chin) exposed to the air.

His broader output of paintings, photo-collages, sculptures, films, installations, and performances was only dimly appreciated. (Remember this was 1992, before the internet became a standard utility.) Much better-documented was his role in sparking controversy. His artworks put him in the crosshairs during the Culture Wars of the ‘80s, when homoerotic content was demonized by members of Congress. He had published inflammatory (and sometimes true) statements about those who stayed silent or seemed indifferent as AIDS was killing thousands and medical science had no clear answers why. In 1989 he attacked Cardinal O’Connor, head of the Roman Catholic Church in NYC as “a fat cannibal from the house of walking swastikas” and denounced former NYC Mayor Koch for showing no “sympathy for people with AIDS.”

After his death, friends and a few curators watched over Wojnarowicz’s legacy with a parental care he had seldom enjoyed as the child of an abusive father. Melissa Harris at Aperture edited the valuable collection David Wojnarowicz: Brush Fires in the Social Landscape (1995). Sylvère Lotringer had interviewed him extensively in 1989 and, with Giancarlo Ambrosino, edited David Wojnarowicz: A Definitive History of Five or Six Years on the Lower East Side (2006). Cynthia Carr’s biography Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (2012) revealed his complex personality, which included a volcanic temper, and chronicled how creative he had been despite a short life. Nan Goldin and Zoe Leonard paid affectionate tribute to him in their work.

Nonetheless, despite a mini-retrospective in 1999 at the New Museum, organized by Dan Cameron, scandal has continued to attach itself to Wojnarowicz’s name and to define his art for much of the public. The last time he was in the headlines was 2010, when the Smithsonian Institution felt it prudent to remove his video, A Fire in My Belly from the group show, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, after protests from U.S. Senators and the Catholic League. (Much of the fury was aimed at a sequence that depicted ants crawling over a crucifix—the sort of anti-religious affront common in Modernist art and film since Dalí and Buñuel first began insulting priests and bishops in the late 1920s.)

The Whitney Museum’s retrospective is therefore badly needed. It presents Wojnarowicz in depth for the first time within an institutional setting as a thoughtful, multi-talented, and dedicated artist, and not simply as a social arsonist who invited conservative outrage. Seeing his work installed in the pristine galleries of the Renzo Piano building may take some getting used to for those who remember his cartoon-bubble paintings from fuzzy newsprint reproductions in the Soho News or Village Voice, or his plaster skulls from visits to East Village storefront spaces. It’s like meeting someone dressed in a Zegna suit you remember wearing torn jeans and untied sneakers. Most of his fans will accept the dissonance, though, for the chance to review his career, which is treated with scholarly dignity and tenderness by curators David Breslin and David Kiehl.

Photography was one of the means by which he made images and explored ideas of displacement and powerlessness. The opening of the show has 15 selections from Arthur Rimbaud in New York, a series of roughly 30 black-and-white photographs (1978-79) that depict unnamed young men wearing a flat cardboard mask of the French symbolist poet’s face.  Wojnarowicz had copied the image from the cover of Illuminations (published in paperback by New Directions) and had blown it up to life-size. With a borrowed camera, he photographed a few friends in the disguise as they stood on the subway or streets of Midtown, at Coney Island, or the West Side meat market, in graffiti-sprayed rooms or all-night diners. He posed them either as innocuous bystanders or while engaged in risky behavior—shooting up with a needle, jerking off, pointing a handgun. Many of these locations and activities referred to his own autobiography as an “outlaw” in Manhattan, where he had been a teenage male prostitute. (Rimbaud had himself survived on the wrack line of polite French society, at first as a gay man and an experimental writer, and later as a runner of guns and slaves. Fatefully, both he and Wojnarowicz died at the same age of 37.)

Despite the sordid local color of the city in the late ’70s, the series is cheery. The placid face of the well-groomed French teenager in the mask is unaffected by the grimy urban environment he floats through. It’s like a bad boy’s tourist guide to the sites of New York, and the pictorial structure is deceptive. The blurry backgrounds read like film projections, inserted in post-production, but are actually the least manufactured element in the pictures. The reproduced photograph of Rimbaud’s head “pops” within the frame, as if the mask were more “real,” when just the opposite is technically the case.

