“I’m trying to lift off the weight of the preinvented world so I can see what’s underneath it all.”
—David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives
“My queerness was a wedge slowly separating me from a sick society”
—David Wojnarowicz in an interview with Lucy R. Lippard
Where do I go to find the histories that have been kept from me? Growing up in the early 2000s and witnessing the rise of the information age still did not prepare me to come face to face with my own identity, and to contextualize it within the rigid frame of history. My generation of queer artists have only a fogged up mirror of cultural representations to reference when considering our geneology. We are not taught about Stonewall in school, and only some of us are exposed to cultural phenomena like the musical Rent, which, though groundbreaking for its time, presents a rose-colored version of a dense and nuanced time period.
What survives in our memory after these sparse exposures is hidden under the film of a twisted nostalgia? The question emerges, how are we meant to feel about the latter half of the 20th century? It is beautiful to consider the explosion of form and experimentation within art communities of New York City, the coming together of people over radical distances to celebrate life and love. But digging into that world there is an unavoidable confrontation each of us must face with AIDS and the overwhelming visibility of, in David Wojnarowicz’s words, “this killing machine called America” (Close to the Knives). It gets confusing to sit inside the vacuum of the 21st century and feel a tinge of desire to be back in the East Village among the artists and activists and lovers. It feels sick because every story of every artist from that time either ends in or travels through mass death and mourning.
In the many articles and essays that have been written about David Wojnarowicz since his death, there is often a line that begins, “You probably are familiar with……” followed by a reference to one of his more famous visual pieces. Some mention his gelatin print, Untitled (Buffalo), which became widespread after U2 used the image as the cover of their song “One”, a benefit single where proceeds were donated to AIDS research. The liner notes for the song tell us that David “identifies himself and ourselves with the buffalo, pushed into the unknown by forces we cannot control or even understand.” The single came out just a few months before David died of AIDS in July, 1992. He was 37.
Others point to his piece “One Day This Kid,” which David made for a catalog to accompany his 1990 retrospective “Tongues of Flame.” In the center of the piece is an image of David as a boy, surrounded by text that tells his future:
David had already received his AIDS diagnosis and lost loved ones to the illness by 1990, but “One Day This Kid” does not speak directly of AIDS. It weaves through the forbidden motions of a queer life, the dangers and the manifold amendents laid out by American society with the goal of violently making this person, David, disappear.
Though he is widely remembered for his visual work, David came into the world of artmaking viewing himself primarily as a writer. He wrote often, wildly, and with a great tenderness. The written work he made was visceral, mapping the sensations of a body deemed unholy by the society that birthed it. Working in a variety of mediums, David laid bare a vivid ecosystem of feeling that spanned his whole life. David’s writing is more important now than ever for its unabashed honesty; his words illustrate life in its great cacophony of fragility and contradiction. Unlike his visual pieces which play with symbolism and abstraction, David’s writing cuts to the bone of his experience. David often worried that his visual art relied too much on darkness, “aggressive images, images that smack people in the face, assault them, or mirror what disturbs them” (In the Shadow of the American Dream). In his writing David gave form to a breadth of sensations, thoughts, and questions. Everything he touched was multidimensional. He understood that suffering could not exist without love and exuberance.
I became familiar with David first through reading a collection of his journals, In the Shadow of the American Dream, which begins with his account of an Outward Bound trip at 17 and ends a year before his death in 1992. The journals are raw and full of passion, and are sometimes quite angry especially towards the end of his life. Many of the passages begin with “I met a fella….” and blossom into tender descriptions of encounters with men, some of which are only one night stands and others which become the key relationships in David’s life. Such intimate details are typical for an artist’s journal, but rarely does the same energy carry over to the rest of the artist’s work. David’s body of work is a cross-pollinated garden of viscera. His “memoir of disintegration,” Close to the Knives, published a year before his death, includes stories pulled directly from journal entries, free form essays on the meaning of being queer in America, censorship, AIDS, and what it feels like to watch your best friend die in silence as the world keeps moving.
