For too long, the power of death, early death, and death due to “AIDS-related complications” has managed to function as a black hole that attracts all interpretations about the creative life of several artists of the 1980s, major among them David Wojnarowicz, whose elegant retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American art now begs to differ. Although Wojnarowicz did not shy away from confronting the cruel ravages of the plague, it is now possible to see his concerns with cosmological inquiries about the entropic course of civilization more in tandem with such an unassuming artist as Robert Smithson, than the direct actions of Wojnarowicz’s own contemporary artists like Gran Fury collective.
Yet stylistically, his work has little in common with the land artist’s taciturn visual language. Signaled by Wojnarowicz’s choice of Arthur Rimbaud for an alter-ego at the beginning of his career, he belonged to a trajectory in art history that can be traced back to European artist-poets from William Blake to Andre Breton, culminating in the dark Symbolist and Decadent art of the late nineteenth-century. As Craig Owens wrote in 1980 and Gregg Bordowitz notes in the exhibition catalog, Wojnarowicz uses allegory as what it is at its core: “an emblem of mortality, of the inevitable dissolution and decay to which everything is subject” (47). At the same time, Wojnarowicz was largely self-taught and his crude do-it-yourself aesthetics was in line with the American hard modern painting as we see in Marsden Hartley or Philip Evergood for example.
David Wojnarowicz: The History Keeps Me Awake at Night begins with a self-portrait, in fact perhaps two, the second being a crudely made mask of Rimbaud that functioned as the main prop in a series of staged photographs entitled Arthur Rimbaud in New York (1978-79). This could be a bit deceptive, however, because unlike so many artists of his generation, from Cindy Sherman to Mark Morrisroe, we almost never see Wojnarowicz’s image in his own works. The significant exception is, Untitled (One Day This Kid) of 1990-91 which shows a Photostat portrait of a boy with buckteeth, surrounded by a text foretelling an ominous future in which he may pay for his forbidden desires by immolation. And yet Wojnarowicz’s work has often been seen through the lens of biography. One research-based account of his life, Fire in the Belly by Cynthia Carr has solidified this approach, and the current exhibition has just added a further spin to this way of seeing the artist by including the novelist Hanya Yanagihara as one of the contributors to the catalog. Yanagihara’s protagonist in her 2014 novel, A Little Life could be said to be a grotesque version of Wojnarowicz’s childhood, complete with a photograph by his lover and mentor, Peter Hujar, from his Orgasmic Man series on the cover.
Wojnarowicz’s life as a member of the East Village scene in the early 1980s, as well as his experiments on the abandoned piers of Manhattan’s other bank to the west, shaped some of the key vocabularies of his mature works. Reflecting the ad buster, graffiti, and street aesthetics of this period, Savarin Coffee (1983) is a commercial screen-print poster advertising the titular commodity over which a gird of nine separate inserts show cartoonish images of Godzilla, a car driving down a road, the head of a man repeated like Matryoshka dolls, and the famous scene of Krazy Kat & Ignatz, among others. Not only these references to capitalism, masculinity, and destruction will be repeated in Wojnarowicz’s more mature works, his use of collage, both as a technique and a conceptual approach would turn out to be formative to his best works around 1986 and 1987.
The exhibition creates a brief Johns-Rauschenberg moment in an antechamber that links Wojnarowicz’s underground experiments to major paintings presented in a grand hall style. Here, Hujar’s photographs of the artist are installed next to a series of paintings by Wojnarowicz in which the sleeping head of the photographer is shattered into pieces. In Untitled (Green Head), two rather identical images of Hujar structure the binary organization of the work but in the second iteration, the head has turned yellow and is broken into pieces. A gunsight has been successfully moved toward the neck of the sleeping man to mark and annihilate his undesirable body. Wojnarowicz met Hujar in 1981 and created this work a year later when the acronym GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) was coined to spell out the epidemic proportion of the disorder among gay men, but at the beginning many were in a state of denial.
In 1986, the show informs us, David Wojnarowicz catapulted himself to somewhere around the center of a medium which by then had already been pronounced dead several times. A year later, he creates a series of remarkable paintings based on the set of tropes and visual rhetoric he had developed to construct metaphoric mélanges in a more seamless way than photography would ever allow. In the 1980s, it was almost a consensus among the avant-garde that critical artists were supposed to move to mediums which were free of the conservative undertones and commercial appeals of painting. The fact that Wojnarowicz couldn’t subscribe to such groupings might be in part a result of his self-taught status as an artist.
By 1986, he eliminated almost any trace of personality that could emanate through his tepid brushwork and arrived at a carefully if somewhat naively calculated aesthetics that is exemplified in works such as History Keeps Me Awake at Night which lends its title to that of the exhibition; and a generative work called Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water that would later foster Wojnarowicz’s magnum opus, the Elements series of 1987. In an increasingly sophisticated trajectory, he refined his allegorical allusions to nature and set them on a cataclysmic collision with modern systems of signification such as maps, currencies, and police wanted signs. The four paintings of the Elements series vary greatly in the level of personal and political tones they adopt as well as their compositional structure, creating a saga of social and psychological disintegration that would soon go terminally awry.
Water is unique in the way it exaggerates and shifts in scale from a gigantic frog pregnant with a Warholian disaster dominating the right panel, to a loose grid of more than forty small ink drawings of various topics including pornographic imagery, the recurring image of ripples on a pond surface in the form of concentric patterns, and other images related to water. These are then accompanied by a series of other symbols such as an ocean liner, an array of sperms all over the painting that seem to be a visual pun with tadpoles; and perhaps at the emotional crescendo of the painting, a bandaged hand dropping a yellow carnation from a prison window in a snowy day. Each allegorical component becomes a portal that simultaneously safeguards the private and engages with the public. Not unlike David Salle’s paintings, the semantic relationships of these recalcitrant players with each other, echo the way an artist tries to connect with his or her audience in an unending flux of frustrations.
