A Study in American Denial: David Wojnarowicz’s Return to the Piers

David Wojnarowicz, "Untitled (Face in Dirt)," 1991.

In 1991, the year before he died from AIDS, David Wojnarowicz asked his friend and occasional collaborator, Marion Scemana, to accompany him on one last road trip through the desert landscape of the American Southwest, where he would make what he intended to be his final work of art. It had been an exhausting couple of years for the artist. Already greatly weakened by the disease and preoccupied with his own death, Wojnarowicz had also become embroiled in the culture wars of the era, his work the subject of high-profile attacks from the Religious Right. Perhaps all of this was weighing on him when, driving in the Chaco Canyon, he pulled over his car and used his hands to dig out a small indentation in the loose dirt. He lay down and directed Scemana to bury him partway, and take a close-up photograph of his face, so that only his slightly-open mouth, nose, and closed eyes were visible.

The resulting photograph is stunning, a poignant farewell from an artist who felt himself exiting this life, buried alive by a conservative, homophobic society. But this summer, as Wojnarowicz, the longtime hero of the margins, began to have something of a major moment in New York City – a retrospective at the Whitney, a couple of related satellite exhibitions, the release of a book of collected transcriptions of his audio diaries – I began to wonder if this final work also contained within it the artist’s haunting prophecy of his eventual reemergence.

The timing of Wojnarowicz’s return to the public eye could not have been more fitting. The Whitney retrospective, History Keeps Me Awake At Night, opened as many across the US were lying awake, considering the latest news from the border with Mexico where it was being revealed, image by image, that our country’s government had been hiding a secret archipelago of prison camps for immigrants. Images of children separated from their parents, penned in cages, watched over by military guards in repurposed Walmart Superstores evoked Nazi concentration camps and the worst of Argentina’s Dirty War. Americans struggled to reconcile their long-cherished belief in the inherent goodness of their country – its supposed role as guarantor of freedom throughout the world and beacon of liberty to the oppressed.

David Wojnarowicz, “Untitled,” 1988-89. Image courtesy of The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W, New York.

The Whitney retrospective evokes a moment of similar cognitive dissonance: a not-so-distant time when government officials openly discussed rounding up, quarantining, and even tattooing people who had been diagnosed with AIDS. Wojnarowicz made some of the most enduring art to emerge from the AIDS crisis of the ‘80s and ‘90s and, near the end of his life, became involved in the ACT UP movement, attending die-ins and protests in the face of the mounting plague. As we consider how this faded history rhymes with our present, we are reminded, too, that this cycle of discovery, shock, scandal, and ultimately forgetting, has in recent decades become a fixture of American life. Wojnarowicz’s work was less about raising awareness than it was about probing this, the peculiar psyche of American denial. In his classic experimental memoir, Close to the Knives (1990), the artist recalls the childhood abuse he suffered at the hands of his violent father in the New Jersey suburbs and how his neighbors always looked the other way. He wrote that “events such as torture, starvation, humiliation, physical, and psychic violence can and (do) take place uncontested by others, as long as it doesn’t stray across the boundaries of the neatly clipped lawn.”

The retrospective casts Wojnarowicz as a figure in the long tradition of the American Iconoclast, like Walt Whitman. But Wojnarowicz hated America. While Whitman popularized a vision of America as a kind of beautiful tapestry, pieced together like a quilt from all of its diverse fabrics, Wojnarowicz explicitly wrote about “waking up each day in this killing machine.” He likely would have seen Whitman’s romantic view as a prime example of American denial, precisely the kind of lethal national mythology that has always been used to obscure the country’s murderous treatment of the poor, people of color, queers, and other outsiders.

Wojnarowicz would always return to this theme: the climate of fear, silence, and denial at the toxic core of the American patriarchal family. Now, restless in death, the artist in his last work seems to reemerge from his shallow grave, to remind us that the true history of his era’s fierce grassroots AIDS activism – the ways that the plague shaped the physical and psychic environment of the city for decades to come – has largely been disavowed. The angry truths contained within his work, widely unacknowledged during his lifetime, were never fully submerged. They now return, undead, for a haunting.

