David Wojnarowicz, from the book Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz
|Died||July 22, 1992 (aged 37)|
|Cause of death||AIDS|
David Michael Wojnarowicz (// VOY-nə-ROH-vitch; (September 14, 1954 – July 22, 1992) was a Polish-American painter, photographer, writer, filmmaker, performance artist, songwriter/recording artist and AIDS activist prominent in the East Village art scene. He incorporated personal narratives influenced by both his struggle with AIDS as well as his political activism in his art until his death from the disease in 1992.
Wojnarowicz was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, where he and his siblings survived a childhood of physical abuse at the hands of their father. After his parents' divorce, he moved to New York with his mother as a teenager. During his teenage years in Manhattan, Wojnarowicz worked as a street hustler around Times Square. He graduated from the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan.
After a period outside New York, he returned in the late 1970s and quickly emerged as one of the most prominent and prolific members of an avant-garde wing that used mixed media as well as 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.
Wojnarowicz made super-8 films, such as Heroin, and Beautiful People with Jesse Hultberg, completed a 1977-1979 photographic series on Arthur Rimbaud, did stencil work; collaborated in the band 3 Teens Kill 4, which released the independent EP (music) No Motive in 1982. He exhibited his work in well-known East Village galleries and New York City landmarks, 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 incluing Nan Goldin, Peter Hujar, Luis Frangella, Karen Finley, Kiki Smith, Richard Kern, James Romberger, Marguerite Van Cook, Ben Neill, Marion Scemama and Phil Zwickler. In 1987 his longtime mentor and lover, the photographer Peter Hujar, died of AIDS, and Wojnarowicz himself learned that he was HIV positive. Hujar's death moved Wojnarowicz to create 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's so-called Graffiti Show. In the 1990s, Wojnarowicz sued 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.
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.
He was also the author of several successful books, often about political and social issues of the 1980s relating to the AIDS epidemic. One of his bestsellers, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, is an autobiography made up of creative writing discussing topics such as his troubled childhood, becoming one of the most renowned artists of his time in New York City, and his AIDS diagnosis. Knives opens with a visceral essay about his homeless years: a boy in glasses selling his skinny body to the paedophiles and creeps who hung around Times Square. The heart of Knives is the title essay, which deals with the sickness and death of the photographer Peter Hujar, Wojnarowicz's one-time lover, his best friend and mentor, "my brother, my father, my emotional link to the world". In the final, gargantuan essay, "The Suicide of a Guy Who Once Built an Elaborate Shrine Over a Mouse Hole", he investigates the suicide of a friend, mixing his own reflections with interviews with members of their shared circle.
Wojnarowicz died in his Manhattan home on the night of July 22, 1992, from what his boyfriend, Tom Rauffenbart, confirmed was AIDS. 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)".
Wojnarowicz has served as an inspiration to many artists. Among those who have credited him as an influence are Zoe Leonard, Victoria Yee Howe, Matt Wolf, Emily Roysdon, Henrik Olesen, Mike Estabrook, and Carrie Mae Weems.
A Fire in My Belly controversy
In November 2010, after consultation with National Portrait 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 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 an interview stated that although he stood by his decision, it "might have been made too quickly" and he described the making of the decision as "painful." Clough mentioned that because of heated controversy surrounding the footage and the possibility that it might "spiral out of control", the Smithsonian might have, in the end, been forced to shut down the entire "Hide/Seek" exhibition, and that was "something he didn't want to happen." The "Hide/Seek" exhibition "examined representations of homosexuality in American portraiture", and Clough stated: "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 stated: "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 the art world and the public
The curator David C. Ward defended the artwork saying, "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 the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the 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, activists 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 AA Bronson sought to withdraw his art from the exhibit, with support from the lending institution, the National Gallery of Canada, though was ultimately unsuccessful. 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.
Several curators within the Smithsonian criticized the decision, as did critics in the media, with Newsweek arts critic Blake Gopnik going so far as to call the complaints "gay bashing" and not a legitimate public controversy.
Notable posthumous exhibitions
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."
