David Wojnarowicz

American Multimedia Artist

Born: September 14, 1954
Red Bank, NJ
Died: July 22, 1992
New York City, NY
I want to throw up because we're supposed to quietly and politely make house in this killing machine called America and pay taxes to support our own slow murder and I'm amazed we're not running amok in the streets, and that we can still be capable of gestures of loving after lifetimes of all this.

Summary of David Wojnarowicz

David Wojnarowicz's multimedia practice viscerally expressed childhood experiences of abuse, homelessness and prostitution, the struggles of his early adulthood, and later, the horrors of the AIDS crisis. His expansive body of work included painting, installation, and collages, film, music, performance and searing prose and memoir. Maturing as an artist in the downtown New York of the 1980s he is associated with multiple artistic and cultural movements, including the East Village Art scene, the Cinema of Transgression, ACT-UP and Gran Fury. His forthright engagement with his own sexuality and the political fury that bubbled beneath much of his work led to several clashes with the forces of censorship and repression.

Wojnarowicz's later work is now widely recognized as one of the most articulate and righteously angry responses to the AIDS crisis in the US. Since his death in 1992 of AIDS related illness his work has become an important touchstone for still wounded communities and new generations unfamiliar with the horrors of the time. But the threat of censorship still falls over his work, with right-wing politicians and religious groups still calling for its removal from federally funded institutions.


Progression of Art


Arthur Rimbaud in New York (Times Square)

In Arthur Rimbaud in New York, the artist photographed several friends wearing a mask of the French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud in locations around the city. Across the series the Rimbaud figure is shown standing on the street, masturbating, shooting up and riding the subway in distinctive environments, such as Coney Island's Luna Park and Times Square. The image used to make the mask comes from the only photograph depicting the poet, taken by the renowned 19th photographer Etienne Carjat and used on the cover of the collection Illuminations, which Wojnarowicz owned. In 1980 some of these images were published in the SoHo Weekly News, before being later released as an artist's book. They are considered by many historians to be Wojnarowicz's first sustained visual arts project.

Wojnarowicz identified with Rimbaud as a fellow queer artist with experiences of homelessness. The series of images implies that were Rimbaud alive in the late 1970s, he would be in New York engaging in the same activities Wojnarowicz and his friends were at the time, including experimentation with drugs, bohemian living on the Lower East Side, and cruising. They suggest that late 1970s New York City is not too different from Rimbaud's Paris - a city filled with ruins, debt, and violence, whilst also experiencing a creative boom. The anachronism of the series (late 19th century Rimbaud in late 1970s New York) hints at Wojnarowicz's dark sense of humor. The sexual images are also evocative of gay male identity in the city, after Stonewall but before the AIDS crisis began to decimate communities.

Art historian and critic Lucy Lippard notes, whilst "the Rimbaud images are, almost incidentally beautifully composed and shot. (...) they also constitute a kind of objective autobiography, permitting Wojnarowicz simultaneously to be himself and to step outside himself. The masked man records and perhaps exorcises a life his creator was gradually abandoning." Later in his life Wojnarowicz articulated that his work functions as "a compression of historical time and activity".

Gelatin silver print


Gagging Cow at Pier

Gagging Cow at Pier is a cartoonish painting of a cow, completed early in Wojnarowicz's career. Cows were a recurring image in Wojnarowicz's street art, and one that occasionally reappeared in his later, more formal paintings. This mural is representative of his early street work, and foreshadows many of the heavily symbolic representations of political issues (often using animal imagery) that characterized his later period. Wojnarowicz explained the image as a cow 'exploding with fear' as though being led to the slaughter. This suggests that the motif relates to the inevitability of death, and a slow industrial march towards destruction (as in a slaughterhouse). It's cartoon-like rendering also highlights the conventions of mass-produced American culture, which as a largely self-taught artist, Wojnarowicz was more familiar with than other 'high-art' precedents.