Wojnarowicz cut a memorable profile himself: tall and gaunt, even before his final illness, he had a geeky steeliness, with buck teeth and watchful eyes—qualities captured by his friend Peter Hujar in numerous portraits. Only a few of the 50 or so photographs of Wojnarowicz in the Whitney catalog and in Carr’s biography show him laughing or smiling. Like another of his heroes, the writer William Burroughs, he was seriously pessimistic about the promise of America and seriously hard-working at exposing what he saw as gross social inequities and thoughtless brutality.

Wojnarowicz had no use for purist ideas of art and viewed photography primarily as a tool for making collages. Self-Portrait of David Wojarowicz (1983-84), in the vestibule of the show, is typical. It’s like a horror film in which the main character is gradually dissolving into a monster before our eyes. The bottom layer of the picture is a black-and-white photograph by Tom Warren that presents the artist standing calmly, almost defiantly, with arms folded, his short-sleeved shirt open to mid-chest. Imprinted on the right side of his face, though, are pink and blue splotches, which look like the lesions of a skin disease but, on closer inspection, resolve into a map of the world.

To heighten the willful attitude, along his left side, from the top of his head to his waist, are hand-drawn yellow and red flames. A small running figure at his elbow is also on fire. Nine circles, like the phases of the moon, stretch across Wojnarowica’s right forearm like needle punctures or stigmata. Although the work was made four years before he was diagnosed with HIV, it seems in retrospect to be a presentiment of the global health crisis. It’s also a self-portrait of the artist as a holy man, standing in unafraid opposition, not unlike the Buddhist monks who self-immolated in Vietnam to protest oppression by the Catholic government in 1963—photographs that Wojnarowicz must have seen.

His paintings were also usually impure collages, directed applied on canvas in acrylic or sprayed over a stencil, and often divided into panels like a medieval allegory or newspaper cartoon. He borrowed imagery from a panoply of vernacular sources: sci-fi movies, EC horror and Marvel superhero comics, Mexican folk art, illustrated medical and astronomy encyclopedias, grocery store window advertising, and American postcards. Some of his favorite motifs were maps, globes, skulls, watch faces, smoke from factories, and the nude male body. Either because he couldn’t afford to be grandiose or as an act of disgust with the enormous canvases of Neo-Expressionist painters in the ‘80s, almost everything he made was on a human scale. The largest works here, a set of four paper collages on wood from 1987 (Water, Earth, Fire, Wind) are only 6 x 8 ft.

Wojnarowicz first attracted notice as a writer in a free-associating confessional vein. This tendency crossed over to his artwork, which either openly or secretly acknowledged the other gay authors who inspired him, not only Rimbaud and Burroughs but also Genet and Mishima. Peter Hujar Dreaming/Yukio Mishima: Saint Sebastian (1982) is perhaps the most striking example in the show of the literary informing the sexual. The work exists in several versions, done in different colors but with the same stencils. This iteration has an outline of Mishima’s naked torso in blue, melodramatically shot through with arrows for a performance piece as the Christian martyr. Hujar’s green head with eyes closed, photographed from below, is further down. And floating above him, imprinted on Mishima’s body, is a yellow hand-drawn figure of a boy masturbating.

A carnal love poem to his former lover, and a meditation on the certainty of death and the infinite possibilities of dreams, it was done a year after he met Hujar and is one of Wojnarowicz’s masterworks. Despite their brief romance, the older photographer’s mentorship of the budding artist lasted until Hujar’s death from AIDS in 1987, a loss from which the younger artist seems never to have fully recovered.

