The many fictions of David Wojnarowicz, chronicled in a new biography

'David Wojnarowicz' by Peter Hujar (1985). (Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery )
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

David Wojnarowicz started writing fictions early. He didn’t always call them fiction, though.

He was known especially to mythologize his early life, Cynthia Carr writes in Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz, her devastating 624-page biography of this influential New York artist and author, out now from Bloomsbury.

"David was engaged in creating camouflage," Carr writes. "He'd entered a world where he felt like an alien, acutely aware of being uneducated and working class. He wasn't his own idea of what an artist should be." As his career progressed, Wojnarowicz clung to and expanded upon his tall-tale storylines, though in the end the true hardships of his life experience would prove far richer material than any fictions he'd imagined.

Few New Yorkers today would recognize the depraved and brutally violent city where David Wojnarowicz grew up in the 1960s and ‘70s. His upbringing was “almost Dickensian,” Carr declares. But her thorough accounting finds the embellishments in his own version of the story. Wojnarowicz claimed the nuns at his Catholic school beat him and made him kneel on bags of marbles; his brother and sister aren’t so sure about the marbles. He said he left home and started hustling in Times Square at the age of nine; Carr says he was closer to fifteen or sixteen.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

“David talked a lot about his childhood,” Carr noted last week at a book launch at NYU’s Fales Library (which holds Wojnarowicz’s papers). “People wondered how much of it was true. A lot of it was.”

David Wojnarowicz was born in 1954 in New Jersey to an alcoholic seaman and an Australian orphan. The pair divorced two years later, and from there the timeline is hazy until David's teenage years, when Carr tells us that he left home, slept occasionally in Central Park, hustled in mid-town and began cruising the piers by the Hudson for casual sex.

He also began channeling his life into creative outlets, taking on a variety of mediums that he continued to work in throughout his career. He was endlessly productive. He wrote monologues about the transients he met on cross-country bus trips in the late 1970s (published in 1982 as Sounds in the Distance). In the summer of 1979, he started working on his iconic Rimbaud in New York series, photographing friends and boyfriends wearing masks of the poet's portrait against recognizable New York backdrops (the Statue of Liberty, a subway car, a crumbling graffitied pier wall). He started stenciling, painting, and making collages. He formed a band with friends, which they called 3 Teens Kill 4 after a newspaper headline.

In those early years, what Wojnarowicz seemed to seek most was acceptance. He hoped for fame, but never seemed terribly concerned with money.

“The important thing was to get a message out and be heard,” Carr said in an interview last week. “That’s what he cared about.” But as other artists from Wojnarowicz's downtown milieu became art world stars—Julian Schnabel, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, for example—David mischievously acted out his frustration at being somewhat left behind. He reveled, for example, in irritating Keith Haring (once a fellow busboy with him at Danceteria) by copying his “radiant babies” design and stenciling it all over town. And when he was passed over for PS1's The Beast Show in 1982, he brought dozens of his signature "cock-a-bunnies" (cockroaches adorned with miniature bunny ears and cotton tails) to the opening and let them loose in the gallery. He called it an "action installation" and began including the exhibition on his resume.

He was also at work on more enduring projects. In 1981 he started painting an abandoned pier he'd taken over. By 1983 he and several friends had covered the Ward Line Pier with their art—David painted a pterodactyl, cartoon superheroes, and his signature image of a gagging cow. He called the pier "the real MoMA."

Around this time, he began accruing the benefits of the art boom—Carr notes that from late 1982 to late 1983, he had three different one-man shows, and participated in fourteen group shows. (Still, he made less than $17,000 off his art that year.) By February of 1985, the year two of his paintings were included in the Whitney Biennial, a New York Times reporter called him "the hottest among hot East Village artists." But, after having spent so long resenting the successes of his peers, his own acclaim mysteriously depressed him, and he was incensed by the idea that collectors were snapping up Wojnarowiczes just for the name, without any concern for the meaning of his work.

"His attitude led him into a certain amount of self-sabotage," Carr writes. "He could not walk easily into his success."

Wojnarowicz was deeply insecure, and routinely saw rejection in seemingly innocent interactions. He doubted other artists' purity and resented his role as a leader of the scene. He began directly addressing the bleakness of his childhood, and his work got very dark. He stopped painting at all in 1985 and did installations about parricidal children and infanticidal parents instead. He started to crack emotionally. He flew into rages, sometimes cutting friends off for years over misstatements or perceived slights. The rages never went away. In the final weeks of his life (in 1992), his brother Steven would wait in the car while their sister Pat went up to visit him, Carr notes, because Steven “was convinced that David did not want to see him, that David had rejected him permanently.”

Carr’s account of Wojnarowicz's life is amazingly painstaking—there’s evidently no journal entry she didn’t study, no (living) person she didn’t attempt to contact. (The book begins with a list of “those who could not be interviewed,” nearly all of whom died of AIDS) Her “life and times” is equally incredible for its meticulously detailed portrait of the rise and fall of downtown New York, which she once covered as a reporter for the Village Voice. Carr writes that the East Village visual arts scene— at one point counting 176 galleries—was already disintegrating by the mid-1980s. It was not financially sustainable, for one thing—many galleries were poorly managed and couldn’t survive the movement’s shift into mainstream culture. David left the ailing Civilian Warfare gallery, for instance, after its manager (Dean Savard) began stealing checks from the back of the ledger to fund his heroin habit. By late 1986, Carr writes, “the scene was clearly melting away.”