Gagging Cow at Pier was painted at the Ward Line Pier, an abandoned industrial building on the Hudson River. Wojnarowicz, together with Mike Bidlo and Louis Fragella, created and collaborated across this pier and others. Wojnarowicz began to make work here alongside his early gallery shows, as both an intervention in the city and a repudiation of the idea that art happens only in assigned spaces. Although these buildings, now often collectively referred to as 'the piers,' are seen today as a site of artistic freedom and experimentation, it was also a dangerous area. The piers were the ideal site for cruising, illegal parties, and the use of drugs. Wojnarowicz first visited the piers whilst cruising, and the sexual charge of the space was an important motivating factor in his artworks there. When talking about this area, Wojnarowicz recalled "What I loved about them was that they were about as far away from civilization as I could walk, and I really loved that sense of detachment. It was like sitting with the entire city at your back and looking across the river." The remaining piers were demolished by the mid-1980s.

Industrial paint on walls/photograph: archival pigment print from slide - NYU Downtown Fales Library


A Fire in My Belly

A Fire in My Belly may refer to several unfinished films by the artist, or several versions of a film that was not totally completed. Two cuts by Wojnarowicz exist (a six and thirteen-minute edit), along with several other repurposings of the same footage. These include its use in the live performance ITSOFOMO, photographic stills taken directly from the Super 8 film in the Ant Series (1988-89) and it's appearance in Rosa Von Praunheim's documentary SILENCE=DEATH (1990).

The footage includes images from Wonarowicz's 1986 trip to Mexico, in which scenes of violence are juxtaposed with puppets, tarot cards, toys and other ephemera. Amongst those scenes are bull and cock fights, lucha libre, and people fist fighting on the streets. The footage also includes beggars on the streets of Mexico city, Aztec ruins and tourists. Wojnarowicz appears sewing two halves of a loaf of bread together, as well as his mouth, an image which would later become one of the strongest images linked to ACT-UP's Silence = Death campaign. Although often seen within the context of Wojnarowicz's later activism in relation to the AIDS crisis, the original edits of the film predate both his diagnosis and Hujar's death. Wojnarowicz himself suggested the film 'deals with ancient myth and it's modern counterpart. It explores structures of power and control'. It expresses his dissatisfaction with societal control (emblemized by the clocks and money also pictured swarmed with ants) and harkens back to an earlier ways of living before industrialization and capitalist structures dominated people's lives. Mexico stands in as a 'primitive' (as Wojnarowicz described it) civilization, one that whilst harsh is not estranged from the natural world, and human anger and aggression.

A new edit of this footage (one which foregrounded its resonance to the AIDS crisis) was presented at the exhibition Hide/Seek at the National Portrait Gallery in 2010, igniting another censorship scandal almost twenty years after the artist's death. The Catholic League, a religious lobbying organization, objected to the image of ants crawling over a cheap plastic crucifix placed on the ground, which they claimed was anti-Catholic 'hate speech'. Despite the support of many artists and the curators, A Fire in My Belly was removed from Hide/Seek exhibition due to political pressure, with accusations of censorship played out in the arts media. Many influential art world figures came out against the removal of the film, with the artist AA Bronson demanding that his work was removed from the exhibition in solidarity. Several board members resigned, and both the Robert Mapplethorpe and Andy Warhol foundations announced they would no longer support exhibitions at the Smithsonian.

Super 8mm film - NYU Downtown Fales Library



Fire belongs to a series of paintings each relating to one of the four elements: fire, water, earth, and air. The paintings incorporate printed material found by the artist such as maps and flyers. In the case of Fire, a few Spanish words can be seen of the poster that forms its base. Many of the elements in this work (volcanos, maps, devils and hearts) recur in Wojnarowicz's work. By tearing maps, for example, Wojnarowicz attempted to "erase borders; borders create ownership and wars." Wojnarowicz found inspiration in his dreams, writing them down almost every morning. Fire is a painting of free and associative symbolism, not bound to formal conventions of the art market or academia. In Wojnarowicz's own words "I am beginning to believe that one of the last frontiers left for radical gesture is the imagination." Echoing fellow East Village artists, its visual vocabulary is one grounded in comic books and advertising, whilst its background on posters and flyers suggests graffiti, as though the work has been painted on a wall. Although grouped into four quadrants, symbols interact with the other imagery around it, the hand, heart and brain forming a triangle of body parts across the center of the painting. The use of animal images like the gorilla, snake and beetle, are again also part of the artist's personal imagery, reflecting his interest and collection of small plastic toys collected on his travels.

