Sunday, October 25, 2009

David Wojnarowicz: Down and Out in 1980s New York

This is a post on the late David Wojnarowicz. Be warned that the imagery and the language may be strong and offend some readers. This post is definitely NOT for kids to read.

He wouldn't have had it any other way

David Wojnarowicz photographed by Peter Hujar

When I arrived in New York in the fall of 1991, the Eighties East Village art and punk scene was coming to an end, if not over already. It still strikes me as remarkable how so many of the big stars of that art scene died together with the decade. Keith Haring died of AIDS in 1990 at age 31 (my age at the time). Jean Michel Basquiat died of an overdose in his studio in 1988 at age 27. Another star who died with the decade was David Wojnarowicz. He died of AIDS in July, 1992. His raucous and noisy funeral procession passed in front of the door of my building where I lived on East 10th street. ACT-UP and what was left of the militant East Village gay scene gave him a big outdoor funeral in Tompkins Square Park.

The 1980s in art was a very strange phenomenon that I still can’t quite figure out. It was probably New York’s last hurrah as anything like an art center attracting new and developing talent and making careers. The art scene then was over-hyped and over heated with suddenly rich parvenus looking to put their money into contemporary art, any contemporary art. They were eager to polish off the rough edges of new loot. There was a lot of sudden stardom in the art-world driven by the sudden Wall Street wealth. The grand Hegelian historical vision of old Marxist critics like Clement Greenberg and Meyer Schapiro was turned into an intimidating sales hype that went by the name of “zeitgeist” (the Spirit of the Age). No one wanted to be left out of the next trend or missed by the “zeitgeist.” It all came tumbling down after the 1987 Wall Street crash, and has never been quite the same since. The East Village gallery scene vanished over night.

Soaring real estate prices have effectively killed off New York’s historic role as an art capital. The real estate market was already strangling New York’s artists’ colonies to death in the 1980s. Today, city planners and civic leaders genuinely regret the end of New York’s historic role as an incubator for new talent in the arts, but they’re all too greedy to do anything about affordable living and working space for artists, musicians, dancers, and actors. David Wojnarowicz died with that last bizarre flowering of art, pop culture, and commercialism in 1980s New York.

As conservatives like to say about themselves and the Episcopal Church, Wojnarowicz was in that scene, but not of it.

Eighties New York art was a weird mixture of Reagan-Thatcher era sudden stock market wealth and self-congratulatory hype. It was a pop culture fixated on recent memories of suburban childhood kitsch, art school parties, the last of punk rock, a little bit of serious art, and the abiding New York underworld. In 1980s New York, John Galt and Howard Roark rose up out of the pages of Ayn Rand and kissed each other. David Wojnarowicz was an outsider who stumbled in on the whole show. He was unlike others such as Haring, Schnabel, and Basquiat who were tireless self-promoters who made a point of going to the right parties and meeting the right people. Wojnarowicz spent much of the earlier part of the decade working as a janitor and bar-back at a lot of the East Village clubs where the art world and Wall street strivers partied together, and at gay bars where Howard Roark and John Galt did a lot more than kiss.

Wojnarowicz began as a street kid. He was the son of a violent alcoholic sailor father and an Australian mother growing up in Red Bank, New Jersey. His family was very poor. When he was a small boy, they sometimes worked as migrant farm laborers picking apples in upstate New York and in Michigan. He ran away and hustled around Times Square when he was 12. He hustled through most of his early life with limited success. He was definitely not a striking beauty as a young man, though he had a number of regular clients, all older men, some of whom looked after him from time to time. He went to school only intermittently. A couple of his teachers at the Famed Performing Arts High School in Manhattan recognized his talents in art and in writing and encouraged him to continue. But, he had a hard time attending classes regularly and dropped out. He was a regular at the river docks at the end of Christopher Street where he cruised and did most of his hustling. He also did some of his first painting there. He frequently hitchhiked back and forth across the United States. He traveled extensively throughout the continental US and had a serious affair with a man in Texas. He began making artworks, first as graffiti, and later as paintings on boards and garbage can lids. He met the photographer Peter Hujar who encouraged him in his art, and who taught him photography and darkroom techniques. Hujar and Wojnarowicz were on-again-off-again lovers for the rest of Hujar’s life. Hujar made his living as a commercial photographer, but he is best remembered for his highly polished and professional photographs of the gay East Village bohemia of the ‘70s and ‘80s. The self-absorbed and temperamental Hujar was the father Wojnarowicz never really had, encouraging him in his art and getting him to drop all the drug habits (including heroin) he picked up over the years living on the streets. Hujar also kept the perpetually down and out Wojnarowicz fed and sheltered. Wojnarowicz had a very chaotic and improvised early life.

