David Cole

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David Wo­j­narow­icz: His­tory Keeps Me Awake at Night an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Whit­ney Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art

David Wo­j­narow­icz:

His­tory Keeps Me Awake at Night an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Whit­ney Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art, New York City,

July 13–Septem­ber 30, 2018.

Cat­a­log of the ex­hi­bi­tion edited by David Bres­lin and David Kiehl. Whit­ney Mu­seum, 383 pp., $65.00 (dis­trib­uted by Yale Univer­sity Press)

There is a cer­tain irony in the fact that the first ma­jor ret­ro­spec­tive of David Wo­j­narow­icz’s work since his death in 1992 ap­pears in the spare, mod­ern rooms of the Whit­ney Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art, in Man­hat­tan’s Meat­pack­ing Dis­trict, to­day one of the city’s trendi­est neigh­bor­hoods. From the heights of the Whit­ney’s ex­te­rior stair­case one can look down on the Hud­son River and what were once the West Side piers, now devoted to bike lanes, parks, and am­bi­tious de­vel­op­ment projects.

When Wo­j­narow­icz lived and worked in New York, in the 1970s and 1980s, he spent much of his time in this neigh­bor­hood and on those piers, but it was a very dif­fer­ent world. The piers, once berths for lux­ury cruise lin­ers, had been aban­doned and had be­come a refuge for tran­sient artists, street peo­ple, and gay hus­tlers. Wo­j­narow­icz was, at one point or an­other, all three. The Whit­ney ex­hi­bi­tion fea­tures many strik­ing pho­to­graphs of him and his friends there, sur­rounded by graf­fiti, de­cay, and de­tri­tus.

Wo­j­narow­icz died of AIDS-re­lated com­pli­ca­tions at the age of thirty-seven, af­ter just more than a decade as a vis­ual artist. His wide-rang­ing work, beau­ti­fully dis­played and care­fully placed in its his­tor­i­cal set­ting by the Whit­ney, is a tes­ta­ment to a New York char­ac­ter­ized by ur­ban de­cline, ram­pant crime, the AIDS cri­sis, and the cul­ture wars, but also by ACT UP, the East Vil­lage art scene, Gay Men’s Health Cri­sis, An­gels in Amer­ica, and the trans­for­ma­tion of the LGBT move­ment.

Wo­j­narow­icz’s work, by turns an­gry and ele­giac, haunt­ing and dis­turb­ing, sub­tle and in-your-face, chron­i­cles that pe­riod by fo­cus­ing on its out­casts and vividly de­pict­ing their lives, loves, and com­plaints. Cer­tain pieces, in­clud­ing a pho­to­graph of a dio­rama of buf­faloes stam­ped­ing off the edge of a cliff, have be­come fa­mous. But see­ing the work as a whole re­veals an as­ton­ish­ingly pro­lific self-taught artist who worked fever­ishly in mul­ti­ple me­dia to give voice to the de­mands for jus­tice—and un­der­stand­ing—of the marginal­ized. Wo­j­narow­icz knew first­hand what he de­picted. As Cyn­thia Carr writes in her master­ful bi­og­ra­phy, Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wo­j­narow­icz (2012), he had an “al­most Dick­en­sian child­hood.” Born in New Jer­sey in 1954 to an al­co­holic, ho­mo­pho­bic, and abu­sive mer­chant sea­man and a hap­less, over­whelmed mother, he was beaten and ab­ducted by his fa­ther, and grew up be­tween half­way houses, his mother’s tiny apart­ments, and the streets of New York. He started turn­ing tricks as a gay hustler in his early teens and barely man­aged to grad­u­ate from the Man­hat­tan High School of Mu­sic and Art. But he had re­mark­able tal­ent, an ad­ven­tur­ous spirit, and a keen eye for both the struc­tural in­jus­tices of what he called the “pre-in­vented world” and the beauty to be found in its mis­fits.

