The images, too, present instances of the prosaic moments that make up the artist’s life — the distant expression of the wounded-looking Rimbaud emphasizing the gulf between interiority (and, perhaps, artistic posturing) and the maelstrom of urban existence. There he is nodding off with a needle in his arm, sitting awkwardly in a subway car, or masturbating partially clothed in his narrow bed — the same solemn face gracing them all.
As one enters into the Whitney Museum’s new retrospective of Wojnarowicz, the first of its kind since 1999, the uninhabited mask of Rimbaud is the first work encountered. It sits encased on a plinth and invites the viewer to walk through its blank gaze and assume the position of the model or, perhaps, Wojnarowicz himself. And the reverse side of the mask is enthralling all on its own. The edges show signs of the black marker used to trace its shape; the brow is colored by the sweat and dirt delivered by wear; the slit of the mouth purses out, reminiscent of a pout or a plea; and the char that surrounds the eyes draws one into the perspective of the Rimbaud proxy. One is led to question what conditions made possible this remarkable body of work and how these works show not only the poignant and profound explorations of a thoughtful and passionate man but also a unique moment in the historical trajectory of American urban life.
Coinciding with the Whitney’s retrospective are two exhibits that explore other dimensions of his work. At NYU’s Bobst Library, The Fales Collection has mounted a deeply moving exhibit featuring materials that display the intimate sources of the symbols that permeate Wojnarowicz’s work — diaries, notebooks, letters and the wonderful “Magic Box”, a collection of artifacts and objects collected throughout his life and that inhabit his paintings, sketches, and collages. The third show, of several large-scale installations and films, is at the P.P.O.W. Gallery who represented Wojnarowicz when he was alive.
Wojnarowicz is a representative figure of the New York artist in the 1970s and early 1980s. He began as a writer, modeling himself on Jean Genet and Beat generation writers, but after a brief affair with photographer Peter Hujar, he was encouraged by Hujar to become a painter. He was born in Redbank, New Jersey, in 1954. He and his siblings were abandoned by their parents when they divorced, they lived in a series of abusive homes with relatives or with his alcoholic father until they went to live with their mother in New York City in 1965. Wojnarowicz attended the High School of Performing Arts intermittently, but throughout his teenage years he spent much of his time on the streets of New York City and supported himself as a street hustler. While he periodically traveled or briefly lived outside the city, New York was his home base until his death in 1992, when he died of complications from AIDS at the age of 37.
Central to Wojnarowicz’s work is what he called the pre-invented world — the concepts, social values, roles, and moral restrictions into which, by our very existence, we have been thrust and over which we have little to no control. In Close to the Knives, he describes it as the “brought-up world; the owned world. The world of coded sounds: the world of language, the world of lies. The packaged world; the world of speed in metallic motion. The Other World where I’ve always felt like an alien”. It is this world to which Wojnarowicz’s work responds, and it is his treatment of this world that provides such valuable insight into the New York City of his time and the profound ideological and structural shifts that were occurring.
The urban landscape of refuse, ruins, and diminished safety manifested itself in Wojnarowicz’s early work. Like many other artists of the period he took materials that were found on the streets, empty lots, and abandoned buildings — an approach called availabilism by artist Kembra Pfahler — and made use of trash (he even made a series of trashcan-lid paintings), spray paint, stencils and the bold blocky colors in his paintings, which show his origins in street art. Out of the overwhelming and potentially annihilating social and political disasters of the period, Wojnarowicz managed (along with many other artists, musicians, and writers) to create a powerful aesthetic response that both channeled the political anger and found beauty, pleasure, and life amidst the pain — a political-aesthetic perspective that we might tentatively call the sublime.
He also explored other artistic media — an aspect of his career that the Whitney emphasizes. He “played” the tape recorder (providing samples of found sounds) in the punk band 3 Teens Kill 4 (which he started with co-workers from Danceteria, where he was a busboy); he had a lifelong preoccupation with recording his surroundings and experiences both in his journals and with a camera; he wrote passionately on mortality and meaning (pieces of which he sometimes recorded and collaborated with musicians to put to music); and he painted, made large installations, and created both allegorical and absurdist films.
This fluidity in choice of medium is representative of his time and was one of the first indications of the breakdown of the pre-invented world. As the institutions, customs, and values of mass society were contested, the rigid roles that make up that society too were contested and they too began to break down. Wojnarowicz was by no means unique in regard to the breadth of his work. In the 1970s and 1980s, many artists of the time experimented with different art practices — with membership in a punk band (even without any musical experience) being an especially common epaulet. As traditional artistic roles became more ambiguous, openness to experimentation, collaboration, and amateurism became more widespread. Of course, this fluidity of identity and embrace of experimentation existed beyond art and motivated the widespread lifestyle and sexual experimentation that manifested in the emergence of gay activism, feminist conscious-raising groups, and public sex venues (the piers along Hudson River).
In the wake of these radical cultural developments, there arose the inevitable backlash from those that defended their experience and position in mass society. Significantly were the “Culture Wars” of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when conservatives mounted campaigns to discredit art institutions for the art they exhibited and for their financial assistance to individual artists — especially artists whose work they judged antithetical to mainstream and Christian values. Ultimately, these campaigns met with some success, and government bodies no longer issue grants to individual artists.
Wojnarowicz himself became a target of the Culture Wars, and a more explicitly political artist, when in April 1990 the rightwing evangelist Donald Wildmon distributed thousands of pamphlets to Congress and media outlets that attacked Wojnarowicz’s use of homoerotic imagery and the $15,000 NEA grant that supported a retrospective of his work. Wojnarowicz sued Wildmon and his organization for libel and copyright infringement, claiming they had selected only miniscule portions of his works and reduced it to “banal pornography”. Ultimately successful in his suit, Wojnarowicz received as compensation a $1 check personally signed (as stipulated by Wojnarowicz) by Wildmon himself. Various ephemera from this clash, including the $1 check, are on display at the Whitney.
Beginning in the 1980s, Wojnarowicz was an outspoken critic of the federal government’s response to the AIDS crisis — a response he felt was connected to the rise of American conservatism. Experienced first-hand during his diagnosis of HIV and the treatment of himself and those close to him, he directed his rage at this bigotry and injustice into his collages, his spoken word pieces, his brilliantly written memoir Close to the Knives, and his moving tribute to and his powerful photographs of Peter Hujar on his deathbed.
One of the last pieces of the Whitney retrospective (and one of the last photographs he shot) is a simple black and white photograph of a small frog cradled in a hand and accompanied by a white block of superimposed text. The text, with Wojnarowicz’s characteristic kindness and thoughtfulness, asks: “What is this little guy’s job in the world. If this little guy dies does the world know? Does the world feel this? […] If this little guy dies does the world get a little lighter? […] If this little guy dies does some little kid somewhere wake up with a bad dream? Does an almost imperceptible link in the chain snap? Will civilization stumble?” It is this concern for the human, for the individual, for the outcast and injured — especially when faced with a fracturing society and increasing antagonism — that make Wojnarowicz such a singular and important artist. And these qualities brilliantly shine through the pieces included in the Whitney retrospective and the accompanying exhibits.
Jeffrey Patrick Colgan is one of the founders of the Network for Culture & Arts Policy and the producer of the DROP DEAD podcast series. Jeffrey Escoffier is the author of American Homo: Community and Perversity (forthcoming from Verso, this October) and a research associate at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. Together they are writing a book on the economic crisis and cultural creativity in 1970s New York.
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