David Wojnarowicz, from the book Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz
September 14, 1954|
Red Bank, New Jersey
|Died||July 22, 1992
New York City
Wojnarowicz was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, and later lived with his mother in New York City, where he attended the High School of Performing Arts for a brief period. A victim of childhood abuse, he lived for a time during his teenage years as a street hustler; he graduated from the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan.
After a period outside of New York, he returned in the later '70s, where he quickly emerged as one of the most prominent and prolific of an avant-garde wing that mixed media, made and used graffiti and street art; his first recognition came from stencils of houses afire that appeared on the exposed sides of buildings in the East Village. He made super-8 films, such as Heroin, began a photographic series of Arthur Rimbaud, did stencil work, played in a band called 3 Teens Kill 4, and exhibited his work in well-known East Village galleries, notably Civilian Warfare, Ground Zero Gallery NY, Public Illumination Picture Gallery, Gracie Mansion and Hal Bromm. Wojnarowicz was also connected to other prolific artists of the time, appearing in or collaborating on works with artists like Nan Goldin, Peter Hujar, Luis Frangella, Karen Finley, Kiki Smith, John Fekner, Richard Kern, James Romberger, Marguerite Van Cook, Ben Neill, Marion Scemama and Phil Zwickler. For some years, until Hujar's death of AIDS in 1987, he and Hujar were lovers. Hujar's death moved Wojnarowicz's work into much more explicit activism and political content, notably around the injustices, social and legal, inherent in the response to the AIDS epidemic.
In 1985, he was included in the Whitney Biennial, the so-called Graffiti Show. In the 1990s, he fought and successfully issued an injunction against Donald Wildmon and the 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' successful lawsuit represented a notable and affirmative step towards artists rights in the United States.
His works include: Untitled (One Day This Kid...); Untitled (Buffalo); Water; Birth of Language II; Untitled (Shark), Untitled (Peter Hujar); Tuna; Peter Hujar Dreaming/Yukio Mishima: St. Sebastian; Delta Towels; True Myth (Domino Sugar); Something From Sleep II; Untitled (Face in Dirt); and I Feel a Vague Nausea among others.
Wojnarowicz has served as an inspiration to many artists; those that have credited him as an influence include: Zoe Leonard, Victoria Yee Howe, Matt Wolf, Emily Roysdon, Henrik Olesen, Mike Estabrook, and Carrie Mae Weems.
In Spring 2011, P.P.O.W. gallery showed Spirituality, an exhibition of Wojnarowicz's drawings, photographs, videos, collages, and personal notebooks; in a review in The Brooklyn Rail, Kara L. Rooney called the show "meticulously researched and commendably curated from a wide array of sources, ... a mini-retrospective, providing context and clues for Wojnarowicz's often elusive, sometimes dangerous, and always brutally honest work."
"A Fire in My Belly" controversy
In November 2010, after consultation with Gallery director Martin Sullivan and co-curator David C. Ward but not with co-curator Jonathan David Katz, G. Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, removed an edited version of footage used in Wojnarowicz's short silent film A Fire in My Belly (available online) from the exhibit "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" at the National Portrait Gallery after complaints from the Catholic League, Minority Leader John Boehner, Rep. 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.
Response from Clough and Smithsonian
Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough later in interview states that although he stands by his decision, it "might have been made too quickly" and he describes that making the decision was "painful." Clough mentions that because of heated controversy surrounding the footage and the possibility that it might "spiral out of control", the Smithsonian might be in the end forced to shut-down the entire "Hide/Seek" exhibition, and its "something he didn't want to happen." The "Hide/Seek" exhibition "examines representations of homosexuality in American portraiture", and Clough states "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 states "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."
Response from artists
The curator David C. Ward said: "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 SFMOMA and 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 art work was projected on the building. On December 5, 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 A. A. Bronson sought to withdraw his art from the exhibit, with support from the lending institution, the National Gallery of Canada, unsuccessfully as of December 20. 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. Secretary Clough issued a statement standing by the decision, spoke at a Town Hall Los Angeles meeting, and appeared at a public forum in April 26–27, 2011. Several curators within the Smithsonian 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.
- 2010: Les Rencontres d'Arles festival, France.
- 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.
- Postcards From America – a non-linear biography of David Wojnarowicz (Steve McLean, director)
Critical studies and adaptations
- David Wojnarowicz: Brush Fires in the Social Landscape. (1995). Aperture.
- Wojnarowicz, David, et al., ed. Amy Scholder. Fever: The Art of David Wojnarowicz. (1999). New Museum Books.
- David Wojnarowicz : A Definitive History of Five or Six Years on the Lower East Side, interviews by Sylvère Lotringer, edited by Giancarlo Ambrosino (2006).
- Blinderman, Barry ed. David Wojnarowicz : Tongues of Flame, 1990, ISBN 094558155
- Carr, Cynthia Fire in the Belly The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (2012) St Martin's Press. ISBN 978-1-596-91533-6
The David Wojnarowicz Papers are located in the Fales Library at New York University. The Fales Library also houses the papers of John Hall, a high school friend of Wojnarowicz. The papers include a small collection of letters from Wojnarowicz to Hall.
- Joel Wachs, head of Andy Warhol Foundation, protested removal of Wojnarowicz piece
- US dict: voy′·nə·rō′·vĭch
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- See Wojnarowicz v. American Family Association, 745 F.Supp 130 (1990).
- See case summary on ArtUntitled.com .
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- Experts debate Smithsonian's response to critics[dead link]
- P.P.O.W Gallery New York, Estate of David Wojnarowicz
- NYU's Fales Library and Special Collections Guide to the David Wojnarowicz Papers
- NYU's Fales Library and Special Collections Guide to the John Hall Papers-contain letters from Wojnarowicz
- David Wojnarowicz by Dan Cameron and Dennis Szakacs
- David Wojnarowicz Reading
- David Wojnarowicz & Doug Bressler: (1984) "American Dreamtime" published at Tellus Audio Cassette Magazine
- NYU's Fales Library and Special Collections Guide to the David Wojnarowicz—Janine Pommy-Vega Letters
- Huffington Post analysis of the Smithsonian Wojnarowicz controversy*
- David Wojnarowicz Journals: Years Ago Before the Nation went Bankrupt
- David Wojnarowicz (1954–1992) ubu.com
- "Outlaw Documentary:David Wojnarowicz's Queer Cinematics, Kinerotics, Autothanatographics" by Dianne Chisholm. Canadian Review of Contemporary Literature 21.1 & 2, 1994