David Wojnarowicz, “Arthur Rimbaud in New York,” 1978–79. Image Courtesy the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W, New York.

Late one night in 1981, Wojnarowicz meets Bill, a man he picks up and brings home while cruising at Stuyvesant Park in New York’s East Village. In The Weight of The Earth, a new collection of transcriptions of Wojnarowicz’s audio journals, the artist narrates the quotidian details of their budding romance. Full of small, deceptively simple moments of tenderness, his journal entries recall a pre-gentrified city where apartments are cheap and no one seems to be in a hurry. The low-rent desuetude of their nascent love reads like a permanent condition of the city: like ancient bricks and subway tunnels. One night, David, working as a busboy at the Peppermint Lounge, doesn’t get off work until 5am, but Bill sets his alarm so that he can wake up for an early morning date. The two lovers have sex and then, as the sun comes up over 2nd Avenue, they walk to a greasy spoon for a Sunday breakfast. It’s the dawn of the 1980s, but the world-historical moment doesn’t enter the frame until Bill confesses that he often worries about nuclear war. The two lovers had no idea that a different kind of apocalypse would soon erase and remake their existence.

It’s this irrevocably lost New York that initially greets the visitor to the Whitney’s retrospective. The almost entirely chronological presentation of Wojnarowicz’s work begins with his now-iconic images from the series, Rimbaud in New York, in which, against a backdrop of the seedy city of the late ‘70s, the artist photographed himself wearing a paper cutout mask imprinted with a stencil of the poet’s face, captured in a serious and thoughtful expression. Posing as a flaneur, smoking a cigarette while casually regarding the picturesque ruins of modernity, his embodiment and flat affect suggests a deep alienation. Yet these black-and-white portraits of the artist as a young man, shot in flophouses, squats, and other quintessential New York locales – Times Square, Coney Island, the subway, a Greek diner – burn with Wojnarowicz’s romantic faith that Rimbaud’s “derangement of the senses” could be located in the city’s streets.

For the artist, who as a teenager ran away from home to the city, these squalid urban environs offered a sense of exhilarating freedom and possibility. At the gay cruising sites of the ruined city piers along the Hudson River, Wojnarowicz painted on crumbling wharfs and had sex – often for money – with older men. Amid a selection of the artist’s early stenciled graffiti work and posters for his band, Three Teens Kill Four, the exhibition’s second gallery is anchored by a monitor showing a mesmerizing slide show of images taken at the piers of Wojnarowicz and others working together on enormous murals in a wild, waterfront no-man’s-land. The free-flowing artmaking and sexual practice of this illicit utopia enabled the unscripted encounters with strangers that Wojnarowicz believed offered an antidote to mainstream societal customs, values, and institutions: what the artist would throughout his life repeatedly refer to as “The Pre-Invented World.”

For Wojnarowicz, the Pre-Invented World was not just an external foe but also a kind of infection “that gets into your bloodstream with the invisibility of a lover.” In these early works, the artist represented our internalization of the “the bought world, the owned world, the packaged world,” with found posters advertising supermarket sales and cut up, collaged maps onto which he painted directly. While the stencils of faces on posters advertising the price of bread, coffee, or paper towels hinted at a tension between individual aspirations and the mundane constrictions of society, these works have a kind of unmemorable, disposable agitprop quality.

The technique finally works to enormous effect in Fuck You, Faggot Fucker (1984): on top of the deep blue oceans of a rearranged map of the world, Wojnarowicz painted an outline of two faceless men, locked in a deep kiss, their shirtless torsos rising from a flowing body of painted water. In each of the painting’s four corners, the artist set a homoerotic black-and-white photo of himself and a male friend, shirtless, taken while exploring an abandoned building. In the lower center of the image sits a collaged fragment of a drawing he found on the street that contains the work’s eponymous insult. A map of the USA, part of the background, appears across the chests of the stenciled lovers, as if projected upon them, or found by X-ray inside, suggesting that the homophobia of the state, like that found in the street, is a force acting upon their love, from within and without. Yet their love makes them as fluid and free as water, the oceans that comprise so much, and which belong to no country. The piece’s emotional power lies in its juxtaposition of images: a sensual sense of all of history and the future collapsing cinematically into a single instance – this kiss. It is a pivotal work. The young artist – perhaps for the first time in his career – captures the great subject of his life’s work: the interiority of the marginalized queer or criminal trapped within their times, set against millenarian intuitions of entropy and fading empire.

