David Wojnarowicz 1

 

A Review of David Wojnarowicz’ work at the Whitney Museum of (North) American Art in 2018:

 

  History Keeps Me Awake at Night

 

 

The American artist, David Wojnarowicz,  1954-1992, died at the age of 37 of complications of the AIDS with which he had been diagnosed in 1987.

 

 

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Autoportrait, New York, 1980; gelatin silver print.  Private collection loan to Whitney Museum, NY

 

 

It has been more than fifteen years since I began the practice of giving up anger.  (So bad for the complexion, anger; and so much worse for the soul).

 

But I – many of us – am very angry about this death. Our anger has never abated and lies in wait like a night-hunting animal, to come out rearing.  

Because the struggle to have everyone recognized under law and in fact for his or her full humanity is a battle which is never ended.

 

There are always new waves of Christless ‘Christians’ and politically potent panjandrums claiming to be Constitutional originalists who know how we should, ought, and must live. 

 

 

I did not know the artist.  The anger is not a grief.  It is not a sorrow.  It is an anger.

 

I am used – we all are  –  to the sickeningly banal fact of differential treatment of citizens by reason of their economic class, their gender, their ethnicity and their religious affiliation in no or in some combination.

 

 

 

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Detail of Autoportrait, New York, 1980; gelatin silver print.  Private collection loan to Whitney Museum, NY

 

 

 

AIDS was first identified in 1981.  But it was not mentioned in public until 1985 by the then president of the United States, Ronald Reagan. 

He and his government had cast this disease, a death-bearing sickness, in moral terms. 

The political (electoral) calculations of this government, justified by a Christ-less ‘Christianity’, allowed people – primarily men in the United States –  who contracted AIDS to sicken and die.

 

By the end of 1985 when Ronald Reagan first mentioned the word ‘AIDS’, 3766  women and (mostly) men had died in New York of AIDS-related complications. That was just in New York.

 

They sickened and died agonizing, slow, wasting deaths. 

 

To make the private public is an action which has terrific ramifications” the artist said.

 

David Wojnarowicz and his community fought a heroic fight and were foremost among those whose efforts, in time, reversed this death-dealing policy on the part of an elected govenment. 

 

 

At the cost of their lives. 

 

 

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Detail of Autoportrait, New York, 1980; gelatin silver print.  Private collection loan to Whitney Museum, NY

 

David Wojnarowicz’ ashes were scattered in 1996 on the grounds of the White House in Washington, DC. 

Premier symbolic ground of the Republic reclaimed as his.  Also his. Belonging also to all those whom the Republic had left to die.

 

 

 

 

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The Whitney Museum provided space overlooking the Hudson River for people to listen to the artist speak, discuss with others; and to readings of his work.

  The artist’s papers are held at the Hales Library and Special Collections at New York University.

 

 

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Born into a dysfunctional, working class family of Polish descent in northern New Jersey, after an insecure and wounding childhood lived both in New Jersey and in New York, the artist found his way in the early 1980s to the avant-garde artistic community in New York.

 

 

 

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Untitled (One Day This Kid), 1990-1991, photostat mounted on board.  Whitney Museum of Art, NY

“…..All this will begin to happen in one or two years when he discovers he desires to place his naked body on the naked body of another boy.”

 

 

 

From the late 1970s on, the artist began to create a body of work which included painting, photography, music, film, writing and sculpture.  This was in a New York of financial instability and vast cultural changes. 

 

 

 

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Bill Burroughs’ Recurring Dream, 1978; collage of offset lithographs.  Loaned to the Whitney Museum by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

 

 

The artist’s subject was the outsider, the marginalized.  

He did not limit his technique.  He began first with what he could afford:  spray painting, using scavenged materials and printed material, supermarket posters, trash can lids, stencils.

 

 

 

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Untitled (Genet after Brassai), 1979; collage of offset lithographs and coloured pencil on paper.  Private collection on loan to the Whitney, NY in 2018.