The ex­hi­bi­tion be­gins with his first ma­jor art­work: a se­ries of black-and­white pho­to­graphs of his friends in var­i­ous parts of Man­hat­tan wear­ing a mask of Arthur Rim­baud. Born ex­actly one hun­dred years be­fore Wo­j­narow­icz, Rim­baud also died at the age of thirty-seven and cel­e­brated the out­sider. Patti Smith de­scribed Rim­baud as “tramp­ing the lu­mi­nous sewer of his own cir­cu­la­tory sys­tem with all his mar­velous con­tra­dic­tions in­tact.” For the se­ries, Wo­j­narow­icz de­picted Rim­baud—who fa­mously wrote “Je est un

autre” (“I is an other”)—shoot­ing up, eat­ing at a late-night diner, stand­ing be­fore graf­fiti on the West Side piers, walk­ing through Times Square, mas­tur­bat­ing, and hold­ing a gun in front of a faded wall paint­ing of Christ. The mask gives the pho­to­graphs an “ev­ery­man” qual­ity, but the set­tings de­fine him as liv­ing on the edge.

Wo­j­narow­icz was poly­mor­phously cre­ative. He wrote po­etry, jour­nals, and po­lit­i­cal es­says, the best of which are col­lected in Close to the Knives: A Mem­oir of Dis­in­te­gra­tion (1991). He was in a rock band, 3 Teens Kill 4. He sten­ciled, sculpted, painted, pho­tographed, and made films. His work ranges from in­ti­mate self-por­traits to vast can­vases and col­lages in deep, vi­brant col­ors teem­ing with car­toon­like vi­o­lence, maps, sex­ual scenes, air­planes, an­i­mals, dol­lar bills, sheet mu­sic, burn­ing houses, fall­ing men, weapons, and uniden­ti­fied ma­chines. As Hanya Yanag­i­hara writes in the ex­hi­bi­tion cat­a­log, in his work “you can feel the pres­ence of some­one for whom there is no fear of break­ing the rules, be­cause he has never been taught the rules to break.”

Wo­j­narow­icz was par­tic­u­larly fas­ci­nated with maps and used them as back­grounds, as cov­er­ings for sculpted heads, as col­lage el­e­ments. A globe, called Sci­ence Les­son in 3D (1984), hangs from the ceil­ing, with minia­ture toy an­i­mals, cars, peo­ple, and other ob­jects in turn fall­ing from it, a vivid plea for the fate of the earth. An­other globe is il­lu­mi­nated and painted black ex­cept for var­i­ous re­gions in the shape of the United States, through which shine the fa­mil­iar bor­ders and place names on the map be­low (see illustration on page 20). In one such re­gion, Mau­ri­ta­nia takes up much of the Amer­i­can North­west. In an­other, the Mid­west is dom­i­nated by Saudi Ara­bia; in still an­other, most of the coun­try is the south­ern tip of Africa. The over­all ef­fect is of a dark world dot­ted by mul­ti­col­ored USshaped con­ti­nents—the world lit­er­ally re­made in the United States’ im­age. One of the most sig­nif­i­cant per­sonal in­flu­ences on Wo­j­narow­icz was the Amer­i­can pho­tog­ra­pher Peter Hu­jar, who died of AIDS in 1987. They met in early 1981, were briefly lovers, and re­mained close friends for the rest of Hu­jar’s life. The Whit­ney ex­hi­bi­tion fea­tures sev­eral ten­der por­traits of Wo­j­narow­icz by Hu­jar, in­clud­ing one that ap­peared on the cover of The Vil­lage Voice in 1983 for a path-break­ing es­say about the AIDS cri­sis; three pho­to­graphs Wo­j­narow­icz took of Hu­jar’s hand, feet, and head in his hospi­tal room im­me­di­ately af­ter he died; and nu­mer­ous paint­ings devoted to Hu­jar. Hu­jar, an es­tab­lished artist when the two met, en­cour­aged Wo­j­narow­icz to pur­sue the vis­ual arts. Wo­j­narow­icz said that Hu­jar was “my brother my fa­ther my emo­tional link to the world.” As more and more of his friends suc­cumbed to AIDS, and as he him­self was di­ag­nosed with HIV in 1988, Wo­j­narow­icz be­gan to con­cen­trate more ex­plic­itly on the dis­ease and so­ci­ety’s re­sponse to it. His es­says from the time move eas­ily from the in­ti­mate and the per­sonal to the overtly po­lit­i­cal, build­ing to cries of rage against a govern­ment still un­will­ing to con­front the cri­sis. He be­gan work­ing with ACT-UP and be­came a prom­i­nent AIDS ac­tivist.