Among his earliest recorded works from his years on the West Side docks:

Science Totem, 1983

A wall painting in the old West Side Dock warehouses long ago destroyed with the buildings; photographed by Peter Hujar.

Fame and fortune came suddenly to Wojnarowicz. He wrote about having lunch in a soup kitchen one day, and then walking around with $9000 in his pocket the next day. He was an overnight darling of the art market, though a hard one to embrace. He really was what Basquiat was hyped to be, a creature of the mean streets (Basquiat, in fact, came from a comfortable and stable professional class family and went to good schools). Wealthy collectors and their dealers at that time were in love with the idea of the uninhibited young savage from the urban jungle. Dealers were always on the lookout for artists who fit that preconception, or could be fitted into it (brutally and fatally in Basquiat’s case). Like Basquiat, Wojnarowicz was not particularly savage, though he was very independent and prickly. Where Wojnarowicz fell short in the eyes of dealers was in being white. They liked their urban savages black.

Wojnarowicz was part of that second wave of ‘80s artists that was much more serious and combative, making art that addressed current social and cultural issues such as AIDS, gay rights, and feminism. The first wave of 80s artists was mostly lightweights like Kenny Scharf, Rodney Allen Greenblatt, and even Haring. There were some other lightweights who had grand historical pretensions with not much substance behind them, artists like Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and Robert Longo. Perhaps only Basquiat, and Cindy Sherman emerged from this first wave with durable reputations. The second wave of artists was earnest and angry. The press at the time routinely dismissed them as “politically correct” crybabies. It turns out the some of the most enduring reputations from the ‘80s came from this angry second wave (Kiki Smith, Nan Goldin, Elizabeth Murray, Ilya Kabakov, Christian Boltanski among others). Wojnarowicz saw his work included in all the big shows including the Whitney Biennial. He had a solo show at the New Museum. Collectors eagerly bought his work.

His big moment of broader fame was not an exhibition, but a lawsuit. He successfully sued right wing evangelist Donald Wildmon for copyright infringement after Wildmon used strategically edited versions of Wojnarowicz’s work as part of a lawsuit against the National Endowment for the Arts for funding an exhibit of Wojnarowicz's work ("Tongues of Flame") at the University Galleries at the State University of Illinois. The NEA pulled funding for the show. The court ordered Wildmon to publish an apology and a retraction.

In his later years, Wojnarowicz became very politically active, and his art took an angry political slant. He was a regular at ACT-UP actions and demonstrations. Unlike many in the earlier ‘80s art scene, Wojnarowicz’s politics were very left. The United States and its capitalist ideology were predatory in his view. Religion and patriotism, in his view, were nothing more than figleaves covering a cold will to dominate and exploit. In his art, he explicitly compared American imperial ambition with predatory animals like snakes and spiders; an inversion of the old Social Darwinist metaphors.

Anatomy and Architecture of Desire, 1988 - 1989

Peter Hujar died of AIDS in 1987. Wojnarowicz came down with the disease and died in 1992 at age 37.

Among Wojnarowicz's last and greatest works was a series of untitled photomontages from 1988 - 1989 he called the Sex Series:

These are among the most powerful works of art to come out of the AIDS crisis, in my opinion. They show random settings with circular scenes of homosexual sex acts planted in them, as though we are looking through some kind of monstrous surveillance device that hunts out same-sexual activity going on in any given place. These collages have the look of night vision scopes. The photo-negative prints give the sexual activity and the surrounding scenes an ominous radioactive quality. These very powerful works of art will never be included in any popular surveys of the art of the period, or in textbooks. They are too sexually explicit. For that reason, they remain unknown to broader audiences.

