David Wojnarowicz: Place and History

David Wojnarowicz was first shown at the Whitney Museum in 1985 as a part of the museum’s Biennial which focused on avant-garde artists based in New York City’s East Village. Now, some 33 years later and the museum has been ‘reborn’ across from the West Side Piers, where Wojnarowicz hustled, cruised for sex and scrawled poetry on the walls, he is the subject of a highly publicized retrospective.

Despite the success he had at the museum during his life, he died in 1992 from AIDS-related complications as a relatively unknown artist. Wojnarowicz never seemed to have embraced fame. In fact Cynthia Carr, the art critic and friend of Wojnarowicz, recalled how troubled he looked after she congratulated him on a successful exhibit, telling her: “If I weren’t gay I’d move out of New York now, and into a little town and get a job at a gas station.” [1] And proclaimed that graffiti and sex-filled ruins of the West Side Piers was “the real MoMA.”

It may also come as a surprise, especially now when one must hold an MFA to achieve success of any kind in the art world, that Wojnarowicz never received an art degree of any kind. Rather he said “His ‘graduate school’ was the streets, bars, clubs, and galleries of the Lower East Side and the Hudson River piers.” [2]


David Wojnarowicz with Tom Warren, Self-Portrait of David Wojnarowicz, 1983–84.

David Wojnarowicz with Tom Warren, Self-Portrait of David Wojnarowicz, 1983–84.


Rising out of life in downtown New York and the East Village art scene, Wojnarowicz’s work and aesthetic seem to be heavily influenced by his personal and daily life. One can see this influence in his reference to graffiti-street art and the juxtaposition of high and low as well as political activism. And the very deliberate combination of the personal and political. But Wojnarowicz’s work was all his own and if anything, its aesthetic feels most like that of the French poet, and hero of Wojnarowicz’s, Arthur Rimbaud: romantic, symbolic, sexual as well as teeteringly disturbed and radical.

As well as sharing an aesthetics, the artists shared a mysteriously similar fate: both died at 37 and were born and died almost exactly 100 years apart. Rimbaud like Wojnarowicz was a queer man, who embraced an alternative life style. Now, almost exactly 30 years after its creation, Wojnarowicz’s spectral piece Rimbaud in New York (1978–79) is maybe his most famous and what ‘opens’ the Whitney exhibit. The piece features Wojnarowicz embodying the poet wearing a mask of his face while living out his own life (riding the subway, shooting up and masturbating). In one very dark photograph, the stark white ‘face’ of Rimbaud floats in the dark on a shadowed figure. Behind the spectral figure is a store front, where an illuminated, white sign reads, “Trance.”


David Wojnarowicz , Arthur Rimbaud in New York, 1978–79, (printed 1990)

David Wojnarowicz , Arthur Rimbaud in New York, 1978–79, (printed 1990)


The uncanny composition and use-highlight of the word “Trance” signifies Wojnarowicz’s preoccupation with the themes of love, sex, death and, to a lesser extent, spirituality. Rimbaud himself shared this preoccupation. Rimbaud’s use of these themes may be best seen in A Season in Hell (1873) which may also be his most famous piece and was highly influential to other queer-East Village artists like Robert Mapplethorpe. All three artists’ work is also heavily informed by their status as ‘outsiders’ and, for Mapplethorpe and Wojnarowicz, HIV-positive men. Wojnarowicz worked prophetically with AIDS in his art and as a social activist. Wojnarowicz’s photographs and photographic collages combine desperate images and symbols, such as skulls and totems. His 1988 photo composite Spirituality (for Paul Thek) in retrospect seems reflective of the AIDS crisis, the suffering from infection and an awareness of mortality. In a kind of displacement of the virus, Wojnarowicz merged the bodily, the sacred and the social. The piece combines images of men, quotidian objects like a clock as well as a crucifix lying in dirt, that in a Dali-like fashion features black ants crawling on the “tortured head of Christ.” [3]

Wojnarowicz’s work from the late 1980s, made towards the end of his life, is noticeably more dramatic and socially engaged, reflecting his personal life and work as an AIDS activist. It was during this time that he began, but never completed, the film A Fire in My Belly (1986-87). Made in Mexico, the film is heavily symbolic and splices together images of a dying roach, water fire, hieroglyphs and the Mayan god Quetzalcoatl. Wojnarowicz himself also appears, sewing his lips together with red thread. This frightening footage, as does the whole film, seems to be spiritual, mournful and a painful cry to draw attention to the AIDS crisis.
The film is often regarded as one of Wojnarowicz’s most powerful and infamous. In 2010, the film was removed from a landmark exhibit of Queer art at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC, following complaints from right-wing politicians and the Catholic League. [i] But now, 8 years later and back in New York City, Wojnarowicz’s work is being honored with three simultaneous exhibits at the Whitney as well as at NYU and PPOW gallery. But America’s political climate has changed considerably in the past few years and now, under the leadership of Donald Trump, Wojnarowicz’s work feels particularly powerful and relevant.

Now, as in the 1980s under President Reagan, America is faced with a president who denies the value of the lives of ‘others’ and actively suppresses their voices. Because of these similarities the suppressed artists and activists can be both aesthetically and politically inspired by Wojnarowicz’s work. Karen Finley, a performance artist and friend of Wojnarowicz’s, spoke to his commitment to personal expression and social action, saying: “David felt that he had a duty to represent and to create work that was expressing queerness” [4] – queerness undoubtedly meaning more than sexually alternative, and including being HIV-positive and disenfranchised.

Soon All This Will be Picturesque Ruins: The Installations of David Wojnarowicz ran at PPOW Gallery from July 12th to August 24, 2018. David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night ran at The Whitney Museum from July 13 to September 30, 2018. The Unflinching Eye: The Symbols of David Wojnarowicz is on view at the NYU Mamdouha Bobst Gallery until October 11, 2018.


A Still from David Wojnarowicz's A Fire In My Belly (1986-87)

A Still from David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire In My Belly (1986-87)


[i] Immediately following the removal of A Fire in My Belly, the New Museum in New York – a far more progressive museum than the Smithsonian or the Whitney – mounted the video. The New Museum was also the first museum to present a retrospective of the artist’s work, with Fever: The Art of David Wojnarowicz (1999).

[1] Hershkovits, David. “Author Cynthia Carr on Her New David Wojnarowicz Biography, Fire in the Belly.” Paper Magazine, July 2012.

[2] Weinberg, Adam D. “Forward” in David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2018.

[3] Meyer, J. D. “Profane and Sacred: Religious Imagery and Prophetic Expression in Postmodern Art.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 1997, p. 42.

[4] Hamer, Katy Diamond. “Why Provocative Artist David Wojnarowicz Is More Relevant Than Ever.” Galerie, July 25, 2018.

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by Robin Newman
in Focus on the American East

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