In the early 1970s, a teenage David Wojnarowicz scribbled in a sketchbook: “another way this book describe’s [sic] is the different high’s [sic] that people are on.“ He went on to clarify: “Most not using drugs.” Aptly, its bright fuchsia pages are filled with a cast of characters, rendered in pen and ink, in various altered states ranging from lethargy to acid trip to a lovemaking-sparked dopamine trance.
What we know about Wojnarowicz, the artist and activist, is that he emerged out of the gritty East Village art scene of the 1980s; that he bridged distinct mediums and techniques with an almost alchemical bravura, and that he advocated to de-stigmatize HIV/AIDS and secure the rights of LGBTQ people in the midst of the culture wars, before succumbing to complications from the virus himself in 1992. In one of his most iconic works, a collage titled “Untitled (One Day, This Kid)” (1990), he placed a school photograph of himself against a backdrop of admonitions for his future as a gay man: “One day politicians will enact legislation against this kid,” the text reads. One day, he would lose his home, his jobs, and “all conceivable freedoms.”
“Stoned Sketchbook” predates “This Kid” by nearly two decades. It was created by Wojnarowicz at his start, not at what’s considered his prime — his 2018 Whitney retrospective, for instance, begins with work from the late 1970s. Yet the cartoonish, loopy creatures and droll captions contained in its bound pages — “me Tarzan, you stoned,” reads a speech bubble floating above a couple caught in a sexy embrace — foreshadow the mature artist’s irresistible irreverence. There is also the “most amazing dope stoned,” illustrated by an Einstein-esque personage whose mind is literally blown, and “gonna fry in hell stoned,” a kooky Lucifer type, lips curled upward in a grimace.(These drawings appear to replicate those of cartoonist R. Crumb and his comic strip Stoned, included in Head Comix, a collection of his comics published by Viking Press in 1968.)
The drawings are among his earliest forays into art-making, likely from the same days when he was writing poetry and creating ’zines, but they are also coeval with Wojnarowicz’s transition from an abusive childhood into adulthood, during which time he became homeless. As a teenager, he was preyed on by older men who introduced him to sex work, before he eventually moved into a halfway house. The sketchbook, he wrote, “is based on the realities of life” and “how people feel, think or do other wise.”
Discussions of Wojnarowicz’s work can turn solemn and serious, perhaps because of his sociopolitical contributions as a member of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and individually; his criticism of government inaction so incisive; and his poetic documentation of loss and grief during his 37 years of life. But not a single one of society’s ills was exempt from his dark humor — neither religion nor death. This rare relic from his youth is a testament to one of Wojnarowicz’s most powerful weapons against conservatism and bigotry: his willingness to laugh.
This article, part of a series focused on LGBTQ+ artists and art movements, is supported by Swann Auction Galleries.
Swann’s upcoming sale “LGBTQ+ Art, Material Culture & History,” featuring works and material by Richmond Barthé, JEB, David Hockney, Peter Hujar, Harvey Milk, Toyen, Oscar Wilde, & David Wojnarowicz, will take place on August 13, 2020. A portion of the proceeds from this sale will benefit NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project.