David Wojnarowicz

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David Wojnarowicz
David Wojnarowicz.jpg
David Wojnarowicz, from the book Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz
Born (1954-09-14)September 14, 1954
Red Bank, New Jersey
Died July 22, 1992(1992-07-22) (aged 37)
New York City
Nationality American

David Wojnarowicz (/ˌvɔɪnəˈrvɪ/;[1][2] September 14, 1954 – July 22, 1992) was a painter, photographer, writer, filmmaker, performance artist, and AIDS activist prominent in the New York City art world.[3]


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.[4]

After a period outside of New York, he returned in the late 1970s, 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.[2]

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.[5] Wojnarowicz' successful lawsuit represented a notable and affirmative step towards artists rights in the United States.[6]

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 died in his Manhattan home on the night of July 22, 1992, from what his companion Tom Rauffenbart confirmed was AIDS.[7] After his death, photographer and artist Zoe Leonard, who was a friend of Wojnarowicz, exhibited a work inspired by him, entitled "Strange Fruit (for David)".[8]

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.[9]

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."[10]

"A Fire in My Belly" controversy[edit]

In November 2010, after consultation with Gallery director Martin Sullivan and co-curator David C. Ward but not with co-curator Jonathan David Katz,[11] 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 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.[12] The video contains a scene with a crucifix covered in ants.[13][14][15][16] William Donohue of the Catholic League claimed the work was "hate speech", against Catholics.[17][18][19][20][21][22] 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.[11]

Response from Clough and Smithsonian[edit]

Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough later in interview states that although he stands by his decision, it "might have been made too quickly"[12] and he describes that making the decision was "painful."[23] 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."[23] 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."[12]

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[24]

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."[12]

The piece was shown intact when Hide/Seek moved on to the Tacoma Art Museum in Tacoma, Washington.[25]

Response from artists[edit]

The curator David C. Ward said: "It is not anti-religion or sacrilegious. It is a powerful use of imagery".[11]

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.[26]

On December 2, 2010, protesters against the censorship marched from the Transformer Gallery,[27][28][29] to the National Portrait Gallery. The art work was projected on the building.[30][31][32] On December 5, Michael Blasenstein and Michael Dax Iacovone were detained and barred from the gallery for holding leaflets.[33][34] On December 9, National Portrait Gallery Commissioner James T. Bartlett resigned in protest.[35] The artist A. A. Bronson sought to withdraw his art from the exhibit, with support from the lending institution, the National Gallery of Canada,[36] unsuccessfully as of December 20.[37] The curators appeared at a forum at the New York Public Library.[38][39][40] A protest was held from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Cooper-Hewitt Museum.[41][42][43] On December 15, a panel discussion was held at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.[44] On December 20, a panel discussion was held at the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center.[45][46][47] On January 20, 2011, the Center of Study of Political Graphics held a protest at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.[48] Secretary Clough issued a statement standing by the decision, spoke at a Town Hall Los Angeles meeting,[49][50] and appeared at a public forum in April 26–27, 2011.[51][52][53][54] 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.[55]

Collective exhibitions[edit]

  • 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[edit]

  • 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 978-0-945558-15-6
  • Carr, Cynthia Fire in the Belly The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (2012) St Martin's Press. ISBN 978-1-596-91533-6

Archival collections[edit]

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.

See also[edit]

  • Joel Wachs, head of Andy Warhol Foundation, protested removal of Wojnarowicz piece


