Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Last Romantic

I finished Cynthia Carr's engrossing new biography of David Wojnarowicz yesterday and enjoyed it thoroughly.

A lot of places and landmarks in the book were familiar to me from 13 years living in the East Village, and I enjoyed the sense of recognition.  It turns out that I've met a few of the characters mentioned in the book.  I've met the artist James Romberger and his wife Marguerite Van Cook who were both close friends of David.  They play large roles in this book as friends and collaborators with David on a number of projects.  I used to see Bill Rice the painter and writer mentioned frequently in the book all the time on the street and in The Bar on 4th street and Second Avenue, a favorite haunt of mine at one time, and also of David W.
Even some places that I visited as a kid make an appearance in the book.  David W. loved traveling through the Southwest, and visited Chaco Canyon a number of times, as did I many years before with my family as a child.

The book is the best account I've read yet of the whole East Village scene from 30 years ago.  Wojnarowicz was part of the first generation from the mid 1970s to about 1986.  What strikes me about them is that they were all damaged kids from broken or abusive homes.  David's Dickensian childhood was only among the most extreme of them.  They all seem to have found each other in that neighborhood and formed their own very isolated and insular little commonwealth of the marginalized.  They were obscure for a lot longer than they were famous.  They collaborated together on art, literature, drama, and music, and combinations of them all, since the early 1970s.  A lot of it was parody of the formalism and conceptual art that dominated the 70s, and parodies of the art world establishment.  All of them thought of themselves as artists, yet few of them ever went to art school.  The first East Village galleries were run by the artists themselves for their friends, and were satires of more established galleries.  Gracie Mansion had her first show in her apartment bathroom around the toilet.  Another part of that scene was a fascination with violence, death, and morbidity, a kind of precursor to the Goth subculture.  Gay and straight mixed freely in the East Village in those days.   The community was largely, though not exclusively, white.

And for most of the time, all of this happened under the radar.  The press and the art world didn't really start to notice until after about 1983.  
And then with the Whitney Biennial of 1984, the celebrity press and the investor-collectors descended on the neighborhood like locusts exploiting it and devouring it into exhaustion by about 1986.

The other thing that was so remarkable, and is so hard to imagine now, is how vacant most of New York City was from the late 1950s to the early 1990s.  A lot of the East Village kids were squatters in vacant buildings.  Most of Alphabet City was empty buildings.  Most of Soho, Tribeca, Chelsea, and even big stretches of the Upper West Side were vacant tenements and storefronts.  All of that is unimaginable now.

I found out a lot of things about David W. that I never knew before.  His childhood was worse than his personal accounts reveal.  His father was a monster, a violent alcoholic who beat and abused David and all his brothers and sisters.  He hit the kids with a baseball bat and threatened the whole family with guns.  His step-mother and his biological mother were not much better.  They weren't violent or abusive, but they were very neglectful and indifferent to all of the Wojnarowicz children.  Worst of all, David's biological mother would pit the kids against each other.  Cynthia Carr very generously tells about the lives of David's brothers and sisters, and his complicated relations with all of them.

David wasn't quite out on the street yet at age 12 hustling as he says in his autobiographical accounts.  It was more like 15, but it was bad enough.  He was nearly murdered on about 3 occasions.

For someone who never finished high school he was remarkably well read.  He had a scholar's knowledge of Decadent and Symbolist writers; Nerval, Comte de Lautremont, Huysmans, and especially Arthur Rimbaud.  Wojnarowicz saw himself as a kind of reincarnation of Rimbaud, and Cynthia Carr points out a lot of striking similarities in the courses of their lives.  Both of them were openly gay.  Both had older lovers who served as mentors and father figures (Paul Verlaine for Rimbaud, photographer Peter Hujar for Wojnarowicz), both died at age 37.  Wojnarowicz also knew the novels of Jean Genet very well, and all the Beat writers; Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Herbert Huncke, Neal Cassady, and especially William S. Burroughs.  David made a special cross country trip from New York to San Francisco just to see the City Lights bookstore.

His first ambition was not to be an artist, but a writer.

Wojnarowicz traveled much more extensively than I thought.  In his younger days, he hitched and rode freight trains all over the country.  In his later days, he loved driving rental cars cross country, especially through the Southwest.  He loved the swamplands of Florida and Louisiana.  He loved New Orleans and considered relocating there.  He traveled to Mexico frequently, usually to Mexico City and to the Yucatan.  The now famous/ infamous film footage of ants crawling over a crucifix was filmed at Teotihuacan.

I knew he spent some time in France, but apparently it was quite a lot of time.  He lived in Paris for about a couple of years.  He met there 2 of the most important people in his life, his first great love Jean Pierre Delage, and one of his closest and most quarrelsome friends, the photographer Marion Scemama.  David could speak some French, but he was not fluent.

Wojnarowicz had an explosive temper with a hair trigger.  He could fly into sudden purple faced rages for completely irrational reasons.  He  sometimes had an emotionally cruel streak.  He spent a lot of his life alienating close friends then renewing their friendships.

He was a lot more active in ACT-UP than I thought.  He put on a ski mask and body slammed his way through a police barricade during the famous/infamous strike on Saint Patrick's.  He was arrested numerous times for participating in ACT UP direct actions.

He never had much money.  Even at the height of his fame, his annual income was only about $34000.  He did a lot of transactions with professional people by barter, usually trading an artwork for services (his doctor, who treated him pro bono, received one of only about 3 or 4 direct prints of the Sex series).  He was legally a squatter in Peter Hujar's old loft apartment in an old Yiddish theater (which still stands on 11th Street and Second Avenue).  The landlord tried many times to evict David.  Wojnarowicz made some of his last and greatest works there, and died in that apartment.  David never had health insurance, and was on Medicaid at the time of his death.

There is a Midwest connection with David Wojnarowicz.  He had a show at the galleries at the University of Illinois at Normal.  He went out to Normal expecting a very hostile crowd, and to his surprise, found himself the toast of the town with a huge and friendly local turnout at his opening and his readings.  David became close friends with the gallery director, and with one of the art students there.  Wojnarowicz sometimes returned to Normal to work in a place far away from the distractions and stresses of New York.


I am working on a second painting project about David Wojnarowicz now.  I did a series of 8 paintings about him more than 10 years ago.  I am working on a second and more ambitious series now.

He is such a different artist from me, working in a collage aesthetic sharply different from the narrative figure aesthetic that I work in.  I would never use text in my work as extensively as he did.  Perhaps it is a prejudice of mine, but I think imagery should stand on its own without the aid of a text.  To be fair, the text in almost all of his work is his own creation and integral to his work.  What is the fascination for me?

What's not to be fascinated with?  Inspiration, art, sex, politics, memory, adventure, struggle, mortality come together in David Wojnarowicz more than in any other person that I can think of.  When I look at the whole course of his art and life, I find it amazing that an age that so despises romantic gestures, that values cool disengagement above all else, could produce so romantic a character, a person who approached art and life with white hot engagement.

David Wojnarowicz was no saint, but he was certainly a hero.

1 comment:

JCF said...

[Gracie Mansion had her first show in her apartment bathroom around the toilet.

"Gracie Mansion"??? An artist who took her name from the mayor's residence?]

I confess I feel rather remote from this person (Wojnarowicz. Is it pronounced Voy-na-RO-vich?). But I'm always interested in hearing about your heroes and influences, Doug.

If there has to be suffering, then let there be art to come out of it.

But please Lord, an end to such suffering! (esp by children)