Today is the 67th birthday of the painter, photographer, writer, filmmaker, performance artist, songwriter/recording artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz. He was a badass rebel that stood up for his beliefs, who else has their ashes spread on the White House lawn in protest to the Bush Administrations inaction during the AIDS epidemic? A fucking hero. In 2010 (18 years after his death) the Catholic League successfully lobbied to have one of his videos removed from viewing at the National Portrait Gallery because it is a government institution. It later went on to have full showings around the country and institutions that routinely provided funding to the National Portrait Gallery and The Smithsonian pulled their support. His death at only 37 years old robbed us of decades of thought-provoking beauty. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
NAME: David Wojnarowicz
DATE OF BIRTH: 14 September 1955
PLACE OF BIRTH: Red Bank, NJ
DATE OF DEATH: 22 July 1992
PLACE OF DEATH: New York City
CAUSE OF DEATH: AIDS
REMAINS: Scattered on the White House lawn in Washington D.C. as a protest
BOYFRIEND: Peter Hugar (photographer, d. 1987 AIDS)
HIGH SCHOOL: High School of Performing Arts, New York, NY (dropped out)
David Wojnarowicz was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, where he and his siblings survived physical abuse by their father, Ed Wojnarowicz. Ed, a Polish-American merchant marine from Detroit, had met and married Dolores McGuinness in Sydney, Australia, in 1948 when he was 26 and she was 16. After his parents’ divorce, he moved to New York as a teenager with his mother. During his teenage years in Manhattan, Wojnarowicz worked as a street hustler around Times Square. He graduated from the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan.
After a period outside New York, Wojnarowicz returned in the late 1970s and emerged as one of the most prominent and prolific members of an avant-garde wing that used mixed media as well as graffiti and street art. His first recognition came from stencils of houses afire that appeared on the exposed sides of East Village buildings.
Wojnarowicz made super-8 films such as Heroin and Beautiful People with Jesse Hultberg; completed a 1977–1979 photographic series on Arthur Rimbaud; did stencil work; and collaborated with the band 3 Teens Kill 4, which released the independent EP No Motive in 1982. He exhibited his work in well-known East Village galleries and New York City landmarks, notably Civilian Warfare Gallery, Ground Zero Gallery NY, Public Illumination Picture Gallery, Gracie Mansion, and Hal Bromm Gallery.
Wojnarowicz was also connected to other prolific artists of the time, appearing in or collaborating on works with Nan Goldin, Peter Hujar, Luis Frangella, Karen Finley, Kiki Smith, Richard Kern, James Romberger, Marguerite Van Cook, Ben Neill, Marion Scemama, and Phil Zwickler. In 1987 his longtime mentor and lover, the photographer Hujar, died of AIDS, and Wojnarowicz himself learned that he was HIV-positive. Hujar’s death moved Wojnarowicz to create much more explicit activism and political content, notably about the injustices, social and legal, in the response to the AIDS epidemic.
In 1985, Wojnarowicz was included in the Whitney Biennial’s so-called Graffiti Show. In the 1990s, he sued and obtained an injunction against Donald Wildmon and the Christian Fundamentalist group American Family Association on the grounds that Wojnarowicz’s work had been copied and distorted in violation of the New York Artists’ Authorship Rights Act.
Wojnarowicz also wrote several successful books, many about political and social issues relating to the AIDS epidemic. One of his bestsellers, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, is an autobiography discussing topics such as his troubled childhood, becoming a renowned artist in New York City, and his AIDS diagnosis. Knives opens with an essay about his homeless years: a boy in glasses selling his skinny body to the pedophiles and creeps who hung around Times Square. The heart of Knives is the title essay, which deals with the sickness and death of Hujar, Wojnarowicz’s lover, best friend and mentor, “my brother, my father, my emotional link to the world”. In the final essay, “The Suicide of a Guy Who Once Built an Elaborate Shrine Over a Mouse Hole”, Wojnarowicz investigates the suicide of a friend, mixing his own reflections with interviews with members of their shared circle. In 1989, Wojnarowicz appeared in Rosa von Praunheim’s widely acclaimed film Silence = Death about gay artists in New York City fighting for the rights of AIDS sufferers.
Wojnarowicz died in his Manhattan home on July 22, 1992, from what his boyfriend, Tom Rauffenbart, confirmed was AIDS. After his death, photographer and artist Zoe Leonard, a friend of Wojnarowicz, exhibited a work inspired by him, Strange Fruit (for David).
In November 2010, after consultation with National Portrait Gallery director Martin Sullivan and co-curator David C. Ward but not co-curator Jonathan David Katz, Smithsonian Institution Secretary G. Wayne Clough removed an edited version of footage used in Wojnarowicz’s short silent film A Fire in My Belly from the exhibit “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” at the National Portrait Gallery in response to complaints from the Catholic League, U.S. House Minority Leader John Boehner, Representative Eric Cantor and the possibility of reduced federal funding for the Smithsonian. The video contains a scene with a crucifix covered in ants. William Donohue of the Catholic League claimed the work was “hate speech” against Catholics. Gay historian Jonathan Ned Katz wrote:
In 1989 Senator Jesse Helms demonized Robert Mapplethorpe’s sexuality, and by extension, his art, and with little effort pulled a cowering art world to its knees. His weapon was threatening to disrupt the already pitiful federal support for the arts, and once again, that same weapon is being brandished, and once again we cower.