The menacing outlook of nature in these works only intensified after Wojnarowicz’s diagnosis in the spring of 1988 (Some say 1986). By that time he had already lost Hujar and was grappling with his own and so many other friends’ apprehension about early death. Any new project, if it could come to being, could be the last. Never quite the bold aggressive crusader of civil rights he felt necessary to show he was, Wojnarowicz wrote in his diaries after he knew he had AIDS: “So I came down with shingles and it’s scary. I don’t even want to write about it. I don’t want to think of death or virus or illness and that sense of removal, that aloneness in illness with everyone as witness to your silent decline” (211).
Sadness was soon transformed into unleashed anger, and the artist gave expression to it through writing and activism. The rare synergy of words and images in Wojnarowicz’s oeuvre as a whole has been successfully played out here in the exhibition, making curatorial imperatives such as going beyond the picture frame into a number of effective strategies. The best of which is perhaps an empty white cube that has been interleaved between two magnum opuses, the Elements and the Sex Series. This hollow space is then filled with the voice of a passionate author reciting his own writings: “… because the thin line between the inside and the outside is beginning to erode. And at the moment, at the moment I'm a thirty-seven-foot-tall one-thousand-one-hundred-and-seventy-two-pound man inside this six-foot body, and all I can feel is the pressure …” The aftertaste of Wojnarowicz’s rage against unfairness is an unmistakably life-affirming dread. We can look outside of the Whitney’s floor to ceiling windows to the south, where the pier 34 not so far away from the museum was once hosting the artist’s site-specific works. Or, with this powerful example of audio leak, we can listen as we see the works in the two adjacent galleries.
In art, Wojnarowicz abandons painting to take both the truth claim and the gothic affects of black and white photography. Building on his honed skills in manipulating scale and figure-ground visual relations, in the Sex Series (1989), he sets landscapes as the backdrop upon which hover peephole insertions of people having sex. The haunting quality of these photographs is the result of negative prints that invoke X-ray, but the jolting juxtaposition of the unpopulated or dehumanized public versus the intimate community of two or more people in private, make them even more unsettling. The text on one work begins with the story of a sexual encounter he had with a man “in black cowboy boots tight jeans and a shirt openned [sic.] to the third button and sleeves rolled up to reveal a workmans [sic.] arms and a couple of blue ink tatoo’s [sic.],” and goes on in the second part to interrogate “the man on the T.V.” who “can have the face of a politician or the face of a doctor or the face of a research scientist or the face of a health-care ‘professional’ or the face of a priest with a swastika tatooed [sic.] on his heart; and each and every one of these faces say they are concerned for you because of my existence.”
A few months after the exhibition of the Sex Series at P.P.O.W. gallery in 1989, Rev. Donald Wildmon, executive director of the American Family Association, fired the first shot in what then became known as the Culture Wars. His personal front of this campaign against contemporary art would reach Wojnarowicz’s work within a year but the artist fought against Wildmon’s mudslinging in court and won. Here, the documents of this encounter are shown in the middle of a gallery in a serene display that betrays their highly contested nature and the artist’s militant activism. And rightly so, for an exhibition which aims at uncovering a more hidden aspect of Wojnarowicz’s art, this seems to be a compelling choice.
David Wojnarowicz: The History Keeps Me Awake at Night has a clear illuminating impact on its viewers. The show takes them from knowing about a paragon of AIDS art and queer canon and generates a new understanding about a multifaceted Renaissance man of words and images. Nudging activism to the background, the curators David Kiehl and David Breslin manage to add a great painter to the history of American art in the 1980s, a niche largely preserved for ‘uncritical’ neo-expressionists who, as the standard story goes, were largely catering to patriarchy and capitalism. Perhaps that achievement of the curators is not exactly what we want to see now in the Trump’s era, but this is a significant correction that will contribute to remapping the art of a decade that was detrimentally marked by renewed forms of media chauvinism.
The organizers have been content with crowning Wojnarowicz as an important painter and photographer, and therefore, his experiments with installation are not represented at the Whitney, even though some of his key works such as skull sculptures and Untitled (One Day this Kid …) were originally presented as part of an environmental installation called America: Heads of Family/Heads of State (1990). These works alongside Wojnarowicz’s extensive archives that include a wide range of realia such as his famous Magic Box, have been set aside to feature as the main subjects of ancillary exhibitions at the New York University-affiliated Fales Library and Archive, and the veteran gallery, P.P.O.W. The latter, which was instrumental in shaping the artist’s legacy at the end of his life, has masterfully reconstructed three environments and is showcasing photographs of destroyed works.
The circular plan of the retrospective invites us to see how in the purgatory of the 1980s, David Wojnarowicz shed much of his spirited semiotics and wiped his palette off of color. While some of his East Village style mock-graffiti works such as the gagging bull carry a subtle sense of humor; Wojnarowicz’s late works, with their dense texts superimposed on or juxtaposed next to symbols of death and demise, reaffirm the image of an artist who had no agenda other than survival. He did not embrace extinction like a martyr fighting for a cause much bigger than himself. He doesn’t even seem to be concerned with Modernity’s suicidal forces in the Anthropocene era anymore. One of his last photo-works shows the palm of a hand on which we see a little frog climbing up the thumb. The text accompanying the image begins with this question: “What is this little guy’s job in the world?”
David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night, co-curated by David Kiehl and David Breslin at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Jul 13–Sep 30, 2018.