Wojnarowicz, David Michael

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Wojnarowicz, David Michael

(b. 14 September 1954 in Red Bank, New Jersey; d. 22 July 1992 in New York City), artist, writer, and activist whose passionate, deeply personal work about sexuality, mortality, and the AIDS epidemic made him a lightning rod for debates in the 1980s about federal government funding for the arts.

One of three children of Edward Theodore Wojnarowicz, a merchant seaman (who had two children from a previous marriage), and Dolores McGuinness, a homemaker, Wojnarowicz was two years old when his parents divorced. Specific details of Wojnarowicz’s unhappy childhood years are difficult to verify and rely largely on Wojnarowicz’s memories which, by his own admission, were often uncertain and embellished in the context of his later literary work.

Following his parents’ divorce, Wojnarowicz and his siblings initially lived with their mother, but she was unable to care for them. Thereafter the children lived in an institutional setting, with relatives, and with their father, a physically abusive alcoholic who was often away at sea for weeks at a time. When Wojnarowicz was eight years old his father sent the children back for the final time to their mother, who moved the family to nearby New York City. By the age of eleven, Wojnarowicz had begun working on the streets as a male prostitute. Despite the desperate circumstances of his home life, he attended the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan, but dropped out at the age of sixteen and left home for good. Falling prey to beatings, rapes, and robberies on the streets, he continued to earn a living by hustling and other criminal activities. His health deteriorating, Wojnarowicz finally got off the streets in 1972, seeking shelter at a halfway house where he had previously lived for a short time.

Over the next five years Wojnarowicz traveled, first working on a farm and then later hopping trains or hitchhiking to the West Coast. He settled for a year in San Francisco, where for the first time he lived openly as a homosexual, and started writing and taking photographs.

He returned to New York in 1977, where he began writing monologues based on his street experiences, and then spent the next year in France, staying in Normandy and in Paris, where his sister lived. It was also during 1978 that his father committed suicide. Upon his return from Europe, Wojnarowicz again settled in New York City, where he began his art career in earnest.

While working various jobs as a busboy or janitor to support himself, often at popular music clubs, the darkhaired, gauntly handsome Wojnarowicz began to record his experiences–through writing, photography, and film– with the drug culture and gay community that frequented the abandoned warehouses and run-down piers of Manhattan’s West Side. He joined a band called 3 Teens Kill 4–No Motive (taken from a headline in a New York tabloid newspaper), playing children’s instruments and tape recordings of found sounds. He also began a series of guerrilla art actions, decorating streets and buildings in Manhattan with stenciled images of burning houses, falling figures, soldiers, targets, and bomber planes.

By the beginning of the 1980s, several dramatic events occurred that would have a profound impact on the direction of Wojnarowicz’s career and life. The first was the emergence around 1982 of the East Village art scene, a lowbudget, artistdriven movement that would spawn several dozen galleries in the storefronts and tenement buildings of the working-class neighborhood. Although the phenomenon would disappear by the end of the 1980s, the brief but highly visible scene would jump-start the careers of several artists, including Keith Haring. Wojnarowicz began having solo exhibitions of his sculpture and paintings in the East Village as early as 1982 and would go on to show at least a half dozen times at galleries there, including Civilian Warfare and Gracie Mansion. Continuing his work in stencil and with found maps, a motif he would employ throughout his career, he also began producing freehand paintings, often done on surplus grocery-store price signs. Their subjects ranged widely but typically involved iconic images borrowed from pop culture, usually modified and then recontextualized in settings that explored the relationship between violence and eroticism.

The early 1980s also saw the emergence of the AIDS epidemic, which struck at the heart of New York’s alternative culture and its large gay community. Wojnarowicz’s militant posture regarding the attitude of the government and the general public toward AIDS was crystallized when his closest friend, the photographer Peter Hujar, became ill in 1984. Hujar died in 1987, the same year that Wojnarowicz was himself diagnosed with the disease. Wojnarowicz’s long-standing artistic involvement with issues of sexuality and mortality was given an extraordinarily powerful frame by the crisis. His work over the next five years would address itself almost exclusively, if at times obliquely, to AIDS.

Although Wojnarowicz was well known within the art world, he became a national celebrity during the so-called culture wars of the late 1980s. In 1989, the National Endowment for the Arts first rescinded and then eventually restored funding for an exhibition catalog in which Wojnarowicz made pointed personal attacks on a number of national religious and political figures. The following year, David Wojnarowicz: Tongues of Flame, a retrospective of the artist’s work organized by Illinois State University, was denounced by a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Wojnarowicz also drew the attention of the Reverend Donald Wildmon, a conservative activist and head of the American Family Association. Wildmon cropped sexually explicit images out of the photo and text works Wojnarowicz was then creating and put them in a pamphlet denouncing the artist, then circulated the pamphlet to politicians, church leaders, and journalists around the country. Wojnarowicz sued the American Family Association for misrepresenting him and damaging his reputation. In 1990, a federal district court judge in New York ruled in the artist’s favor.

Over the last few years of Wojnarowicz’s life, as his health rapidly deteriorated, he exhibited less but continued to produce work–typically photography and painting, often set into compositionally complex arrangements with excerpts from his writings. A collection of his writings, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, was published by Vintage Books in 1991. The following year Wojnarowicz died of AIDS-related complications in New York City. His remains were cremated.

The confluence of volatile political times and the confrontational nature of his art transformed David Wojnarowicz from a little-known downtown New York fringe artist into one of the most visible symbols of the debates of the 1980s regarding homosexuality, government support for the arts, and the AIDS epidemic. Although often remembered for the transgressive qualities of his work, Wojnarowicz was also capable of remarkably delicate conceptual gestures and highly refined formal approaches. His willingness to take on the political and religious establishment mark him as one of the most socially committed artists of the decade; his wide-ranging experiments in painting, photography, film, and writing constitute an essential document of the times in which he lived.

There are numerous catalogs, brochures, and articles on David Wojnarowicz. Since his work and life were so closely aligned, readers may find themselves struggling at times to separate fact from fiction, particularly with regard to the artist’s early life and his many often harrowing personal experiences. The artist’s own memoirs and essays have been collected in Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (1991); Memories That Smell Like Gasoline (1992); and The Waterfront Journals, edited by Amy Scholder (1996). In addition, two major catalogs have been produced to accompany exhibitions of Wojnarowicz’s work: David Wojnarowicz: Tongues of Flame (1990) and Amy Scholder, ed., Fever: The Art of David Wojnarowicz (1998). An obituary is in the New York Times (24 July 1992).

Jeffrey Kastner