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The David Wojnarowicz exhibit now on view at the Whitney Museum, History Keeps Me Awake at Night, co-curated by David Kiehl and David Breslin, is not an easy one. It’s not difficult in the sense that the material is particularly graphic or disturbing, though some works, along with Wojnarowicz himself, were pilloried by certain Republicans and members of the religious right for offending hysterical homophobes during the early years of the AIDS crisis in the US. This exhibit is difficult because it’s a catalogue of expression that refuses to easily cohere.
David Wojnarowicz is a cultural figure well-known by many queer artists and those interested in queer art, but less well-known in the larger cultural landscape. This is due in part to the fact that he died from AIDS-related illnesses in 1992, at the age of 37. But it’s also because of his lack of formal training and his intense restlessness when it comes to form, both of which make it tricky to easily place his work within the dominant curatorial and aesthetic conversations of his time — conversations that were then just beginning to gel around broad categories like neo-conceptualism, neo-expressionism, and postmodernism.
Early in his artistic life, according to the biography of the artist written by Cynthia Carr, Wojnarowicz viewed himself primarily as a writer, crafting poetry and prose pieces, editing a single-run magazine with a friend, and traveling to Paris in hopes that he would write his first novel there. But upon his return to New York, in the late 1970s, when he began producing the work now on view at the Whitney, he started to spend more of his energy on new forms. In the 14 years that followed, prior to his death, he created a vast body of photographic works, paintings, mixed media sculptures, graffiti, music, film, and performance. And a significant portion of that work is overtly political, designed to support fellow AIDS activists’ fight for recognition of the humanity of those with AIDS, of the full scope of the disease’s reach, and access to healthcare and treatment.
Raised in a deeply dysfunctional, working class family, Wojnarowicz had only a high school education, and was almost entirely self-taught as an artist. As a teenager, he was homeless in New York City for a couple of years, during which he took up sex work to survive. These experiences shaped the worldview that seems to pervade much of his work, of a crumbling and chaotic society, and forged his deep conviction in the importance of those rejected by or who choose to live outside of societal norms.
“I never counted on showing in the art world,” Wojnarowicz said to Carr in an interview. “I didn’t think my work was developed enough. I felt with my lack of education, that wasn’t something that was possible.”
Given all of that, it’s no wonder that the streets of New York have such a visceral presence in many of the early works on display — paintings and stenciled imagery collaged onto stolen or discarded grocery store signs; photographs of friends in dark corners of the city; and graffiti scrawled on the walls of the decrepit piers along the Hudson River, where sex trade and cruising happened twenty-four hours a day.
One of the early series for which Wojnarowicz is well-known is “Arthur Rimbaud in New York” (1978-79), in which he photographed friends in locations around New York wearing a mask modeled after one of the only existing photographs of the French writer. Having discovered Rimbaud’s work after returning to high school following his earliest years on the street, Wojnarowicz was cognizant of a number of biographical similarities between himself and the writer — both were teenage runaways, gay men with poetic inclinations and few sexual inhibitions, living outside of the law and social norms. Rimbaud seems to have become part of Wojnarowicz’s self-mythologizing.
The photographs are beautiful and stark: They picture Rimbaud’s winsome, young face, atop adult bodies shooting up heroin in a back alley, alone in a gray and empty Coney Island, masturbating in a rumpled bed, standing on a curb in Times Square. They suggest a loss of innocence; they pull the historical into the contemporary, transposing a romantic figure into harsh modern realities; they are at once sullen and funny. Time and again, queer people have sought out historical figures to aid in their formation of the self and to open up possibilities, and the gesture in these photos seems deeply connected to that impulse.
As you move from these first galleries further into the show, it’s clear that this exhibit reveals the artist in formation. We’re seeing early ideas and works that we may not see as much of in other artists’ career retrospectives, artists who had more time to mature and build their bodies of work. And we’re also seeing an artist whose work, in other circumstances, might have been classified as “outsider art” — that condescending term for self-taught artists, many of whom are neurologically or psychologically outside the norm, and almost all of whom are poor or working class individuals with no access to galleries and the commercial art world. Unlike artists more typically thrown into the “outsider” category, Wojnarowicz, by virtue of the close-knit community of artists and gay men that he constantly interacted with, did have a few avenues of access. This helped him build relationships that started to get his work in front of people who supported him in various ways, whether it was offering him a place to sleep, connections to editors and gallerists, encouragement to view himself as an artist, or bartered services, like photographic printmaking.
Prior to seeing this show, I wasn’t well-acquainted with Wojnarowicz’s sculpture or paintings, and these works challenged my mental image of him. They highlight the importance of narrative storytelling and allegory in his work. A writer in his mind from an early age, it’s clear that he continued to narrate the world around him, regardless of the medium in which he happened to be working. There is nothing minimal or clean in these works; they are not coolly conceptual, but instead layered in metaphor and meaning, using a highly accessible visual language that evokes comic books and popular culture. And they further reinforce his stance outside of the world of artists with formal training and ambitions to place themselves within white-walled galleries.
Further into the exhibit, the political content of his work shifts to more directly address the unfolding AIDS crisis. Though themes of a crumbling and decrepit society remain, it’s clearer that the impact of so many friends, lovers, and strangers dying around him, and his own eventual diagnosis in 1987, began to eclipse other subject matter. As his work matures and he hones his craft, he is also pressing against the nightmare of an ongoing and deadly epidemic. As he writes in the second section of the comic book drawn from his own life, 7 Miles a Second: “Time is now compressed and every painting I do, or film I make, I make with the sense that it may be the last thing I do and so I try to pull everything into the surface of that action.”
More of his better-known work fills the later galleries — including his films, “Untitled (One Day This Kid . . .)” (1990–91), “Untitled (Buffalo Falling)” (1988–89). There are even drafts of the affidavit for his successful lawsuit against the American Family Association, the fundamentalist Christian creators of an incendiary pamphlet that helped fuel the 1990s culture wars — an attempt to use homophobia and conservative fear-mongering to dismantle the National Endowment for the Arts and destroy the careers of numerous gay, lesbian, and feminist artists.
The exhibition’s title, History Keeps Me Awake at Night, was wisely chosen. This show is very much about establishing an institutional case for David Wojnarowicz’s place in American art history, as well as in present conversations — particularly conversations about queer art. Beyond the large number of works on display, the Whitney’s website also links to an enormous amount of material. And two simultaneous Wojnarowicz shows opened in New York around the same time, one at P.P.O.W. (Soon All This Will be Picturesque Ruins: The Installations of David Wojnarowicz, which closed August 24, 2018) and another at NYU’s Mamdouha Bobst Gallery (The Unflinching Eye: The Symbols of David Wojnarowicz, through September 30, 2018). You can even click through digital scans of countless of his journals on the NYU Fales Library website. Together, all of this delivers a comprehensive record of Wojnarowicz and his art.
But he still doesn’t sit easily. A man who died young, with less than 15 years of earnest art-making under his belt, and a varied aesthetic record, Wojnarowicz doesn’t fit tidily into history or into the hushed rooms of major institutions. He’s messy and unkempt. His work raises questions about how and why some artists are historicized and others aren’t, about what it means to be an outsider who is invited in, and the role of class in artistic development. This is an exhibition that I’ve had numerous heated conversations about since seeing it. And those are conversations well worth having at a moment when both history and the present are keeping many of us awake at night.
David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night, co-curated by David Kiehl and David Breslin, continues at the Whitney Museum (99 Gansevoort Street, Manhattan) through September 30, 2018.