DAVID WOJNAROWICZ: The Man and The Mythology

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Artist David Wojnarowicz died twenty years ago this past Sunday, on July 22, 1992, from complications caused by AIDS.

Cynthia Carr has written a new biography of Wojnarowicz called Fire in the Belly.

Dwight Garner reviewed that book last week at The New York Times.

“Wojnarowicz…was a painter, a photographer, a writer, a performance artist, a filmmaker and an AIDS activist — he was gifted at all these things, save perhaps filmmaking — whose work helped define the anarchic downtown Manhattan art scene in the 1980s,” Garner wrote. “Much of his stuff was so resolutely ugly that it… shone with a defiant sort of beauty.”

Garner added that Carr’s book is “a smart match of author and subject. Ms. Carr was a columnist and arts reporter for The Village Voice from 1984 to 2003, and she is intimate with Wojnarowicz’s milieu. She knew Wojnarowicz, though not well, at least not until the final months of his life, when he was dying of AIDS-related illnesses at 37. She mostly maintains a firm critical distance, yet this is the only biography I can recall in which the author recounts massaging the subject’s feet.”

Jennifer Doyle, in an excellent review at the Los Angeles Review of Books, wrote that “Carr’s book is a frank, emotionally powerful oral history of New York’s downtown scene during its best years (the explosion of experimental art spaces in the early 1980s), and its worst (the plague years which followed).”

Recently I thought the very same of another book: Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination.

Like Carr, Schulman wrote for The Village Voice, knew well “Wojnarowicz’s milieu,” knew the artist himself, and witnessed firsthand his suffering. In her book, for example, Schulman describes seeing Wojnarowicz retch in pain as he waited for his prescriptions to be filled at Estroff Pharmacy on Second Avenue.

Schulman also reported massaging the feet of Wojnarowicz’s friend Phil Zwickler, as Zwickler explained to his mother that “that’s what we do for the dying.”

Schulman’s book is not a biography, however. Its stated goal is to show how the AIDS crisis and various aspects of urban gentrification have resulted in a collective political and artistic stasis in the United States. It is also an intellectual memoir that is honest, raw, and very personal.

“The first person I really knew who [died] of AIDS, died when I was twenty four,” Schulman wrote. “The last person I knew died last year…for the first fifteen years, the centerpiece of my young adulthood, I watched many people die and suffer and in the end forgot many of them. And all along it has puzzled me that the AIDS experience is not recognized as an American experience, while for me it is the American experience. How can something be equally the and equally not? Because it belongs to people still considered, even postmortem, to be second-rate and special interest. It has not been integrated into the American identity of which it is a product. AIDS most often appears as a banal subplot in some yuppie’s inconsequential novel, or a morose distortion in a stupid movie. But no true, accurate, complex, deeply felt and accountable engagement with the AIDS crisis has become integrated into the American self-perception. It puts those of us who do know what happened in the awkward position of trying to remember what we used to know in a world that officially knows none of it.”

That is what might make Carr’s book important.

Wojnarowicz’s art and activism are his legacy. So are his words. Right or wrong, his most notable piece of writing is the infamous catalog essay “Post Cards from America: X-Rays from Hell.” But Wojnarowicz also wrote several books, including a memoir titled Close to the Knives.

Doyle at the LA Review of Books: “Wojnarowicz was one of the most influential writers and artists of his generation, and his biography plays an important role in his work. As Carr writes it, ‘David has been called everything from “the last outsider” to “the last romantic.”‘ She explains that writing about him meant ‘dealing with what [his friends] called “the mythology.”‘ Where his friends seem to use that word to describe the distance between the artist’s self and his self-fashioning, Carr opens that mythology up to include the way that his life and his work operate as an emblem for the end of times — for the end of the underground, for a generation wasted and traumatized by AIDS.”

In the comments section to her own article, Doyle linked to Lucy Lippard’s 1990 Art in America magazine piece about Wojnarowicz.

It’s worth reading, as are Doyle’s article and Garner’s review.


Kevin Nolan writes essays and fiction. More from this author →