At this point, per­haps in­evitably, Wo­j­narow­icz be­came a tar­get of the cul­ture wars. In an es­say for the cat­a­log of a 1989 New York ex­hi­bi­tion that ad­dressed the AIDS cri­sis, he col­or­fully cas­ti­gated the North Carolina Repub­li­can se­na­tor Jesse Helms and New York car­di­nal John O’Con­nor for their anti­gay poli­cies and pro­nounce­ments. (Of the for­mer he wrote, “At least in my un­governed imag­i­na­tion . . . I can, in the pri­vacy of my own skull, douse Helms with a bucket of gaso­line and set his pu­trid ass on fire.”) The NEA,

fear­ing back­lash in Wash­ing­ton, even­tu­ally pulled fund­ing for the cat­a­log. Shortly there­after, in Tu­pelo, Mis­sis­sippi, Don­ald Wild­mon, head of the fun­da­men­tal­ist Amer­i­can Fam­ily As­so­ci­a­tion (AFA), ob­tained a copy of the cat­a­log of a ret­ro­spec­tive of Wo­j­narow­icz’s work at Illi­nois State Univer­sity. Wild­mon sin­gled out and pho­tographed sev­eral im­ages, in­clud­ing gay porn pic­tures that Wo­j­narow­icz had in­cor­po­rated into photo-col­lages called the Sex Se­ries and an im­age he had painted of Christ shoot­ing up from a larger work called Un­ti­tled (Genet af­ter Bras­saï). Wild­mon put these and other im­ages, stripped from their con­texts, into a leaflet ti­tled “Your Tax Dol­lars Helped to Pay for These Works of Art” and mailed it to ev­ery mem­ber of Con­gress, ma­jor news out­lets, and thou­sands of re­li­gious lead­ers.

When he saw the AFA mail­ing, Wo­j­narow­icz con­tacted the Cen­ter for Con­sti­tu­tional Rights, where I was a young lawyer spe­cial­iz­ing in First Amend­ment law. He wanted to know if he could sue. With as­sis­tance from lawyers at Skad­den Arps we sued Wild­mon and the AFA for li­bel and for vi­o­lat­ing the New York Artists’ Au­thor­ship Rights Act, which pro­hibits mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of an artist’s work.

The case went to trial in June 1990 in a fed­eral court in down­town New York; the court­room was packed with Wo­j­narow­icz’s ac­tivist and art world friends. Wild­mon and the AFA were rep­re­sented by Ben­jamin Bull of the Al­liance De­fense Fund, a non­profit that sup­ported anti­gay laws around the world. (It has been re­branded as the Al­liance De­fend­ing Free­dom and most re­cently rep­re­sented Mas­ter­piece Cakeshop in the Supreme Court, de­fend­ing its owner’s re­fusal to sell a wed­ding cake to a gay cou­ple. I rep­re­sented the gay cou­ple in the case.) Wild­mon played the coun­try bump­kin at trial. When I, seek­ing to show that he knew his rep­re­sen­ta­tion was false, asked him why he took small ex­cerpts from Wo­j­narow­icz’s col­lages and then falsely pre­sented them as Wo­j­narow­icz’s art, Wild­mon replied, “Why, I don’t know the dif­fer­ence be­tween a por­trait and a col­lage.”

We pre­vailed un­der the New York Artists’ Au­thor­ship Rights Act. The court or­dered Wild­mon to cease dis­tribut­ing the pam­phlets and to send a cor­rec­tion to every­one who had re­ceived the ini­tial mail­ing. We also re­quested mone­tary dam­ages, but be­cause Wo­j­narow­icz’s work was ris­ing in value at the time, we weren’t able to show that he had suf­fered ac­tual eco­nomic loss. The judge or­dered Wild­mon to pay “nom­i­nal dam­ages” of one dol­lar. Wo­j­narow­icz asked for a check, which he planned to in­cor­po­rate into a fu­ture work of art. But by that point, AIDS had over­taken him, and he was un­able to do so. The check, along with Wild­mon’s pam­phlet and a draft dec­la­ra­tion from Wo­j­narow­icz fea­tur­ing his hand­writ­ten ed­its, is on dis­play in the Whit­ney ex­hi­bi­tion.