Although both of them remained committed to the reductionist palette of black-and-white photography—neither one, unlike their friend Nan Goldin, ever expressed much interest in color printing—the two friends diverged in what they wanted the darkroom to do for them. Whereas Hujar, a former student of Avedon, was a scrupulous traditionalist and needed a fine-grained clarity to achieve the psychological realism he was after in his portraits, Wojnarowicz the collagist was more relaxed about the tonal sharpness of his imagery. Many of his prints have a sooty obscurity, as if this quality amplified his own sense of living in the shadows. His Sex Series (1989) uses tone reversals to give everything, even the kinky inserts of men coupling, of something dark and secretive.

Another shared but divergent interest of both men was their reliance on animals as avatars. Something about the helpless vulnerability and resilience of these domesticated aliens in our midst spoke to both men. Hujar photographed cows, horses, stray cats and dogs on farms in New York and New Jersey with the loving attention and self-identification that Arbus brought to her sessions with Times Square or Coney Island sideshow performers. Wojnarowicz’s photo collages expressed his solidarity with neglected mammals but extended his sympathies to wilder things, even insects and amphibians.

What is This Little Guy’s Job in the World? (1990) is a photograph of a tiny frog cupped in the palm of a man’s hand. A text block embedded in the upper right asks a series of 11 questions about cosmic causality and karma. The last three are these: “If this little guy dies does some kid somewhere wake up with a bad dream? Does an almost imperceptible link in the chain snap? Will civilization stumble?” (The piece seems to be one of many repeated efforts to exorcize the memory of a childhood incident, reported by Cynthia Carr, in which Wojnarowicz’s sadistic father killed the family’s pet rabbit and served it to the children for dinner.)

Wojnarowicz was remarkably deft at combining random images into oneiric narratives that have the emotional coherence of a poem, but make no literal sense. The photographs in Weight of the Earth, Part I and II (1988)—of captured, abandoned, tranquilized, abused, lonely, or threatened animals, people, and things—create a macabre and melancholy atmosphere. Parsing the images is like slowly turning the dial on an old black-and-white TV late at night, circa 1959, where you might find wrestling on one channel, a nature documentary on another. In his “Notes to the Show,” he wrote that the pieces were about “the weight of gravity, the pulling into the earth’s surface of everything that walks, crawls, or rolls across it” and “the heaviness of the pre-invented existence we are thrust into.”

The Romantic movement fostered stories about destitute young poets, musicians, or artists who achieve fame only after death—suicides like Chatterton or madmen like Van Gogh. Critics, then and now, have questioned the prevalence of the dishonored prophet, pointing out that Beethoven and Picasso didn’t lack for recognition when alive. The myth has persisted because it offers proof that artistic judgments can be unjust to the living, and because being overlooked or scorned is a fate that inevitably befalls some unlucky creatures in every decade before they die.

The museum’s seal of approval will likely mean that Wojnarowicz can now safely join Hujar (and before them Haring and Basquiat) as “geniuses” of the East Village, a place that has swelled in art historical scholarship as its economic infrastructure has been demolished. “David was a major figure in what is now a lost world,” Cynthia Carr wrote eight years ago in her biography, “in part because he happened to come along when New York City was as raw as he was.”

The Whitney has tried to respond to the concerns of AIDS activists who worried that Wojnarowicz’s political fury would be blunted in this august setting. One room has sound recordings of readings that convey his flame-throwing anger as a writer who would not be silenced by anyone. There will also be three performances (September 14, 15, 16) of his rarely heard multimedia work ITSOFOMO (In the Shadow of Forward Motion), a 1989 collaboration with musician and composer Ben Neill that addressed the accelerating pace of the AIDS epidemic at the time.

While artists from this scene who struggled to survive in the ‘70s and ‘80s have proven to have a lasting impact on later generations, it isn’t too cynical—and actually honors Wojnarowicz’s own jaundiced attitude toward the injustices of history and his country’s disdain for true outsiders—to wonder if this period isn’t being aggrandized and sanitized in memory by the art world to assuage its own guilt for helping to make the city unaffordable to the sort of people it now celebrates.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibition, there are of course no posted prices. Wojnarowicz’ photographic/collage works have appeared only intermittently at auction in the past decade. Recent prices have ranged from roughly $5000 to $710000.

Read more about: David Wojnarowicz, Whitney Museum of American Art

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