The artist explained that he saw drug-taking as a contemporary problem which Jesus Christ would understand and forgive.

 

 

 

The artist’s focus was on the outsider and on myths of American history with their expansive violence and exclusion of some populations to the benefit of others.

He fiercely criticized an economic system which degrades the environment and leaves so many people on the margins.

 

 

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Untitled (Joseph Beuys), 1979; coloured pencil, watercolour, ink, and acrylic with collaged paper mounted on paper.  Private collection on loan to the Whitney, NY in 2018

 

 

David Wojnarowicz created homages to personal heroes: Rimbaud, Burroughs, Genet, Beuys.

 

 

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Arthur Rimbaud in New York, 1978-79, printed in 2004; gelatin silver print.  Private collection on loan to the Whitney, NY in 2018

 

 

 

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Back and front of a mask of Rimbaud on a pedestal; c. 1978; photocopy mounted on cardstock, with rubber bands. Loan from the Fales Libray and Special Collections, NY University to the Whitney, NY in 2018

 

 

He gravitated to the avant-garde artistic community centered on Hudson River piers off Canal Street, especially Pier 34.

There he found the companionship of  other like-minded souls and the possibility of collaboration with other artists.

He found solitude, sex, and safe haven and propinquity to nature.

 

 

 

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Photographs taken of Pier 34 by Andreas Sterzing in 1983/84.

 

 

 

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Untitled (Psychiatric Clinic), 1983; screenprint and lithograph.  David Wojnarowicz and Kiki Smith (American born Germany 1954).  Whitney Museum of Art, NY

 

 

The artist’s iconography is about crisis and vulnerability:  a burning house, a falling man, a map outline of the continental  United States, a dive-bombing aircraft, a dancing man.  He incorporated these again and again into his work.

 

 

 

DSC08111 Untitled (Falling Man), 1982; spray paint on chipboard. Private collection to Whitney Museum, NY in 2018

 

 

 

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Diptych, 1982; spray paint and acrylic on composition board.  Private collection to Whitney Museum, NY in 2018

 

 

 

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Untitled (Burning House), 1982; spraypaint on paper.  Whitney Museum of Art.

 

 

 

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Untitled (Green Head), 1982, acrylic on composition board.  Private collection loan to the Whitney Museum, NY in 2018

 

 

 

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Self-portrait of David Wojnarowicz, 1983-84; acrylic and collaged paper on gelatin silver print.  Private collection on loan to the Whitney, NY in 2018

 

 

 

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Papier mache head dating from the mid-1980s for which I have no further details

 

 

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Papier mache head dating from the mid-1980s for which I have no further details

 

 

On the left, Untitled (Skull with Globe in Mouth), 1984;  acrylic on collaged paper, papier- mache, and metal nails.  Private collection on loan to the Whitney Museum, NY in 2018

On the right, Skull with Fetish Figure and Globe, 1984; acrylic on collaged paper, papier- mache, metal nails, wood. David Wojnaworicz and Kiki Smith (American born 1954 Germany).  Private collection on loan to the Whitney Museum, NY in 2018

 

 

 

 

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Fuck You Faggot Fucker, 1984, four gelatin silver prints, acrylic and collaged paper on composition board.  Private collection on loan to the Whitney Musuem of Art, NY.

This was one of the first works of the artist to address same-sex love and homophobia.  The title the artist took from a scrap of paper on which it was written as a slur.  The photographs were taken around the piers and on Avenue B and include the artist and two of his friends, John Hall and Brian Butterick.

 

 

 

 

David Wojnarowicz met Peter Hujar, the photographer, in 1980.  It was Peter Hujar who persuaded his younger friend to become an artist.

Briefly lovers, they were intimate collaborators and friends until Hujar’s death from AIDS-related complications in 1987. 

