Despite the flow of time and the change of social and political climate, the artistic practice of David Wojnarowicz is still somewhat disturbing and controversial. This outstanding artist created a peculiar body of work and has largely contributed to the visibility of AIDS-related issues.
Nevertheless, in order to understand better his work, it is necessary to point out several historical facts. Namely, the American society in the 1980s was colored with huge economic growth, while the social circumstances have changed since the gap between the classes increased. Such an atmosphere was followed by the rise of various forms of intolerance. The sudden and insane sprawl of AIDS has enforced homophobia, which was additionally boosted from the representatives of the Church; such was notorious political activist Anita Bryant.
Aside from high artistic domains, the David Wojnarowicz art should be perceived as an important example of the struggle for equality, but from a few different positions – that of an artist, of a queer and of a sick (and dying) person. Therefore, the upcoming retrospective David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night at the Whitney Museum of American Art tends to re-evaluate once again the work and the significance of one of the most radical artists of his generation.
David Wojnarowicz started off as a writer, but quickly transferred to the visual arts. The avant-garde New York scene in the 1980s, to which he belonged along with his friends and peers Nan Goldin, Kiki Smith and Peter Hujar (who pursued Wojnarowicz to become a visual artist), was bursting with energy and high level of creativity in each branch. The multimedia approach was quite present at that time due to the intersection of the various phenomenon from performance, over graffiti and no wave music, to neo-expressionist painting.
In such an atmosphere, the artist easily established himself as one of the highly innovative figures. The artist showed his work at various venues in New York, like Civilian Warfare, Gracie Mansion, and P.P.O.W, and since the AIDS was ravaging the artistic community of New York Wojnarowicz positioned himself as a powerful advocate for the AIDS-affected people and in general the queer community.
His artistic production engaged more or less all the media and was additionally framed with his writings which, looking from a present-day perspective, reflect the best his political standpoints. The essay Wojnarowicz wrote for the exhibition Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, curated by Nan Goldin at Artists Space in 1989–90, is an iconic example of his political struggle; The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) threatened the artist that they are going to withdraw the funds for the exhibition, so he had to fight them for the first amendment rights of artists.
At the Neil Bluhm Family Galleries, on the Museum’s fifth floor, David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night will be installed consisting of the works which range from photography, painting, sculpture to performance and film. The experiments in photography and collage which David Wojnarowicz released in the 1970’s will mark the begging of the selection. These works reflect his fascination with the icons of counterculture such as Rimbaud, so the series devoted to him, as well as the mask used for the photographs will be shown.
The following segment will display the stencil works, mostly released at the piers on the Hudson River, which can be perceived as sketches of his later and more elaborate paintings. A large number of spray and collage paintings the artist did with the artist Peter Hujar will be exhibited, as well as a couple of photographs Hujar did of Wojnarowicz.
The four paintings from 1987 which will be included in the installment reflect the best Wojnarowicz’s frustration, anger, and pain for fellow friends and lovers who died of AIDS. Later photo textual works such as Untitled (One day this kid...) (1989) or When I Put My Hands on Your Body (1990) include samples from the collection of his essays Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, which was published a year prior to Wojnarowicz’s death, will also be shown.
The important segment of his artistic practice were motion pictures. The iconic work Fire in My Belly will be shown next to other films, as well as a recording of the artist reading his own writings in 1992 at The Drawing Center in Soho. It is important to note that an excerpt of rarely seen footage of Wojnarowicz preparing to talk to the press in the midst of the mentioned NEA controversy, made by his friend and filmmaker, Phil Zwickler, who also died of AIDS, will be shown.
The special feature of the exhibition will be a reenactment of Wojnarowicz’s collaboration piece made with composer and musician Ben Neill from 1989 titled ITSOFOMO (In the Shadow of Forward Motion). It was critically charged multimedia performance focused on the acceleration of the AIDS crisis released presented at the iconic venue the Kitchen.
The upcoming exhibition will be accompanied by an extensive catalog which will future essays by Marvin Taylor, Director of the Fales Library and Special Collections, Cynthia Carr, author of Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times David Wojnarowicz (the definitive biography of Wojnarowicz), novelist and editor Hanya Yanagihara, artists Gregg Bordowitz and Julie Ault, and the curators themselves. Through a program of lectures, performances and readings the significance of David Wojnaorowicz art on later generations, as well on the ‘80s and ‘90s NYC scene to which he belonged, will be discussed.
This outstanding survey will reevaluate the work of this extraordinary artist in the context of the current America political context. Aside of the great achievements of LGBTQI movement and various individuals since the Stonewall riots up until now, the society has not fully redeemed itself from homophobia and marginalization of AIDS, so the work of this outstanding art figure stands as a silent reminder that a fight for equal rights is still not over. In addition to that is the controversy around the removal of the mentioned film A Fire in My Belly from the exhibit Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery in 2010 (when the Catholic League complained of the sacrilegious representations).
David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night will open on 13 July at the Whitney Museum with the live-streamed symposium Visual Arts and the AIDS Epidemic, funded by The Keith Haring Foundation, which will feature the conversation with artists, activists, and oral historians. The exhibition will be opened for the public until 30 September 2018 and will travel to the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid in May 2019, and in November 2019 to Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean in Luxembourg.
Editors’ Tip: Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration
In Close to the Knives, the artist gives us an important and timely document: a collection of creative essays - a scathing, sexy, sublimely humorous and honest personal testimony to the "Fear of Diversity in America." From the author's violent childhood in suburbia to eventual homelessness on the streets and piers of New York City, to recognition as one of the most provocative artists of his generation. Close to the Knives is his powerful and iconoclastic memoir. Street life, drugs, art and nature, family, AIDS, politics, friendship and acceptance: he challenges us to examine our lives, politically, socially, emotionally, and aesthetically.
Featured images: David Wojnarowicz - Untitled (One day this kid . . .), 1990. Photostat, 30 × 40 1/8 in. (76.2 × 101.9 cm). Edition of 10. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Print Committee 2002.183. Courtesy of The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York, NY; Untitled, 1988–89. Gelatin silver print, 16 x 20 in. (40.6 x 50.8 cm). Collection of Steve Johnson and Walter Sudol, courtesy Second Ward Foundation. Image courtesy of The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W., New York. All images courtesy The Whitney.