David Wojnarowicz, “Fuck You, Faggot Fucker,” 1984.

It’s thrilling to follow along as Wojnarowicz’s obsessions manifest across a wide variety of media. Sadly, the Whitney’s unimaginative insistence on a strict chronological presentation misses an opportunity to group the artist’s works across eras and highlight his recurring themes. However, one does get a sense of a self-taught artist, struggling to develop and master his own symbolic language. His first large-scale paintings, crackling with political anger, brought him fame within the briefly incandescent East Village arts scene of the early ‘80s, though their imagery today seems dated and heavy-handed in comparison to the sophisticated photographic collages that he made after his 1988 diagnosis with AIDS.

In these late masterworks, dream and reality are beautifully collapsed with the artist’s signature simultaneity. In one work from the 1989 series Sex (For Marion Scemana), a photonegative image of two men having sex – seen as if through a microscope – is set in the corner of an aerial view of Lower Manhattan. In others, similar insets nestle in views of a densely forested swamp; or of a group of men, whose parachutes float open, falling from a plane. The works evoke the era’s paranoiac fear of contagion – and also subversively hint that queerness itself, however disavowed by society, is also always present, undermining heteronormativity from within.

The great irony of the Whitney retrospective is that, in their attempt to canonize, the museum’s curators, David Kiehl and David Breslin, risk rendering Wojnarowicz’s unruly and sprawling oeuvre into something streamlined and easily digested, smacking of the Pre-Invented World he so despised. The chronological presentation suggests a pat narrative of the artist’s life progressing in three clichéd stages: from young punk subcultural dabbler, to artworld star, to yet another tragic queer who died too young from AIDS. The show omits entirely the artist’s brilliant, aesthetically chaotic, and highly provocative installation work – often the result of his restless search for collaboration with others – in favor of an emphasis on painting. And while it presents Wojnarowicz as outspoken against the homophobic politics of the AIDS crisis, the exhibition neglects to mention the artist’s involvement with the radical grassroots protest movement, ACT UP. In its erroneous recasting of Wojnarowicz as a Fine Artist, a species of Solo Male Genius, the show glosses his fundamental oppositions: not only toward the artworld he despised, but the society that contained it.

David Wojnarowicz with Tom Warren, “Self-Portrait of David Wojnarowicz,” 1983-84. Collection of Brooke Garber Neidich and Daniel Neidich, Photograph by Ron Amstutz.

The Whitney’s treatment of Wojnarowicz’s era arrives steeped in a ready-made mythology, suffering from a familiar nostalgia for the ruined New York City of the ‘70s and ‘80s. History Keeps Me Awake at Night plays a rhapsody for the lost street life of the wharves that today’s Whitney looms over – now a redeveloped waterfront full of luxury housing and sanitized private spaces that pretend to be public. Its presence, and this show, suggest that the waterfront’s economic upgrade was a natural progression, and not a forced transition partly enabled by the death of thousands of people like Wojnarowicz. As with the most of the history of the AIDS crises, this reality has never been widely accepted as official truth.

The Hudson is visible only from one small area of the exhibition: a room with blank, white walls and a window overlooking the river, where one can sit on a bench and listen to recordings of Wojnarowicz’s spoken-word pieces. As the artist’s deep, resonant voice fills the empty room, I look toward the river and the waterfront’s past and future seem visible at once. Across the West Side Highway, a bulldozer clears another plot of land. I think of those who fucked in the shadows on the piers; who died, disowned by their families and a hateful government. Wojnarowicz’s work seems unusually immune to today’s nostalgia – its pain too recent, too unresolved, for easy entombment in urban romanticism and art history. I watch the bulldozer and think of Wojnarowicz emerging from his shallow grave.

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