 

 

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Untitled (Peter Hujar Dreaming), 1982, spray paint on paper.  Private loan to the Whitney Museum, NY on 2018

 

 

 

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David Wojnarowicz Reclining (II), 1981, gelatin silver print.  Peter Hujar, 1934-1987, American.  Princeton University Art Museum on loan to the Whitney Museum of Art in 2018

 

 

 

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Peter Hujar Dreaming/Yukio Mishima: St. Sebastian, 1982; acrylic and spray paint on composition board.  Private collection on loan in 2018 to the Whitney Museum of Art, NY

A meditation on male desire based on a description by the Japanese author of his first masturbatory experience initiated by a reproduction of a Renaissance painting of St. Sebastian.

 

 

 

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David Wojnarowicz with Hand Touching Eye, 1981, gelatin silver print.  Peter Hujar, 1934-1987, American.  MOMA, NY on loan to the Whitney Museum of Art in 2018

 

 

 

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Untitled (Hujar Dead), 1988-89; black and white photographs, acrylic, screenprint, and collaged paper on composition board.  Whitney Museum of Art, NY

The artist was with his friend, Peter Hujar, when he died of AIDS-related complications.  He asked others who were also there to leave so that he could photograph and video his friend for the last time. 

Nine photographs taken shortly after Peter Hujar died were included in the center of a painting by this artist and exhibited in Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing at New York’s Artist Space in late 1989 and early 1990.

 David Wojnarowicz called Peter Hujar his father, his brother and his emotional anchor.

 

 

The Whitney Museum notes that it was the work – painted, written, photographed – of David Wojnarowicz which became the lightning rod for attacks from religious conservatives on the distribution of public funding for art and for art exhibitions.

 

 

The artist continued to paint and write. But focussed also on photography and moved into his friend’s apartment and availed himself of his friend’s dark room and photographic equipment.

 

 

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A Whitney Museum gallery during this exhibition

 

 

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Mexican Crucifix, 1987, acrylic and collage on wood, five panels. P.P.O.W. New York on loan to the Whitney Museum of Art in 2018.

One of five paintings created by the artist from photographs and paintings made on a trip to Mexico in 1986, the work depicts the effects of the forced imposition of Christianity on Aztec culture.

 

 

The Whitney noted that from the mid-1980s onwards, the artist began to incorporate various signs in his paintings to note his despair with environmental degradation and the effect of the economy on people who are marginal. 

These signs included railroad tracks, highways, huge cities, factory buildings, maps, currencies, nuclear power stations.

 

 

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Dung Beetles II: Camouflage Leads Us into Destruction, 1986; acrylic, spray-paint and collaged paper on composition board.  Private loan to the Whitney Museum of Art, NY in 2018

 

 

 

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I Use Maps Because I Don’t Know How To Paint, 1984, acrylic and collaged paper on composition board.  Private loan to the Whitney Museum, NY in 2018

 

 

 

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The Newspaper as National Voodoo:  A Brief History of the USA, 1986, acrylic, spray-paint and collage on wood.  Loaned by the Broad Art Foundation, Los Angeles to the Whitney Museum, NY in 2018

 

 

 

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Earth, Wind, Fire and Water, 1986, acrylic and spray-paint on canvas.  Private collection on loan to the Whitney Museum of Art, NY in 2018

 

 

 

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History Keeps Me Awake At Night (For Rielo Chmielorz), 1986, acrylic, spray-paint and collaged paper on composition board.  Private loan to the Whitney Museum of Art, NY in 2018.

 

The Whitney’s description of this painting:  ‘A dystopic vision of American life.  Presenting simulated American currency and bureaucratic emblems alongside symbols of crime, monstrosity and chaos, the painting’s threatening imagery runs counter to the apparently placid sleep of the man below.

‘If the painting is about fear, perhaps the fear of staring down AIDS, Wojnarowicz presents it as an endemic condition in which  new fears are built upon historic ones.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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