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David Wojnarowicz: Love and Rage in the Time of Cholera

David Wojnarowicz, History Keeps Me Awake at Night (For Rilo Chmielorz), 1986 Collection of John P. Axelrod © Ron Cowie.

Museums And Exhibitions

David Wojnarowicz: Love and Rage in the Time of Cholera

Sex, spirituality, love, and loss – for the artist, writer, and activist David Wojnarowicz these were the main subjects of art which he created from the 1970s to the early 1990s when he died of AIDS. Always hard-lined, he created a body of work that spanned photography, painting, music, film, sculpture, writing, and activism. Largely self-taught, Wojnarowicz was mixing everything that shook the New York artistic landscape of those times: graffiti, new- and no-wave music, conceptual photography, performance, and neo-expressionist paintings. Radical and extreme in his art and writing, he documented and illuminated a dark period in U.S. history that unfolded around the AIDS crisis and the cultural conflicts of the epoch. Still, even after so many years, his art is like a punch in the face.

David Wojnarowicz, History Keeps Me Awake at Night
David Wojnarowicz with Tom Warren, Self-Portrait of David Wojnarowicz, 1983–84 Collection of Brooke Garber Neidich and Daniel Neidich | Photograph by Ron Amstutz. © Courtesy the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W, New York

Wojnarowicz was always an outsider. His parents divorced and then disappeared when he was two, leaving him to a succession of temporary homes and often abusive relationships. He was a victim of childhood abuse and during his teenage years was a street hustler. But, when he grew up he quickly emerged as one of the most prominent and prolific members of an avant-garde wing that mixed media.

David Wojnarowicz, History Keeps Me Awake at Night
David Wojnarowicz Rimbaud mask, c. 1978 Courtesy the Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University. © The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York

In his beginnings as an artist in the late seventies, he made the mask of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud out of cardstock and a rubber band, using a famous photograph of the poet at the age of seventeen, and then took a series of photos of his friends wearing it around New York City. For example Rimbaud in a graffitied subway train; Rimbaud crossing avenue in rush-hour traffic; Rimbaud lies naked on a bed with his penis in one hand. 50 years later, Wojnarowicz affects as a reincarnation of Rimbaud: young, gay, and prematurely dead.

David Wojnarowicz, History Keeps Me Awake at Night
David Wojnarowicz, “Arthur Rimbaud in New York (Duchamp)” (1978–79/2004). Courtesy the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W., New York.

Wojnarowicz became a successful artist, connected to other prolific artists of the time such as Nan Goldin, Peter Hujar, Luis Frangella or Karen Finley. In 1987 his longtime mentor and lover, the photographer Peter Hujar, died of AIDS. Hujar, twenty years Wojnarowicz’s senior was the first one to treat Wojnarowicz’s seriously. When he was dying, they shared the same apartment. Wojnarowicz took a series of harrowing photographs from his deathbed. The artist never recovered from the loss of Hujar, and 1987 was a turning point in his life. Only months later, he found out he too was HIV-positive.

David Wojnarowicz, History Keeps Me Awake at Night
David Wojnarowicz, Untitled, 1988, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. © Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

From that moment Wojnarowicz’s life was filled with defiance and moral outrage. He created works full charged with political content, notably around the injustices, social and legal, inherent in the response to the AIDS epidemic. When people around him and himself were suffering and dying from the disease and as a consequence of government inaction, he became an impassioned activist. AIDS drugs were expensive; most patients couldn’t get access to them. The misinformation about how HIV was contracted spread widely, and fear of the disease ignited vicious public homophobia. At this time, some Republican lawmakers were calling for homosexuals to be quarantined and even killed. Wojnarowicz’s art turned to pure fury.

The perfect example of such rage is this photo-text collage entitled Untitled (One Day, This Kid). The kid is David Wojnarowicz himself as child, an average boy from the 1950s. But around the photo we can read texts forecasting the artist’s future as a homosexual who is persecuted by his family, church, school, government, and the legal and medical communities. Among other abuses, he will “be faced with electro-shock, drugs, and conditioning therapies” as well as “be subject to loss of home, civil rights, jobs, and all conceivable freedoms”—all because, the text concludes, “he discovers he desires to place his naked body on the naked body of another boy.”

David Wojnarowicz, History Keeps Me Awake at Night
David Wojnarowicz Untitled (One day, This Kid), 1990-91 Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Print Committee 2002.183. © Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

One of his most famous works, a photograph taken less than a year before he died, is called “Untitled (Face in Dirt).” Wojnarowicz lies in a shallow grave, his face just barely emerging from the dry earth. It’s difficult to imagine a more striking and straightforward message from a dying human being.

David Wojnarowicz, History Keeps Me Awake at Night
David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (Face in Dirt), 1991 (printed 1993) Collection of Ted and Maryanne Ellison Simmons. © Courtesy the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W, New York

Now Wojnarowicz’s works can be seen also in Europe. David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night is the first retrospective of Wojnarowicz’s works to be organized in two decades and the most complete presentation of his work to the date is now on show in Mudam Luxembourg – Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean. The exhibition which brings together more than 150 works is open until February 9th, 2020. Before, the presentation was shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (from 13 July to 30 September 2018) and at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid (from 29 May to 30 September 2019).

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled, 1988–89 Collection of Steven Johnson and Walter Sudol Courtesy Second Ward Foundation. © Courtesy of The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W, New York

PS. If you think you haven’t seen any work of Wojnarowicz before, you may be wrong. In 1989, the band U2 adopted the iconic tumbling buffalo photograph, Untitled (Buffaloes), for their single release “One.” This single, and the album which it came from, achieved multi-platinum status and the band donated much of its earnings to AIDS charities.

Art Historian, founder and CEO of DailyArtMagazine.com and DailyArt mobile app. But to be honest, her greatest accomplishment is being the owner of Pimpek the Cat.

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