An Outsider on the Inside: David Wojnarowicz at the Whitney

DW, Self-Portrait
David Wojnarowicz with Tom Warren, Self-Portrait of David Wojnarowicz, 1983–84, acrylic and collaged paper on gelatin silver print, detail
image courtesy | Whitney Museum of American Art

Maria Bastos-Stanek

On July 13, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York staged a posthumous retrospective of the New York-based artist and writer David Wojnarowicz. “David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night” chronicles the artistic life of a self-taught artist who mined his personal life to create formally innovative and deeply moving works of art. Known to many as an extreme polemicist of the Reagan administration and outspoken AIDS activist, much of Wojnarowicz’s art often gets overlooked in favor of his AIDS activism and anti-censorship battles. The Whitney honors Wojnarowicz by compiling the development of his art in the context in which it was created: the Downtown scene, an art scene and cultural explosion that evolved around lower Manhattan in the decades of the 1970s and 1980s. The Whitney presents a portrait of the venerated activist as how he most intimately saw himself, an artist.

Before Wojnarowicz aspired to be an artist, he aspired to be a writer. He published his first book, Sounds in the Distance, a collection of transcribed interviews with his friends and neighbors, in 1982. The Whitney’s retrospective includes early works which merge his literary inspirations with his artistic ambitions. In his first commercially successful works of art, a series of photographs titled Rimbaud in New York from 1978–1979, Wojnarowicz photographed three of his friends around New York wearing a life-size mask of the face of Arthur Rimbaud, a nineteenth-century French poet. Wojnarowicz may have felt a connection with the young iconoclast, who openly proclaimed himself as an outsider and engaged in tumultuous romances with other men. In Rimbaud in New York, Wojnarowicz updates Rimbaud’s significance for 1970’s New York. In one photograph, Wojnarowicz depicts Rimbaud wearing the standard DIY punk outfit, a denim vest and white t-shirt standing outside of the Times Square-42nd street subway station (figure 1). Across the street, a line of movie house marquees recede into the distance, recalling the notorious era when Times Square was home to another class of outsiders—hustlers and drug dealers; pimps and sex workers.

Other works in the show emphasize Wojnarowicz’s participation in the Downtown arts scene. The show’s curators David Khiel and David Breslin re-staged his 1984 exhibition at the East Village gallery Civilian Warfare (figure 2). Wojnarowicz created a group of twenty-three personalized plaster-cast heads as a post-colonial critique of conflicts raging in Central and South America at the time. Wojnarowicz created the heads as allegorical representations of the outsider. He originally displayed the heads along a wall below a painted bull’s-eye. At the Whitney, the curators set the heads on podiums of different heights, in rows, receding into the corner of a black-walled space. With the added depth, the plaster heads resemble less of the foreigner than that of the ancient Greek herm—stone pillars topped with carved heads used as boundary markers or milestones. Indeed, as a viewer, the further you cross into the receded space, the fewer the visitors surround you, and the further you travel into Wojnarowicz’s world.

While it is tempting to consider Wojnarowicz a standalone, if not anomalous figure in the art world—as much of an outsider as the subjects of his art and writing—Wojnarowicz established himself among a rich network of artists, intellectuals, and activists that made up the Downtown scene. Much like the axiom of equality, a concept in mathematics that states a number is always equal to itself, so too does Wojnarowicz possess this reflexive quality. No matter the injustices he faced as a gay man and later as a person with AIDS, Wojnarowicz was met with success in his career. The curators remark:

Wojnarowicz’s work documents and illuminates a desperate period of American history: that of the AIDS crisis and culture wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s. But his rightful place is also among the raging and haunting iconoclastic voices, from Walt Whitman to William S. Burroughs, who explore American myths, their perpetuation, their repercussions, and their violence.[1]

Wojnarowicz survived an abusive father, an absentee mother, homelessness, welfare hotels, child hustling in Times Square, cross-country freight hopping, anonymous men with hostile intentions. During that same time, Wojnarowicz achieved an alternative education through the writings of Jean Genet and Arthur Rimbaud, moved to Paris for a time to pursue a career in writing, showed his art at East Village galleries, published a memoir, and exhibited a survey of his work all during his short lifetime. Wojnarowicz understood the potential of his unconventional life, and built a political persona around his perceived differences to smack people in the face, to assault their senses, and get them to accept the Truth as he saw it.

What was the Truth as Wojnarowicz saw it? Towards the end of his career Wojnarowicz gained notoriety for his direct, potent, and militant AIDS activism—but much of the work he created during this late period in his life carries a deep ambiguity about AIDS in the gay community. The demands of his public persona as an activist did not allow him to express his feelings of isolation from within the community that he aligned himself with. Wojnarowicz would have felt ostracized from the gay community due to his HIV positive status. His art allowed him to express his feelings of vulnerability and of tensions towards the gay community, while allowing him to remain a strong and uncompromising figure in the fight to end AIDS.

Perhaps Wojnarowicz revealed his vulnerability most strikingly in his Sex Series (For Marion Scemama), a series of eight black-and-white photomontages, or composite photographs, created between 1988–1989 (figure 3). Each untitled image consists of two components: a large pictorial field in which smaller circular images are set. Large images of man-made structures mix with small images culled from pornographic magazines or newspaper photographs. Many of the smaller images are difficult to identify. Far more discernible than images of intimacy are those of police brutality, such as in Untitled (train) (figure 4). Wojnarowicz resists the dominant ideology which positioned gay men as sick and dying, victims of their own promiscuous lifestyle, but he does not wholly celebrate his sexuality either. He politicizes his grief and makes public his personal desires—not using his noted anger, but through the layers of complexity of his lived reality. So too does the Whitney give rise to these tensions. Wojnarowicz embodies the spirit of resistance precisely because of unique perspective as an artist.

Wojnarowicz became an artist to feel less isolated, and in viewing his retrospective, so do we as an audience. “David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night” is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, New York through September 30, 2018.

DW, Rimbaud in New York
(fig. 1) David Wojnarowicz, Rimbaud in New York, 1978-1979, gelatin sliver print
image courtesy | Whitney Museum of American Art
(fig. 2) David Wojnarowicz, exhibition view of Metamorphosis series, 1984, collage paper and acrylic on plaster image taken by author
(fig. 3) David Wojnarowicz, exhibition view of Sex Series (For Marion Scemama), 1988–1989, eight gelatin silver prints image taken by author
DW, Sex Series, Train
(fig. 4) David Wojnarowicz, Untitled, from Sex Series (For Marion Scemama), 1989, gelatin silver print image courtesy | New York Magazine


[1] Museum label for David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night, Jul. 12–Sept. 30, 2018, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

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