  1. ^ US dict: voy′·nə·rō′·vĭch
  2. ^ a b Kimmelman, Michael (July 24, 1992). "David Wojnarowicz, 37, Artist in Many Media". New York Times. Retrieved August 23, 2010. 
  3. ^ "David Wojnarowicz at P.P.O.W. and Roth Horowitz". findarticles.com. April 2005. Retrieved February 20, 2007. [dead link]
  4. ^ Michael Kimmelmann, "David Wojnarowicz,37, Artist of Many Media," New York Times, July 4, 1992, online at http://www.nytimes.com/1992/07/24/arts/david-wojnarowicz-37-artist-in-many-media.html.
  5. ^ See Wojnarowicz v. American Family Association, 745 F.Supp 130 (1990).
  6. ^ See case summary on ArtUntitled.com [1].
  7. ^ http://www.nytimes.com/1992/07/24/arts/david-wojnarowicz-37-artist-in-many-media.html
  8. ^ Sorkin, Jenni (March 2008), "Finding the Right Darkness", frieze (113), retrieved May 16, 2010 
  9. ^ Wojnarowicz's Children: Artworks Inspired by the Controversial, and Revered, Artist BLOUINARTINFO.com
  10. ^ Rooney, Kara L. (April 2011). "DAVID WOJNAROWICZ: Spirituality". The Brooklyn Rail. 
  11. ^ a b c Jacqueline Trescott (December 6, 2010). "After Smithsonian exhibit's removal, banned ant video still creeps into gallery". Washingtonpost.com. Retrieved December 11, 2013. 
  12. ^ a b c d Trescott, Jacqueline (January 19, 2011). "Clough defends removal of video". The Washington Post. Retrieved June 27, 2012. 
  13. ^ Trescott, Jacqueline (November 30, 2010), "Ant-covered Jesus video removed from Smithsonian after Catholic League complains", Washington Post, retrieved November 30, 2010 
  14. ^ "Smithsonian Q&A Regarding the "Hide/Seek" Exhibition" (PDF). December 7, 2010. p. 2. Retrieved December 14, 2010. 
  15. ^ Cooter, Holland (December 10, 2010), "As Ants Crawl Over Crucifix, Dead Artist Is Assailed Again", New York Times, retrieved December 14, 2010 
  16. ^ "Museum removes portrait of crucifix covered in ants". The Daily Telegraph (London). December 2, 2010. 
  17. ^ "National Portrait Gallery in Washington bows to right-wing censorship". Wsws.org. Retrieved December 3, 2010. 
  18. ^ "National Portrait Gallery censorship controversy: Who was David Wojnarowicz?". TBD.com. December 2, 2010. Retrieved December 3, 2010. 
  19. ^ Blake Gopnik (December 1, 2010). "Museums shouldn't bow to censorship of any kind". Washingtonpost.com. Retrieved December 3, 2010. 
  20. ^ Starr, Penny (November 29, 2010). "Smithsonian Christmas-Season Exhibit Features Ant-Covered Jesus, Naked Brothers Kissing, Genitalia, and Ellen DeGeneres Grabbing Her Breasts". CNSnews.com. Retrieved December 7, 2010. 
  21. ^ "Smithsonian to Remove Ant-Covered Jesus on Cross Video From Exhibit". FoxNews.com. April 7, 2010. Archived from the original on December 3, 2010. Retrieved December 7, 2010. 
  22. ^ "Fire in their belly". The Economist. December 13, 2010. 
  23. ^ a b Taylor, Kate (January 18, 2011). "Smithsonian Chief Defends Withdrawal of Video". The New York Times. Retrieved June 27, 2012. 
  24. ^ Rosenbaum, Lee (January 20, 2011). "'Hide/Seek' Interview: Smithsonian Secretary Clough 'Can Do the Math' (But Miscalculates)". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2012-06-27. 
  25. ^ Curtis Cartier, David Wojnarowicz Film Is Too Hot for Smithsonian and Republicans, But Not for Tacoma Art Museum, Seattle Weekly, 2011-03-17. Accessed online 2013-01-19.
  26. ^ "Outcry Over Smithsonian Censorship Grows," The Bay Citizen December 14 http://www.baycitizen.org/visual-art/story/outcry-over-smithsonian-censorship-grows/
  27. ^ Dave itzkoff (December 2, 2010). "Pulled from National Portrait Gallery, Video Emerges Elsewhere in Washington". The New York Times. 
  28. ^ "Going Out Gurus – 'Hide/Seek': Go see it for yourself". Voices.washingtonpost.com. December 1, 2010. Retrieved December 7, 2010. 
