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Arguably one of the most important pieces of queer theater debuted in 1982. Torch Song Trilogy was Harvey Fierstein’s magnum opus in three acts. It was a raw expression of grief and perseverance told through the life of Arnold, an aging drag queen crippled by loneliness. Even today, the play is a cornerstone lesson in getting predominantly straight audiences to empathize with queer suffering. It’s no coincidence that the play recently enjoyed a revival at Manhattan’s Second Stage Theater last autumn. Given the Trump administration’s explicit distaste for gay rights, artists have a mandate to remind the nation exactly why social progress matters.
It’s therefore no surprise that there is a renewed interest in queer art with the Whitney Museum of American Art’s first major retrospective of David Wojnarowicz, a spitfire artist who confronted the Reagan administration’s attacks on gay rights and freedom of expression. Titled David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night, the show tactfully highlights the artist’s most confrontational pieces while giving sometimes t0o-brief, tantalizing glimpses into his vulnerabilities.
Torch Song Trilogy‘s request for sympathy made sense in 1982. It was the beginning of the AIDS crisis, and the public was still in a hazy state of confusion about why so many young people were dying. But in this decade of malaise, Wojnarowicz was at his prime. Outpacing Fierstein’s call for understanding, Wojnarowicz embraced an activist’s approach to life and art by producing hundreds of artworks in a span of a decade, before succumbing to his own AIDS-related illness in 1992.
The first work at the Whitney that caused me to pause was Wojnarowicz’s “Fuck You Faggot Fucker” (1984). The piece takes its title from a crude, homophobic cartoon the artist once found. Sapping the image of its malicious nature, he affixes it into a constellation of images that celebrate queer contact rather than caricaturing it. The maps that dot this work (and so many others) represent the alternate realities queer people imagine for themselves: utopias. The reconfiguring of these maps, however, represents the groundlessness and alienation that LGBTQ people generally feel in an inhospitable world. The almost-cliché image of two men kissing in the water at the center of the piece makes me want to cringe, but seeing it in the context of the childish homophobic sketch reminds me that today’s clichés were once pipe dreams for young people forced into the closet.
Although cartography was arguably the most common symbol in Wojnarowicz’s work, he also had a longstanding fascination with science. Here, the image of the cosmos superimposed onto a silhouette conjures an image of a man taking a microscope to his own universe. The fear here is implicit: that of AIDS. Such a nightmare would metastasize in the artist’s later works with brutal images of blood, veins, and sperm.
Something of a crowning achievement, his Four Elements paintings (1987) express a command of painting for an artist probably best known for agitprop, prints and collage. The best, in my opinion, is “Water,” which mixes historical imagery with cellular biology. A whirlpool swirls at the bottom of the photo as what appears to be the Titanic sails forth. Above, a frog holds a car crash inside his stomach as red-outlined sperms swim around the scene. Nearby is a quilt of biological and sexual imagery of fetuses, skeletons, and gay sailor threesomes.
Taken 11 years apart, two self-portraits indicate a dramatic shift in self-perception for Wojnarowicz, who goes from ingenue to victim from photograph to photograph. The first image, called “Autoportrait—New York” (1980), is soft and exasperated, if also a bit amateurish. The artist depicts himself sunburst by the incoming light. By contrast, “Untitled (Face in Dirt)” (1991) could almost be a burial portrait. Reportedly, the artist took his friend Marion Scemama on a trip to New Mexico. A year before his death, he asked his friend to help him dig a hole to bury him in. And so the image was made with Wojnarowicz’s lips slight parted and eyes tightly closed, peering form the earth.
David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort St, Meatpacking District, New York 10014) through September 30.