Clough later said that although he stood by his decision, it “might have been made too quickly”, and called the decision “painful.” He said that because of the controversy surrounding the footage and the possibility that it might “spiral out of control”, the Smithsonian might have been forced to shut down the entire “Hide/Seek” exhibition, and that was “something he didn’t want to happen.” The “Hide/Seek” exhibition “examined representations of homosexuality in American portraiture”, and Clough said, “The funders and people who were upset by the decision—and I respect that—still have an appreciation that this exhibition is up. We were willing to take this topic on when others were not, and people appreciate that.”
I think it was very important to cut off the dialogue that was headed towards, in essence, hijacking the exhibit away from us and putting it into the context of religious desecration. This continues to be a powerful exhibit about the contributions of gay and lesbian artists. It was not about religious iconography and it was not about desecration. When you look at the news cycles that take over, their [the show’s critics’] megaphones are this big [making a broad gesture] and our megaphone is this big [a small gesture]. We don’t control that. And when it gets out of control, you can’t get it back.
— G. Wayne Clough
Clough added, “But looking back, sure, I wish I had taken more time. We have a lot of friends who felt left out. We needed to spend more time letting our friends know where this was going. I regret that.”
The video work was shown intact when Hide/Seek moved to the Tacoma Art Museum.
The curator David C. Ward defended the artwork, saying, “It is not anti-religion or sacrilegious. It is a powerful use of imagery”.
In response, The Andy Warhol Foundation, which had provided a $100,000 grant to the exhibition, announced that it would not fund future Smithsonian projects, while several institutions, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Modern, scheduled showings of the removed work.
On December 2, 2010, protesters against the censorship marched from the Transformer Gallery to the National Portrait Gallery. The work was projected on the building. On December 5, activists Michael Blasenstein and Michael Dax Iacovone were detained and barred from the gallery for holding leaflets.
On December 9, National Portrait Gallery Commissioner James T. Bartlett resigned in protest. The artist AA Bronson sought to withdraw his art from the exhibit, with support from the lending institution, the National Gallery of Canada, but was unsuccessful. The curators appeared at a forum at the New York Public Library. A protest was held from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Cooper Hewitt Museum.
On December 15, a panel discussion was held at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. On December 20, a panel discussion was held at the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center. On January 20, 2011, the Center of Study of Political Graphics held a protest at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.
Clough issued a statement standing by the decision, spoke at a Town Hall Los Angeles meeting, and appeared at a public forum on April 26–27, 2011.
Several Smithsonian curators criticized the decision, as did critics, with Newsweek arts critic Blake Gopnik going so far as to call the complaints “gay bashing” and not a legitimate public controversy.
In 1992, the band U2 used Wojnarowicz’s tumbling buffalo photograph “Untitled (Buffaloes)” for the cover art of its single “One”. The band further adapted this imagery during its Zoo TV Tour. The single and subsequent album became multi-platinum over the next few years, and the band donated a large portion of its earnings to AIDS charities. An oversized gelatin print of “Untitled (Buffaloes)” sold at auction in October 2014 for $125,000, more than four times the estimated price.
In 1988, Wojnarowicz wore a leather jacket with the pink triangle and the text: “If I die of aids – forget burial – just drop my body on the steps of the F.D.A.”. In his 1991 memoir Close to the Knives, Wojnarowicz imagined “what it would be like if, each time a lover, friend or stranger died of this disease, their friends, lovers or neighbors would take the dead body and drive with it in a car a hundred miles an hour to Washington DC and blast through the gates of the White House and come to a screeching halt before the entrance and dump their lifeless form on the front steps.” On October 11, 1992, activist David Robinson received wide media attention when he dumped the ashes of his partner, Warren Krause, on the grounds of the White House as a protest against President George H. W. Bush’s inaction in fighting AIDS. Robinson reported that his action was inspired by this text in Close to the Knives. In 1996, Wojnarowicz’s own ashes were scattered on the White House lawn.
His name appears in the lyrics of the Le Tigre song “Hot Topic.” Weight of the Earth, the transcription of Wojnarowicz’s audio journals, inspired Mega Bog’s album Life, and Another, and gives its name to the song “Weight of the Earth, on Paper”.
Sounds in the Distance. (1982). Aloes Books.
Tongues of Flame. (Exhibition Catalog). (1990). Illinois State University.
Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration. (1991). Vintage Books.
Memories That Smell Like Gasoline. (1992). Artspace Books.
Seven Miles a Second. (Collaborative graphic novel with James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook, completed posthumously). (1996). Vertigo/DC Comics.
The Waterfront Journals. (1997). Grove/Atlantic.
Rimbaud In New York 1978–1979. (Edited by Andrew Roth). (2004). Roth Horowitz, LLC/PPP Editions.
In the Shadow of the American Dream: The Diaries of David Wojnarowicz. (Amy Scholder, editor). (2000). Grove/Atlantic.
Willie World. (Illustrator; written by Maggie J. Dubris). (1998). C U Z Editions.
Weight of the Earth: The Tape Journals of David Wojnarowicz. (Lisa Darms and David O’Neill, editors). (2018). MIT Press.
Post Cards from America – a non-linear biography of David Wojnarowicz (Steve McLean, director)
Fire in my Belly – Filmed in Mexico and New York in 1986 and 1987, no soundtrack (David Wojnarowicz, director)
Beautiful People – Filmed in New York City in 1987, no soundtrack (David Wojnarowicz, director)
3 Teens Kill 4 EP No Motive 1982
Cross Country 3 x LP Reading Group 2018