  29. ^ Capps, Kriston (December 1, 2010). "Transformer Will Show Video Art That National Portrait Gallery Took Down – Arts Desk". Washington City Paper. Retrieved December 7, 2010. 
  30. ^ "National Portrait Gallery censorship controversy: Artist projects film on portrait gallery, recreating '89 protest". News1.capitalbay.com. Retrieved December 3, 2010. 
  31. ^ "Silent March Held To Protest Controversial Film's Removal From National Portrait Gallery | WUSA9.com | Washington, DC |". WUSA9.com. Retrieved December 3, 2010. 
  32. ^ Jessica Roake (December 2, 2010). "What Else Is in the National Portrait Gallery's "Offensive" Gay Show?". The Awl. Retrieved December 2, 2010. 
  33. ^ "Arts Post – Protestors banned from Smithsonian after playing video on iPad". Voices.washingtonpost.com. April 13, 2010. Retrieved December 7, 2010. 
  34. ^ "Portrait Gallery Censorship: Can you REALLY be 'banned for life' from the Smithsonian?", TBDArts, December 6, 2010
  35. ^ Green, Tyler (December 9, 2010). "NPG commissioner resigns to protest removal". Modern Art Notes. Retrieved June 27, 2012. 
  36. ^ Taylor, Kate (December 17, 2010). "Canadian Museum Backs Smithsonian Protest". The New York Times. 
  37. ^ Taylor, Kate, "National Portrait Gallery Rejects Artist’s Request to Remove His Work", The New York Times Arts Beat blog, December 20, 2010, 2:20 pm. Retrieved 2101-12-21.
  38. ^ Taylor, Kate (December 15, 2010). "Exhibit's Curators Criticize Controversial Art's Removal". The New York Times. 
  39. ^ Miranda, Carolina A. (December 16, 2010). "In the Wake of the Smithsonian Controversy: Hide/Seek Curators Speak at the New York Public Library". WNYC Culture. Retrieved June 27, 2012. 
  40. ^ Rosenbaum, Lee (December 21, 2010). ""Don't Ask, Don't Tell": A Useful Policy for the "Hide/Seek" Show at National Portrait Gallery". Huffington Post. 
  41. ^ Wallin, Yasha (December 21, 2010). "Hide/Seek Protest in New York". Art in America. Retrieved June 27, 2012. 
  42. ^ "Hundreds in NYC Protest Hide/Seek Censorship". Band of Thebes. December 20, 2010. Retrieved June 27, 2012. 
  43. ^ Kennicott, Philip (December 16, 2010). "Video outcry flares anew". The Washington Post. 
  44. ^ "Large crowd of Houston art lovers protest Smithsonian censorship of A Fire in My Belly". CultureMap Houston. December 15, 2010. Retrieved June 27, 2012. 
  45. ^ "HIDE/SPEAK – An evening with David C. Ward Historian, National Portrait Gallery; Curator, Hide/Seek". The Theater J Blog. December 16, 2010. Retrieved June 27, 2012. 
  46. ^ "PAST: Special Talk "hide/SPEAK" with David C. Ward, Curator of "Hide/Seek" exhibit at the NPG". Free in DC. November 20, 2010. Retrieved June 27, 2012. 
  47. ^ "Hide/Seek: National Portrait Gallery Tour with NPG Curator David C. Ward". Washington DC Jewish Community Center. Retrieved June 27, 2012. 
  48. ^ "Center for the Study of Political Graphics". Politicalgraphics.org. September 8, 2011. Retrieved June 27, 2012. 
  49. ^ "Critic's Notebook: Smithsonian chief digging a deeper hole". Los Angeles Times. January 18, 2011. 
  50. ^ "Protest over art censorship will greet Smithsonian chief before L.A. talk Thursday". Los Angeles Times. January 19, 2011. 
  51. ^ Trescott, Jacqueline (January 19, 2011). "Smithsonian Secretary Clough stands by decision to pull 'Fire in My Belly' video". The Washington Post. 
  52. ^ Judkis, Maura (January 20, 2011). "Portrait Gallery Censorship: Smithsonian secretary speaks". @TBD Arts. Retrieved June 27, 2012. 
  53. ^ "Clough Gets Testy at "Hide/Seek" Conference (Call Martin Sullivan!) – CultureGrrl". Artsjournal.com. April 27, 2011. Retrieved June 27, 2012. 
  54. ^ "Public Forum "Flashpoints and Fault Lines: Museum Curation and Controversy" April 26–27". Smithsonian Newsdesk. April 28, 2011. Retrieved June 27, 2012. 
  55. ^ Experts debate Smithsonian's response to critics[dead link]

External links[edit]