The Whitney Museum of American Art hosted a major retrospective, David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night in 2018, which was co-curated by the Whitney's David Kiehl and art historian David Breslin. It received international praise.
In 1992, the band U2 adopted the iconic tumbling buffalo photograph, 'Untitled (Buffaloes)', for the cover art of their single "One". The band further adapted this imagery during their Zoo TV Tour. This single and subsequent album became multi-platinum over the next few years, and the band donated a large portion of its earnings to AIDS charities. The oversized gelatin print of Wojnarowicz's 'Untitled (Buffaloes)' sold at auction in October 2014 for $125,000, more than four times the estimated price.
On October 11, 1992, activist David Robinson received wide media attention when he dumped the ashes of his partner, Warren Krause, on the grounds of the White House as a protest against President George H.W. Bush’s inaction in fighting AIDS. Robinson reported that this action was inspired by Wojnarowicz's 1991 memoir Close to the Knives, which imagined "what it would be like if, each time a lover, friend or stranger died of this disease, their friends, lovers or neighbors would take the dead body and drive with it in a car a hundred miles an hour to Washington DC and blast through the gates of the White House and come to a screeching halt before the entrance and dump their lifeless form on the front steps." In 1996, Wojnarowicz's own ashes were scattered on the White House lawn.
A list of Wojnarowicz's group exhibitions the year prior to his death.
- The Figure in the Landscape, Baumgartner Galleries, February, Washington, DC
- From Desire...A Queer Diary, curated by Nan Goldin, Richard F. Brush Art Gallery Canton, NY
- Whitney Biennial, The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY
- The Art of Advocacy, The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, Ridgefield, CT
- Hands Off!, The New School for Social Research, New York, NY
- Tableaux Du SIDA, Foundation Deutsch, Belmont-Sur-Lausanne, France
- The Third Rail, curated by Karin Bravin, John Post Lee Gallery, New York, NY
- Compassion and Protest: Recent Social and Political Art from the Eli Broad Family Foundation Collection, San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose, CA
- American Narrative Painting and Sculpture: The 1980's, Nassau County Museum of Art, Roslyn, NY
- Cruciformed: Images of the Cross since 1980, curated by David Rubin, Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, Cleveland, OH
- Social Sculpture, curated by Steven Harvey and Elyse Cheney, Vrej Baghoomian Gallery, New York, NY
- The Interrupted Life, New Museum, New York, NY
- Outrageous Desire: The Politics and Aesthetics of Representation in Recent Works by Lesbian and Gay Artists, Rutgers University, Mason Gross School of the Arts, New Brunswick, NJ
- Art of the 1980's: Selections from the Collection of Eli Broad Foundation, Duke University Museum of Art, Durham, NC
- Domenikos Theotokopoulos-A Dialogue, Philippe Briet Gallery, New York, NY
- Fuel, curated by Jay Younger, The Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, Australia; The Australia Centre for Photography, Sydney, Australia; The Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, Australia
- 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.
- Weight of the Earth: The Tape Journals of David Wojnarowicz. (Lisa Darms and David O'Neill, editors). (2018). MIT Press.
- Post Cards from America – a non-linear biography of David Wojnarowicz (Steve McLean, director)
- Fire in my Belly – Filmed in Mexico and New York in 1986 and 1987, no soundtrack (David Wojnarowicz, director)
- Beautiful People – Filmed in New York City in 1987, no soundtrack (David Wojnarowicz, director)
- 3 Teens Kill 4 EP No Motive 1982
- Cross Country 3 x LP Reading Group 2018
Critical studies and adaptations
- Blinderman, Barry ed. David Wojnarowicz : Tongues of Flame, 1990, ISBN 978-0-945558-15-6
- Close to the Knives. (1993) AIDS Positive Underground Theatre. John Roman Baker.
- 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).
- Carr, Cynthia Fire in the Belly The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (2012) St Martin's Press. ISBN 978-1-596-91533-6
- Laing, Olivia The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (2016) Canongate ISBN 978-1-250-11803-5
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
- Kimmelman, Michael (July 24, 1992). "David Wojnarowicz, 37, Artist in Many Media". The New York Times. Retrieved August 23, 2010.