Some of Wo­j­narow­icz’s most af­fect­ing work came at the end of his short life, as he con­tin­ued to deal with the dis­ease that had con­sumed his com­mu­nity and would soon con­sume him. He had be­gun his ca­reer as a writer, but had in­creas­ingly turned to the vis­ual arts in the 1980s. Near the end, he mar­ried the two, as he in­cor­po­rated text into his works of art. The Whit­ney ex­hi­bi­tion ends with one such piece, Un­ti­tled (One Day This Kid ... ). It fea­tures an in­no­cent im­age of a young, freck­led David, prob­a­bly taken when he was nine or ten years old. Sur­round­ing the im­age is the fol­low­ing text:

One day this kid will get larger. One day this kid will come to know some­thing that causes a sen­sa­tion equiv­a­lent to the sep­a­ra­tion of the earth from its axis. One day this kid will reach a point where he senses a divi­sion that isn’t math­e­mat­i­cal. One day this kid will feel some­thing stir in his heart and

throat and mouth. One day this kid will find some­thing in his mind and body and soul that makes him hun­gry. One day this kid will do some­thing that causes men who wear the uni­forms of priests and rab­bis, men who in­habit cer­tain stone build­ings, to call for his death. One day politi­cians will en­act leg­is­la­tion against this kid. One day fam­i­lies will give false in­for­ma­tion to their chil­dren and each child will pass that in­for­ma­tion down gen­er­a­tionally to their fam­i­lies and that in­for­ma­tion will be de­signed to make ex­is­tence in­tol­er­a­ble for this kid. One day this kid will be­gin to ex­pe­ri­ence all this ac­tiv­ity in his en­vi­ron­ment and that ac­tiv­ity and in­for­ma­tion will com­pell [sic] him to com­mit sui­cide or sub­mit to dan­ger in hopes of be­ing mur­dered or sub­mit to si­lence and in­vis­i­bil­ity. Or one day this kid will talk. When he be­gins to talk, men who de­velop a fear of this kid will at­tempt to si­lence him with stran­gling, fists, prison, suf­fo­ca­tion, rape, in­tim­i­da­tion, drug­ging, ropes, guns, laws, men­ace, rov­ing gangs, bot­tles, knives, re­li­gion, de­cap­i­ta­tion, and im­mo­la­tion by fire. Doc­tors will pro­nounce this kid cur­able as if his brain were a virus. This kid will lose his con­sti­tu­tional rights against the govern­ment’s in­va­sion of his pri­vacy. This kid will be faced with elec­troshock, drugs, and con­di­tion­ing ther­a­pies in lab­o­ra­to­ries tended by psy­chol­o­gists and re­search sci­en­tists. He will be sub­ject to loss of home, civil rights, jobs, and all con­ceiv­able free­doms. 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.

To see this work at the Whit­ney, where Wo­j­narow­icz, a once pe­riph­eral

fig­ure, is now cel­e­brated as cru­cial to the his­tory of Amer­i­can art, in a neigh­bor­hood on whose streets he once hus­tled and whose aban­doned build­ings have now been trans­formed into high­rent con­do­mini­ums, at a time when medicine has found a treat­ment for HIV/AIDS—though it is still not suf­fi­ciently avail­able to all—is to rec­og­nize how much the world has changed in a re­mark­ably short pe­riod. Mar­riage equal­ity is a con­sti­tu­tional right, young peo­ple are in­creas­ingly ac­cept­ing of a wide range of sex­ual iden­ti­ties, and the anti­gay Al­liance De­fend­ing Free­dom is, as its name un­in­ten­tion­ally sug­gests, on the de­fen­sive.

But to view Wo­j­narow­icz’s art in the Trump era is also to be re­minded of how our cul­ture con­tin­ues to re­ject the un­con­ven­tional, to si­lence those who chal­lenge set­tled ways, and to cast out those who de­cline to con­form. Wo­j­narow­icz em­braced non­con­for­mity in his art, his life, and his pol­i­tics. At its best, as in One Day This Kid. . . , his art im­plores us to see the in­no­cence in love of all kinds in­stead of the fear and ha­tred that it too of­ten prompts. He lived on the mar­gins, but his abil­ity to speak across the di­vide, hon­estly and di­rectly, has helped to break through the ig­no­rance that con­tin­ues to sep­a­rate us.

David Wo­j­narow­icz: Un­ti­tled (Green Head), 1982

David Wo­j­narow­icz: Globe of the United States, 1990

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