By Jeffrey Patrick Colgan &
When artist and writer David Wojnarowicz returned to New York City in 1979 from a lengthy stay with his sister in Paris, he used office equipment to print a large cutout of the face of poet Arthur Rimbaud, a cigarette to burn two narrow eye-holes, and a knife to carve out a gently sloping mouth. Long inspired by the French poet’s life and work, Wojnarowicz sought to impersonate the poet in order to stage his own coming-of-age among the city’s ruins and cultural underground. He used his friends as models and staged scenes that inserted the fragile, pale face of Rimbaud into the dirty confusion of 1970s New York.
Along with his own story, the series of prints — most of which can be seen at the Whitney Museum and at the Fales Collection’s exhibit at NYU’s Bobst Library — that make up the work serve as historical sketches of New York City urban spaces: the empty boardwalk of Coney Island, the embattled meatpacking industry, abandoned buildings alive with graffiti, and trash-strewn streets stand as testaments to a city in trouble and in flux, yet a city that we now look back upon as absolutely electric in its potential and diversity.
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.
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.
During the 1970s and early 1980s the pre-invented world of New York City was cracking, crumbling, and turning away from the values that were foundational to its early 20th Century character. The City, once a bastion of (almost) free education, affordable and extensive public transportation, and robust labor rights held in a fragile yet successful stasis with corporate and real estate interests, was forced by the banks and the city’s corporate elite to retreat from its prior commitments when confronted by mass immigration, middle-class flight, de-industrialization, ascendant political-economic ideologies, and the resulting fiscal crisis of 1975. These broad societal and economic shifts altered the pre-invented world from one that had given birth to a welfare state to one that dismantled it. These changes resulted in a very different experience of the built environment: with the withdrawal of maintenance and regulatory oversight, ruins were produced; with the decimation of budgets for municipal services, crime rose and trash collected and festered; with the flight of the middle-class, neighborhoods emptied and real estate prices and tax revenues plummeted.
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.