- Hirsch, Faye (April 2005). "David Wojnarowicz at P.P.O.W. and Roth Horowitz". Art in America. 94 (4): 143.
- Kordic, Angie (May 17, 2018). "LGBT and Photography - The Inexhaustible Fight for Equality". Widewalls. Retrieved November 20, 2019.
- Cotter, Holland (December 10, 2010). "As Ants Crawl Over Crucifix, Dead Artist Is Assailed Again". The New York Times. Archived from the original on October 1, 2017. Retrieved February 7, 2018.
- See Wojnarowicz v. American Family Association, 745 F.Supp 130 (1990).
- Sumners, Lucy (2008), AIDS Art: Activism on Canvas, University of Rhode Island
- Laing, Olivia (May 12, 2016). "David Wojnarowicz: still fighting prejudice 24 years after his death". The Guardian. Retrieved November 20, 2019.
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- Wojnarowicz's Children: Artworks Inspired by the Controversial, and Revered, Artist BLOUINARTINFO.com
- Jacqueline Trescott (December 6, 2010). "After Smithsonian exhibit's removal, banned ant video still creeps into gallery". The Washington Post. Retrieved December 11, 2013.
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- "Smithsonian Q&A Regarding the "Hide/Seek" Exhibition" (PDF). December 7, 2010. pp. 1–2. Archived from the original (PDF) on June 14, 2011. Retrieved December 14, 2010.
- Cooter, Holland (December 10, 2010). "As Ants Crawl Over Crucifix, Dead Artist Is Assailed Again". The New York Times. Retrieved December 14, 2010.
- "Museum removes portrait of crucifix covered in ants". The Daily Telegraph. December 2, 2010.
- Gopnik, Blake (December 1, 2010). "Museums shouldn't bow to censorship of any kind". The Washington Post. Retrieved December 3, 2010.
- "Smithsonian to Remove Ant-Covered Jesus on Cross Video From Exhibit". Fox News. April 7, 2010. Archived from the original on December 3, 2010. Retrieved December 7, 2010.
- "Fire in their belly". The Economist. December 13, 2010.
- Taylor, Kate (January 18, 2011). "Smithsonian Chief Defends Withdrawal of Video". The New York Times. Retrieved June 27, 2012.
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- Cartier, Curtis (March 17, 2011). "David Wojnarowicz Film Is Too Hot for Smithsonian and Republicans, But Not for Tacoma Art Museum". Seattle Weekly. Archived from the original on March 21, 2011. Retrieved January 19, 2013.
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- Dave Itzkoff (December 2, 2010). "Pulled from National Portrait Gallery, Video Emerges Elsewhere in Washington". The New York Times.
- "Going Out Gurus – 'Hide/Seek': Go see it for yourself". The Washington Post. December 1, 2010. Retrieved December 7, 2010.
- Capps, Kriston (December 1, 2010). "Transformer Will Show Video Art That National Portrait Gallery Took Down". Washington City Paper. Retrieved December 7, 2010.
- "National Portrait Gallery censorship controversy: Artist projects film on portrait gallery, recreating '89 protest". Capital Bay. Archived from the original on July 8, 2011. Retrieved December 3, 2010.
- "Silent March Held To Protest Controversial Film's Removal From National Portrait Gallery". WUSA9.com. Archived from the original on December 3, 2010. Retrieved December 3, 2010.
- Jessica Roake (December 2, 2010). "What Else Is in the National Portrait Gallery's "Offensive" Gay Show?". The Awl. Retrieved December 2, 2010.
- "Protestors banned from Smithsonian after playing video on iPad". The Washington Post. April 13, 2010. Retrieved December 7, 2010.
- "Portrait Gallery Censorship: Can you REALLY be 'banned for life' from the Smithsonian?", TBDArts, December 6, 2010
- Green, Tyler (December 9, 2010). "NPG commissioner resigns to protest removal". Modern Art Notes. Archived from the original on March 13, 2012. Retrieved June 27, 2012.