David remained an elusive figure to many who knew him. He revealed his life in bits and pieces, telling some stories to some people and others to others, and ultimately saving many for his art. The story of his life has been told in many forms with emphasis often placed on his childhood. This time in David’s history is referred to, dare I say too often, as “Dickensian”. David reflected at a later point in his life that what he revealed of his experience of growing up was “used by some people to hit me over the head and by others to find me very attractive on some level” (Fire in the Belly). There came to be a mythology surrounding his kid and teen years where ages and events were mixed up depending on who you spoke to, and where ultimately focus was pulled away from his work and towards his history.
Critics struggle to reconcile David’s accomplished artwork with his traumatic upbringing. Those who deem David an “unlikely artist” fail to understand that his art was a direct response to his particular experiences of love, sex, and pain as a gay man in America. David’s initial hope in sharing his story was that someone who felt alone their circumstances might be comforted by it, so in that spirit I will include a brief biography. David was born in New Jersey in 1954. He grew up with an absent mother and an alcoholic father who abused him and his siblings. As a boy he figured out he was queer and eventually started hustling on the streets and going to bed with older men often. David barely finished high school, and much of his time there was spent making artwork that horrified his instructors. For one class, he constructed “3-D tenements out of cardboard and paint, filled with long-hair radicals with Molotov cocktails and Black Panthers leaning out of windows, shooting farm animals in police uniforms.” His teacher subsequently destroyed the piece.
After high school David spent time hitching rides and freight-hopping across the country. On these journeys he kept a journal where he recorded the stories of the people he encountered, most of them living on the fringes of society, met in bus malls or overheard in cafés, truck drivers who had died already and were onto their second life. These stories were to become the body of David’s posthumously released book The Waterfront Journals, which he initially called Sounds in the Distance. In a journal entry from 1978, David describes the monologues as “private personal glimpses into the makeup of character, of America symbolized/represented by a handful of characters” (In the Shadow of the American Dream).
Back in New York, David had intimate interactions with many people and recorded his experiences in a manner that mimicked his life, a form that was itself a denial of form. He did not write anything polished. In fact he rarely went back to edit his written work. “I feel the more drafts you put writing through, the more you repainted the same painting, all the blood was taken out,” said David in an interview with Stephen Dubin.
Though David could be hotheaded, he was never pretentious. He never sought to make others feel puzzled by his work, or to challenge his audience in an intellectual sense. What he wanted was to awaken those who interacted with his work to an often bitter truth about the state of the world, and to be a friend to those who knew the truth already.
David spent his life breaking out of boxes he did not identify with. He was called a political artist, an AIDS artist, when the core of his art was a reflection of his experience of the world, an inherently political experience for a gay, poor HIV-positive person. He had a distaste for hyper-intellectual and elite spaces, having entered into the art scene with no formal education. In an interview with literary critic and cultural theorist Sylère Lotringer, David described his negative relationship to intellectualism as lying in his observation that “Intellectuals use language as a hammer.”
One could try to contextualize David’s literary contributions by looking to movements like New Narrative, spearheaded in the late 1970s by gay poets Robert Glück and Bruce Boone. “In writing about sex, desire, and the body, New Narrative approached performance art, where self is put at risk by naming names, becoming naked, making the irreversible happen—the book becoming social practice that is lived,” Glück writes in his essay “Long Note on New Narrative”. New Narrative is foregrounded in the theoretical works of Louis Althusser, Georges Bataille, Walter Benjamin, and Roland Barthes. David would likely feel uncomfortable hearing that after his death, the world found it necessary to squeeze his voice into a particular movement, especially one with an intellectual basis. It is true that what he made was risky. He did not shy away from the grit of life. But he also did not find it necessary to ground his dissent in established theories or ideologies.