And as the scene faded, the artists who had enlivened it were dying. As Carr’s narrative marches toward David’s eventual death, she interweaves one-sentence epitaphs for his friends and colleagues, marking the accelerating toll of the AIDS epidemic: “Cookie Mueller died of AIDS on November 10, 1989.” “Keith Haring died of AIDS on February 16, 1990.” “Dean Savard died of AIDS on March 30, 1990, at the age of thirty-one.”

Most affecting for Wojnarowicz was the death in 1987 of his best friend, one-time lover, and mentor Peter Hujar. A photographer, Hujar fostered David’s art, and their bond served as a corrective to David’s fraught relationship with his father (who committed suicide in 1976). Hujar became a frequent subject for Wojnarowicz's work—when Hujar died in 1987, David immediately cleared the hospital room to film and photograph the body. To one of the most devastating moments of his life, his response was instantly filtered.

“He took exactly twenty-three photographs, and that number was calculated,” Carr writes. “He would mark the envelope for these contact sheets as '23 photos of Peter, 23 genes in a chromosome, Room 1423.' He associated that number with the evolution of consciousness.” One of the resulting photos, "Untitled (Peter Hujar)," reprinted in Carr's biography, shows Hujar slack against his hospital bed, his face hollow, eyes half-closed and mouth agape.

“That was [Wojnarowicz’s] way of reacting to things that bothered or enraged him,” Carr said. “He would make work about it.”

David’s partner, Tom Rauffenbart, was diagnosed shortly after Hujar’s death, and David himself not long after that. It was the beginning of “apocalyptic and elegiac times,” writes Carr, who became close with David in his final months. It was also the beginning of the rapid transformation of the East Village from decimated slum to the gentrified commercial and residential neighborhood it is today, as the NYPD’s “Operation Pressure Point” shuttled crack and crime (and poor artists) to other parts of the city. Wojnarowicz’s rent had more than doubled between 1986 and 1988, so in early 1988 he moved into Hujar’s empty loft on Second Avenue. Four years later he died there.

In the intervening time, his work became more aggressively political. With AIDS, David found a new subject, and a new reason to get his message out. He considered the government’s non-response to the crisis an act of criminal negligence, tantamount to murder. These last few years were a richly productive period for him, during which he created some of his most affecting and well-known works. In 1989, for Nan Goldin's Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing show about artists' reactions to the AIDS crisis, he contributed Untitled (Hujar Dead), overlaying what Carr calls a "rant" onto a silk-screen of one of Hujar's deathbed photos.

And I'm carrying this rage like a blood-filled egg, and there's a thin line between the inside and the outside a thin line between thought and action … and I'm waking up more and more from daydreams of tipping Amazonian blowdarts in 'infected blood' and spitting them at the exposed necklines of certain politicians.

Amid all this came the culture wars. In 1989, Senator Jesse Helms led a campaign against "obscene" art, pushing into a Senate appropriations bill an amendment banning the National Endowment for the Arts from using funds on "depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism," and other "sex acts which do not have serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value." David was soon targeted by the American Family Association, at the vanguard of the battle. They called him a "radical homosexual artist/activist" and distorted his artworks in letters sent to every member of Congress, falsely alleging that he had received NEA funds for a retrospective of his work. As tens of thousands were falling victim to a growing AIDS pandemic, conservative Christian leaders bemoaned the “spiritual injury” inflicted by a few homoerotic pictures. Wojnarowicz sued the association for defamation and copyright infringement in 1990, and won.

Within the year, however, Wojnarowicz had stopped making art, and he was soon bed-ridden. After he died, in 1992, friends, fans, and other supporters marched down the streets of New York carrying banners, signs, and a coffin, making his the first "political funeral" of the epidemic. Ironically, Wojnarowicz's critics, in defaming him, made him a public spokesman for a struggle they have largely lost. His art continues to provoke. (In 2010, the Smithsonian was roundly criticized after bowing to pressure to pull Wojnarowicz's video A Fire In My Belly from an exhibition after House Speaker John Boehner objected to an eleven-second sequence showing ants crawling over a crucifix, and threatened "tough scrutiny" of the institution if it wasn't removed.) But the persistent fixation on the "offensive" nature of his work merely underscores his impact.

Wojnarowicz lived forever in the margins, and in exploring his own discomfort with the world, in "facing uncomfortable truths," as Carr writes, he helped to change the way we view our relationship to sexuality, to society's control over our minds and bodies, and to our rights of expression. Carr's biography offers us a chance to remember the urgency of his time, and to appreciate the starkly profound nature of his generation's struggles.

"While topics like homosexuality, drug addiction, and sadomasochism no longer seem so forbidden," Carr writes in the introduction to Fire in the Belly, "the fact remains that David was part of a community of people who felt compelled to be themselves even if that meant risking everything. Many of them died … not all of them AIDS deaths but all of them among the novas who lit that era and disappeared from our firmament."

Images, from top: 'Arthur Rimbaud in New York,' (1978-79) by David Wojnarowicz, Courtesy Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (Madrid); 'Abandoned Warehouse,' (1983) by David Wojnarowicz; 'Pier 34-1214 David Wojnarowicz,' (1983/2012) by Andreas Sterzing, Courtesy of the artist; Courtesy Bloomsbury USA; 'Funeral procession of David Wojnarowicz,' from 'Political Funerals,' directed by James Wentzy; 'A Fire In My Belly' (1986-87), by David Wojnarowicz, Courtesy PPOW Gallery.