- Taylor, Kate (December 17, 2010). "Canadian Museum Backs Smithsonian Protest". The New York Times.
- 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.
- Taylor, Kate (December 15, 2010). "Exhibit's Curators Criticize Controversial Art's Removal". The New York Times.
- 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. Archived from the original on April 27, 2012. Retrieved June 27, 2012.
- Rosenbaum, Lee (December 21, 2010). ""Don't Ask, Don't Tell": A Useful Policy for the "Hide/Seek" Show at National Portrait Gallery". The Huffington Post.
- Wallin, Yasha (December 21, 2010). "Hide/Seek Protest in New York". Art in America. Retrieved June 27, 2012.
- "Hundreds in NYC Protest Hide/Seek Censorship". Band of Thebes. December 20, 2010. Retrieved June 27, 2012.
- Kennicott, Philip (December 16, 2010). "Video outcry flares anew". The Washington Post.
- "Large crowd of Houston art lovers protest Smithsonian censorship of A Fire in My Belly". CultureMap Houston. December 15, 2010. Retrieved June 27, 2012.
- "Hide/Seek – An evening with David C. Ward Historian, National Portrait Gallery; Curator, Hide/Seek". The Theater J Blog. December 16, 2010. Retrieved June 27, 2012.
- "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.
- "Hide/Seek: National Portrait Gallery Tour with NPG Curator David C. Ward". Washington DC Jewish Community Center. Retrieved June 27, 2012.
- "Center for the Study of Political Graphics". Politicalgraphics.org. September 8, 2011. Archived from the original on August 18, 2012. Retrieved June 27, 2012.
- "Critic's Notebook: Smithsonian chief digging a deeper hole". Los Angeles Times. January 18, 2011.
- "Protest over art censorship will greet Smithsonian chief before L.A. talk Thursday". Los Angeles Times. January 19, 2011.
- Trescott, Jacqueline (January 19, 2011). "Smithsonian Secretary Clough stands by decision to pull 'Fire in My Belly' video". The Washington Post.
- Judkis, Maura (January 20, 2011). "Portrait Gallery Censorship: Smithsonian secretary speaks". @TBD Arts. Retrieved June 27, 2012.
- "Clough Gets Testy at "Hide/Seek" Conference (Call Martin Sullivan!)". Arts Journal. April 27, 2011. Retrieved June 27, 2012.
- "Public Forum "Flashpoints and Fault Lines: Museum Curation and Controversy" April 26–27". Smithsonian Newsdesk. April 28, 2011. Retrieved June 27, 2012.
- Zongker, Brett (April 27, 2011). "Experts debate Smithsonian's response to critics". Washington Times. Associated Press. Retrieved April 24, 2016.
- Rooney, Kara L. (April 2011). "David Wojnarowicz: Spirituality". The Brooklyn Rail.
- "David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night". Whitney Museum of American Art. Retrieved April 24, 2016.
- Thom James (August 19, 2018) http://thequietus.com/articles/25153-david-wojnarowicz-history-keeps-me-awake-at-night-retrospective-whitney-review'.
- "U2 and buffalo photograph | The Pop History Dig". www.pophistorydig.com. Retrieved November 1, 2017.
- "THE BUFFALO JUMP". ANTIQUES FOR THE AGES. November 13, 2014. Retrieved November 1, 2017.
- "Critic's Notebook: Why the Ashes of AIDS Victims on the White House Lawn Matter". VICE News. August 29, 2016.
- "[United in Anger: A History of ACT UP], a film by Jim Hubbard". Interview with David Robinson. August 29, 2016.
- "David Wojnarowicz Exhibition History". New York University Artist Archives - David Wojnarowicz Knowedge Base. July 2018. Retrieved November 20, 2019.
- Aputheatre poster: Close to the Knives Archived February 5, 2007, at the Wayback Machine;
- 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
- David Wojnarowicz Knowledge Base