I count myself as a fan of Wojnarowicz’s work, but my feelings are mixed. At its best, it is very powerful witness to a life lived boldly beyond the edges of respectability with its adventure and risk. At its worst, his work is strident and preachy. Wojnarowicz lived and died as an artist in the collage aesthetic, part of that whole culture of “sampling” which has been with us now in popular culture and in fine art for almost 40 years. His career began with painting and collage, and ended with photomontage. The collage aesthetic had been around for almost 80 years by the time Wojnarowicz came to it, beginning with Picasso and Cubism. There are times when he had a great sense of the rhyme and reason of form. He had a powerfully poetic sense of images bouncing meanings and associations back and forth across each other.

Afternoon in the Forest, 1986

Earth, 1987, from a series of paintings of the Four Classical Elements. This is another remarkable work that will remain largely unseen and unknown because of sexually explicit content.

The material of his work was the material of his life that found its way into his work; comic books, gay porn, science textbooks, school maps, graffiti, news photos, advertising, and the works of gay authors like Rimbaud, Genet, and Burroughs.

He was himself a remarkably gifted and eloquent writer, especially for someone with so limited a formal education. His diaries and journals are still very rewarding reading.Through all the anger and alienation of his work comes a ferocious will to live and an indomitable spirit. There have always been legions of young men out there with the same bad luck to be driven out of abusive households into life on the streets. Most don’t survive it. He did, and he turned his experiences into powerful art and literature. There are times when I look at his art and read his journals, and I think he actually enjoyed that uprooted life.
That comes through for me most clearly in his series of photographs from the late ‘70s titled Arthur Rimbaud in New York where either he or a friend would wear a mask made out of the one known photo of the young gay French poet, and pose in a New York setting. Wojnarowicz identified with Rimbaud and imagined how wonderful it would be if the young poet could come back and share the life of the 1970s New York gay underground. Ah, to be young and gay and outside the bounds of all law and respectability in New York! Wojnarowicz in some ways was a manifestation of a homoerotic romanticism that goes back to Walt Whitman and the Calamus Poems.

Here is a sample of photographs from the 1978 - 1979 series Arthur Rimbaud in New York. They are a rare first hand glimpse into the gritty underground life of 1970s New York.

Wojnarowicz was a gay radical who believed, not in assimilation into a dominant culture which he felt was corrupt to the root, but in liberation. He believed that gay men should positively embrace those very things which the rest of society finds hardest to accept, their sexuality and the culture that comes out of it (he was light-years apart from Andrew Sullivan's idea that the whole point of gay politics is assimilation and the end of gay culture). Wojnarowicz saw the fact of same-sexuality as a challenge to a masculine order all about power and domination. Gays and lesbians were targeted for violence precisely because of this challenge. Marginalized status in a society that was fundamentally predatory and hypocritical was something to be welcomed with gladness in his eyes. He saw gays and lesbians as prey in a predatory capitalist world, and he believed in striking back at it. The bashers were only doing the bidding of their owners. He did not advocate violence, but sometimes visions of violent retribution against the Oppressor found its way into his work, especially his writing. He certainly would not approve of the tendency of some gay folk today to mistake becoming a valued marketing demographic for genuine acceptance and liberation. Unlike earlier gay artists and writers like Bacon and Genet, Wojnarowicz did not accept the criminal designation assigned to homosexuality by conventional society. He was not a nihilist. His was the vision of an outraged moralist. He wanted to overthrow the conventional society that those earlier writers and artists implicitly accepted.

"Fuck You Faggot Fucker!" 1984. The title of this painted collage comes from a piece of homophobic graffiti embedded in the lower part of the picture. For Wojnarowicz, such crude utterances were a rare public slip of the mask of civility that concealed the predatory savagery of modern society.

Was he a great artist? No, certainly not in the sense that Arshile Gorky or David Smith were great artists. But then, none of the stars from that time on this side of the Atlantic will likely survive the Trial By Time and Familiarity (perhaps only the work of the late Elizabeth Murray, a wonderful painter, will survive). He was a good artist, and a heroic soul in a time and place that famously had no soul. For some gay men, he remains a kind of romantic figure; all the unconstrained adventure of characters like William Burroughs and Jean Genet, without the nihilism.