David was a part of the wave of artists who sought to work against the elitism of the art world. More than once he staged pieces of “action art” intended to startle the bourgeois climate of art galleries like PS1, where, after not being selected for a show, he set loose an army of “cock-a-bunnies”– cockroaches with paper ears and cotton ball tails. He dumped cow bones on the steps of The Leo Castelli Gallery in a similar act of protest. In everything he did, David thought of both the people who would be pleased and the people who would be disturbed, the people who were for the revolution and against it.
In 2020, America is faced yet again with large-scale suffering and death due to a viral pandemic. When the US reached the milestone death count of 100,000 people lost to coronavirus, The New York Times dedicated their front page to the victims of the illness, listing their names, ages, hobbies, professions, and personality traits. In 1991, when the US reached the same number of AIDS-related deaths, the story was buried on page 18 of The Times. There were no names listed or stories shared. Though it is less taboo to discuss coronavirus than AIDS, the groups who disproportionately suffer from both illnesses share experiences of marginalization and governmental neglect.
We must recognize that the systemic inequities laid bare by the coronavirus crisis are not new. At the height of the AIDS epidemic, young people took to the streets to express outrage over the US government’s fatal betrayal of its most vulnerable populations. Now, in the midst of another popular uprising, we look to the past for guidance.
Sitting with David’s writings and visual pieces might not provide one with answers or consolation. It is uncomfortable to confront the world in its nakedness, to bear witness to accounts of suffering and pleasure, and to hold the knowledge that the person who experienced these things and translated them into images is dead. The light that shines through David’s words is a passion for those whose voices were ignored in the making of America. Before he condemned systemic inequality in Close to the Knives, David wrote of the love he felt for gay men he met in passing, for his friends and for artists who came before him. He refused to be reduced to his rage. Even at the end of the book, whose pace is frenzied by David’s impending death, he finds moments to glide along the smooth points of memory, to dream and reminisce.
“I wish I was traveling in a disposable body through the landscape of the u.s.a map and I was like a blinking light moving from state to state. I could be a killer stalking a president or I could be engaging in some sordid and tender sexuality with a stranger I’ve yet to meet in the folds of landscape or among the monoliths of foreign city canyons” (‘Close to the Knives’).
In 1990, David and artists Paul Marcus and Susan Pyzow created an installation called The Lazaretto. In preparation for the piece, David and Marcus spent time collecting the stories of people with AIDS, later writing those stories on large sheets of paper and attaching them to walls within a labyrinth of their own construction. The labyrinth was fashioned as a lazaretto, a structure that houses people with contagious illnesses. Those who entered the installation were transported through a maze of text which led to a grotesque room with a plastic skeleton lying on a cot in the corner. The text coating the bedroom wall read:
“We are living in a society that has accelerated to such a point that the person to press the button that releases warheads, the person who determines whether some of us have rights to abortion, the person who determines whether men can love men or women can love women or whether I should have to die of lack of access to healthcare because I’m Black or Hispanic or poor + white or Native American —that person no longer has to go to the scene of the crime to do the dirty work. The people making these determinations that affect our bodies and minds need only to do legislative paperwork.”
David stated in his journals that he did not want a private ceremony to be held when he died. “DON’T GIVE ME A MEMORIAL IF I DIE. GIVE ME A DEMONSTRATION” (In the Shadow of the American Dream). When the day came in 1992, his friends marched through the East Village holding a banner that read “DAVID WOJNAROWICZ, 1954-1992, DIED OF AIDS DUE TO GOVERNMENT NEGLECT.” July 22, 2020 will mark the 28th anniversary of David’s death. Instead of simply mourning him, we should honor his call to action. Not only that, we should study carefully the early years of the AIDS crisis. We should study Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.
We should be outspoken in our celebration of queer life as an act of resistance. This is one way we can arrive a nuanced idea of queer history that is neither solely romantic nor solely political. It is our responsibility to uncover voices which have not yet been recognized, and to share the stories that have been buried in the shadow of the American dream.
Images by David Wojnarowicz courtesy of the Whitney Museum