VIRAL WITNESSING – David Wojnarowicz

by Samantha Anne Scott

David Wojnarowicz's Untitled (Face in Dirt), 1990

“I felt a sensation like seeing oneself from miles above the earth or looking at one’s reflection in a mirror through the wrong end of a telescope. Realizing that I have nothing left to lose in my actions I let my hands become weapons, my teeth become weapons, every bone & muscle & fiber & ounce of blood become weapons, & I feel prepared for the rest of my life.” — David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration

Trying to separate activist, artist, author and musician David Wojnarowicz’s identity from his art is difficult. Wojnarowicz’s art was borne of his life, his identity as a queer, as an artist, as an AIDS victim. But the victim role wasn’t comfortable for Wojnarowicz. Instead, he responded to his viral death sentence by creating feverishly — giving voice and vision to his witnessing, of society and himself, refusing to relinquish pleasure, and using his art as a weapon.

David Wojnarowicz's Tornado, 1988

David Wojnarowicz emerged as an artist in the 1970s and continued to create until his AIDS-related death in 1992. Wojnarowicz was born in 1954 in Red Bank, New Jersey. After suffering from an abusive childhood, a 16-year-old Wojnarowicz dropped out of Manhattan’s High School of Performing Arts and ran away from home, becoming homeless. During this time, he began hustling, primarily in Times Square. As a young man, Wojnarowicz hitchhiked across the United States numerous times. He lived briefly in San Francisco and with his sister in Paris before putting down roots in the East Village in 1978. By this time, Wojnarowicz noted that he had “started developing ideas of making and preserving an authentic version of history in the form of images/writings/objects that would contest state-supported forms of ‘history'”.

David Wojnarowicz's Untitled (One day this kid...), 1990

As part of the thriving late-’70s and ’80s East Village scene, Wojnarowicz collaborated with many other artists and was particularly well known for his battle against Donald Wildmon and the American Family Association(AFA); Wildmon and the AFA reproduced sexually explicit imagery excerpted from Wojnarowicz’s Tongues of Flame exhibit in a pamphlet titled “Your Tax Dollar Helped Pay for This Work of art”, which attacked the NEA’s support and endowment of Wojnarowicz’s art. Said pamphlets arrived in an envelope marked “Caution – Contains Extremely Offensive Material”. Wojnarowicz sued and prevailed based on his invocation of the New York Artists’ Authorship Rights Act, which protects artists from defamation or injury of reputation resulting from excerpts of their art displayed out of context.

Wojnarowicz’s art was emblematic of the notion of the personal as political. Navigating the body politic, Wojnarowicz’s art negotiated the private and public spheres of identity, unabashedly depicting himself and those in his orbit. The specter of AIDS haunts Wojnarowicz’s work and his anger, fear and sense of loss over AIDS’ impact on his life and the lives of his loved ones imbues his later work with a heartbreaking radical historical perspective. Wojnarowicz’s black-and-white portrait of his onetime lover, surrogate father, and artistic mentor Peter Hujar, captured in the moments after Hujar’s death from AIDS, is a revealing example of Wojnarowicz’s role as a radical historian. This portrait, poignant enough in its mere content, reflects Hujar’s own portraiture art and is particularly reminiscent of Hujar’s photo Candy Darling on Her Deathbed.

David Wojnarowicz's Untitled (Peter Hujar), 1989

David Wojnarowicz's Untitled (Peter Hujar), 1989

In the musical vein, Wojnarowicz comprised one-fifth of 3 Teens Kill 4, which was three-fifths gay. The other members of 3 Teens Kill 4 were Doug Bressler, Brian Butterick, Julie Hair and Jesse Hultberg. The band’s  name was snatched from a New York Post headline. While 3TK4’s No Motive is frequently compared to Brian Eno and David Byrne’s collaboration, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, their sound is as different from that album as it is similar. Whereas Byrne’s affinity for world music rose to the surface on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, 3TK4’s sound is pure postmodern America. In a 1984 review of a 3TK4 show at The Pyramid, Christine Cassidy described the 3TK4 sound: “Sirens, rat-a-tat-tat, clashing cymbal, whistles, a robotic voice: ‘this is 3 Teens Kill Four.’ The noise is hypnotic, even frightening, like being in a Keystone Kops film during an air raid”.

3 Teens Kill 4 promotional art

3 Teens Kill 4 promotional art

3 Teens Kill 4’s Tell Me Something Good from their 1984 album No Motive, an experimental cover of the Stevie Wonder-penned, Rufus/Chaka Khan-popularized original, utilized newscast audio on John Hinckley Jr.’s 1981 attempted assassination of Reagan with other found and toy sounds, atonal singing by Hair and Wojnarowicz and synth drone. This beat-laden cover seems to fall in lockstep with Wojnarowicz’s radical historical mission, juxtaposing the original incarnation of Tell Me Something Good as a coy love song with the concepts of Hinckley Jr.’s erotomaniacal obsession with Jodie Foster and Reagan’s role in impeding research into and treatment of AIDS by either downplaying and ignoring the disease then known as the “gay plague”.

A self-taught artist, Wojnarowicz used the mediums of collage, music, painting, performance, poetry, prose and video as a means of witnessing. He worked within and recontextualized the idiom of the American dream, served as a radical historian of the outsider experience — as a gay man and a hustler, as a victim of AIDS and homophobia and as a warrior raging, raging against the dying of the light.

David Wojnarowicz's Untitled (Christ), 1998

”I wake up every morning in this killing machine called America, and I’m carrying this rage like a blood-filled egg.” — David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration


The Estate of David Wojnarowicz

David Wojnarowicz and Doug Bressler – American Dreamtime @ UbuWeb Sound

One Comments

  1. Junior says:

    Thanks for the information about David. I saw his artwork in a museum today and was intrigued by his work. Very nice recap about his life.

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