The most powerful aspect of the Whitney Museum’s 2018 retrospective David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night was not hanging on a wall, but rather was vibrating through the air. In an empty room the artist’s voice consumed all who entered, its crushed granite timbre almost tactile to the ear. “I wake up every morning in this killing machine called America, and I’m carrying this rage inside like a blood-filled egg,” he declared, while the sun pierced the glass one gallery over, igniting the waters of Chelsea Piers.
For many, the show was a triumph of inclusion; some 26 years after his death from an AIDS-related illness, the artist, queer activist, and punk-rock polymath was relocated from the margins of contemporary American art history to the center. But for others, the entire affair proved a lesson on the limits of institutional curation of artists who overtly reject institutional values — and few did as brazenly as Wojnarowicz.
“The exhibition makes oddly digestible Wojnarowicz’s address of truths that are difficult to swallow,” wrote Frieze’s Evan Moffitt, lamenting the irony of the Whitney show’s location off the Hudson River, in the “ruins of a place [Wojnarowicz] called ‘the real MoMA,’ once a site of erotic and creative frisson between the classes, and now a monument to wealth.” Still, it might be fair to say that no major art museum could have done justice to his legacy, as his output and anarchic fervor both resist tidy representation.
In a lot of ways Chris McKim’s documentary Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker, which premiered at DOC NYC on November 11, succeeds in capturing the gritty, glorious chaos of the artist’s life and work for exactly the reason the Whitney could not: the film is a symphony of noise and image, a cacophonous rebuttal to white-cube sterility. “There were nearly 200 cassettes in his archive,” said McKim in an interview a few weeks before the festival, recounting Wojnarowicz’s monologue tapes and extensive recordings of daily life. “I loaded clips onto my iPhone and put it on shuffle. It was David’s conversations with himself that told me there was something magical. All the texture and glitches seemed like what the film should be. We built it from the sound up.”
In other words, the most important reason to see this film is to get to listen to it. Like what former bandmate Jesse Hultberg called the “film for your ears” that Wojnarowicz’s No Wave group, 3 Teens Kill 4, aspired to in the early 1980s, McKim builds an entire world from the rich cache of the artist’s audio archive — from his somber monologues to hundreds of hours of sound recordings produced throughout his life. New York art and culture pioneers like Fran Lebowitz, Gracie Mansion, and Peter Hujar are less talking heads than familiar friends, providing an eclectic chorus of insider takes and candid asides. “The answering machines tapes bring Peter Hujar to life,” said McKim of the East Village photographer who was Wojnarowicz’s one-time lover and became his mentor and great creative influence. “It is a little voyeuristic, but there is so much life and joy there. Even when Hujar tells him he’s going to the hospital [for AIDS treatment], he’s still making jokes.”
Mingled with phone messages from older sister Pat and interviews with boyfriend Tom Rauffenbart, these voices form a tight family that anchored the artist’s tumultuous life, be it his meteoric rise at the 1985 Whitney Biennial or his years in poverty preceding his death. “Hearing him struggle with his own journey was so compelling to me — both becoming an artist and what he would do with that,” shared McKim. “His voice provided the groundwork that we used to tell the story.”
Poetically woven into the film’s visuals, Wojnarowicz’s frenetic soundscape grants viewers access to 1980s New York as well as his vast, probing interiority. Police sirens, car horns, and gunfire transition into the echo of children’s laughter, the patter of rain upon an empty alley. “I’m 26 and thinking about myself and my values … the effect of people on people,” the young artist shares in an early self-recording, the hum of cicadas in the background, “wondering if any of it’s meaningful, if it’s futile, trying to figure out what my life is and where I’ve been going.” His monologue fades into a peppy television advertisement for Ronald Reagan — “a man whose time has come, a man whose principles have been familiar to Americans for 30 years …” — inviting us to consider what type of man, and voice, mattered back then and now.
Whether New York was a symbol of “cultural decline” at the time, as art critic Carlo McCormick puts it in the film, or a decadent heyday of creative ingenuity and nerve, Wojnarowicz played ready, if reluctant, prophet. His trenchant visual motifs — burning houses, gagging cows, Catholic saints — resurface in the film as street art, posters for his band, and high art in prominent galleries. Part of the film chronicles how he became the target of the conservative right and anti-pornography propaganda, leading to a 1990 lawsuit that he defiantly won. “So many of the battles going on now,” McKim reflected of the culture wars today, “become a parallel to [the culture wars of] this time.”
The film’s subtitle comes from one the artist’s most iconic, incendiary pieces, named after a homophobic cartoon that Wojnarowicz found on the street and centered in the work itself. A dreamy canvas of pastel blue and pink, “Fuck You Faggot Fucker” (1984) is one of many artworks the artist designed upon maps that he received from his brother, who worked for AAA. Mingling the lewd comic with deeply personal images, the global with the local, Wojnarowicz collaged black-and-white portraits of himself and his friends in an East Hudson artist squat around the black outline of two men kissing in a pool of water. “I wanted to record my own history, a different history,” he intones. “All the paintings are diaries that I thought of as proof of my existence.” Seemingly at one with the blue of the globe’s oceans and seas, the collaged figures appear immune to the slur of the artwork’s title, immersed in stalwart tenderness.
“Testing, testing, 1-2-3 …” starts the film, as Wojnarowicz preps to record his own voice. In his work, as in his life, testing the limits of artistic categories and systemic and institutional power was central to his impassioned vision. “His greatest work of art was his life,” said McKim, “the multidimensionality and messiness of it. By the end of making this film, I felt like I had as much of a relationship with Wojnarowicz as anyone who knew him. I had heard so much from him — his hopes, his fears. I wanted to be true to that.”
Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker (2020), directed by Chris McKim, screens at DOC NYC through November 19 and is available to stream on select platforms.