I think he might have grown into a major photomontage artist and writer had he lived. We will never know how he might have matured or handled maturity. Like so many from the AIDS years, his was a life cut terribly short. I missed his fighting spirit most during the long years of George W. Bush. Though he was very much an atheist (“when you die, you’re fly food.”), I wonder how he would have reacted to the growing thaw in Christian attitudes toward homosexuality.

Wojnarowicz went into eclipse after his death, unlike other artists. He is now mostly the object of a cult following, especially among gay men. He barely gets a mention in official histories of 1980s art. The last major show of his work was a retrospective at The New Museum in 1999, seven years after his death.


Alcibiades said...

Thank you for a fascinating insight into Wojnarowicz and his zeitgeist.

David G. said...

How Far does being yourself go ...?!?

I Christ Flows through Certain People, we deny his true light?!?

David G. said...

Waaaaaaaay Down, You show up!!

Touch his hand,..then you will know me!!

Raises eyebrow like Spock

Wormwood's Doxy said...

Thanks for this, Counterlight--fascinating!

June Butler said...

Wonderful post on a gifted, but flawed man and a life cut off too soon. I wonder, too, what he'd think of the changes in civil and church laws. We can't legislate matters of the heart, but we must have the legislation.

JCF said...

When I arrived in New York in the fall of 1991...

I arrived a year earlier---but only stayed 4 years (the two years of my masters degree, and two years of doctoral coursework). It was the end of the Black Death period, and the beginning of The Lingering Undeath (after the "AIDS Cocktail" drugs came along).

I was esconced uptown at Union/Teachers College, and really didn't participate much in the Boho world (which I usually saw as "beyond my $ means"---but truthfully, I probably could have participated anyway, if I'd been more motivated).

A very strange time: the (welcome!) End of the Republican Deluge (Reagan-Bush1, and the first Iraq War: dramatic demonstrations against it, marching down Bdwy from Columbia, and over to the UN), and that (brief!) period of "the Man from Hope" (Clinton, before the "Triangulation" and Sell-Out).

I came to NYC to be this radical, Queer Christian . . . and found myself channelled back into heterosexuality and gender-normalcy, married to a Baptist pastor from Tennessee (WTF?). But of course that didn't last! ;-p

A very, very Strange Time.

Counterlight said...

In the early 1990s, I was a poor art student sharing a tiny East Village railroad flat with another poor art student. I had to run a gauntlet of drug dealers every time I walked out the door. I quickly learned who was a threat (crackheads) and who was not (heroin addicts). My apartment was broken into 3 times in 2 years. There were muggings in the entrance hall of my building twice while I was there. But this was true for everyone who lived in the neighborhood at that time. It was very scary, but also loads of fun. I had great neighbors in my building in those days. I could sit in the Odessa and have a meal and watch Allen Ginsberg walk in with boyfriend of the week, or I could watch a fight break out; and that was breakfast. In those days, the various gay scenes co-mingled instead of self-segregated in the neighborhood bars. I used to go hear friends play in bands in the wee hours, and get rip-roaring drunk off cheap beer with all my hetero artist buddies.
The worst of the AIDS plague may have been over, but I still remember going to a lot of funerals in those days.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this fascinating account of the artist. The pictures, and the references to other artists of the period, really help illuminate his work and the culture in which he existed. Fascinating stuff. I'm just learning about Wojnarowicz, and this was very educational.

Anonymous said...

Great NyC stories, got to love em. His artwork is amazing. Most of the time I don't like art with an agenda, be it music, photography, or painting, but his work is great. Especially his color work, that one of the forest with the gator like animal is breathtaking.

I have a hair of artistic talent in both music and drawing, i could only wish to have this much.

Stylons said...

It's really fascinating that nowadays you can hardly find artists like that.
Today most of the artists are so influenced by multimedia stuff that they're almost not able to look inside their selfes or inside the relationships and world that surrounds them...

LydiaPrentiss said...

I stumbled across your blog post while doing some research for an Art History and Comics class project where I'll be focusing on the work of David Wojnarowicz. I'm still waiting for "Seven Miles a Second" to arrive in the mail and I'm finding blogs like yours to be more useful than the results in my University's Journal database search engine. Thank you for posting such a well organized and coherent account of his life and work- and especially for sharing digital images in high-enough resolution to actually see the images. Cheers!