Wojnarowicz had travelled to Mexico before starting this painting with his collaborator Tommy Turner. As also embodied in other works he was fascinated by Mexico, seeing it as free from the restrictions of 1980s America - "Going south of the border I found myth to still be very much alive and with it the sense of connection to the ground people walked on... Popular culture still carries the most spiritual reverberation. As adults we are pressured to leave myth and thus spirituality behind..."

Acrylic and pasted paper on wood, two panels - The Museum of Modern Art, New York


Untitled (Buffalo)

This photograph is a tightly framed close up of a diorama at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. It was taken during one of Wojnarowicz many road trips across the country, and the image depicts a herd of buffalo falling off a cliff to their deaths. This image was later used as the cover artwork for the single 'One' by Irish rock band U2.

In its original context, the image illustrates the Native American hunting method of driving buffalo over a cliff edge in order to collect the meat below. However for the artist it was a metaphor for the "impeding collision contained in this acceleration of speed within the structures of civilization." The uniqueness of this work relies in how the artist appropriates the didacticism of a diorama to confront death in a tragic manner. The photograph was taken in the year of Wojnarowicz's diagnosis, giving an added resonance to the inevitable tumble off the cliff shown. It might be interpreted as both a general and a personal symbol of hopelessness, with both the buffalo's and artist's fate already defined. It also relates once again to a pre-industrial civilisation, a form of living off the land, required only to do what was needed to survive that was now no longer possible.

Platinum print


Untitled (Peter Hujar)

One of Wojnarowicz's most painfully raw works, Untitled (Peter Hujar) portrays the artist's friend and mentor immediately after his death. Hujar, who was a photographer, died of AIDS-related illness in 1987. Wojnarowicz took 23 photos of Hujar in the moments after his death, with the number a symbolic gesture. Wojnarowicz later wrote on the envelope containing the contact sheets "23 photos of Peter, 23 genes in a chromosome, Room 1423." As noted by Wojnarowicz biographer, Cynthia Carr "he associated that number with the evolution of consciousness." These photographs include Hujar's lifeless feet, prematurely-aged hand, and unresponsive face. Hujar's open mouth and half-closed eyes suggest the moment in which life and death meet. Like many of his later paintings, the images are arranged in a grid, the layout almost suggesting a narrative - a pan from head, to hands to feet. Hujar's gauntness and wasted appearance is in sharp contrast to Wojnarowicz's other depictions of him in his work, such as the painted portrait Hujar Dreaming/Yukio Mishima: St Sebastian (1982).

These uncanny images became a sad yet iconic portrait of the AIDS crisis, ones with strong similarities to other deathbed portraits of those who died due to AIDS. AA Bronson's Felix Partz, June 5, 1985 is similar in execution, for example. Bronson would later publicly support Wojnarowicz in censorship struggles. There is also a resemblance between Untitled (Peter Hujar), and later works such as Andres Serrano's Blood Transfusion Resulting in AIDS (1992) from his Morgue series and Therese Frare's David Kirby on his deathbed, Ohio (1990). This not only underscores the destructive power of AIDS, but also signifies the totemic power of the deathbed portrait to artists responding to the AIDS crisis, forcing those previously ignoring or attempting to discount the realities of the pandemic to confront the realities of death. Several instances of ACT-UP activity similarly sought to foreground the corporeal significance of death to a society not used to it.

Hujar's death triggered Wojnarowicz's activism, and in the five years that separated their deaths, Wojnarowicz was able to use his rage to successfully raise awareness for the AIDS crisis. French Philosopher and Psychotherapist Felix Guattari writes, "his is revolt against death and the deadly passivity with which society deals with this phenomenon gives a deeply emotional character to his life work, which literally transcends the style of passivity and abandon of the entropic slope of fate which characterizes this present period."

Gelatin silver print triptych - The Estate of David Wojnarowicz, P.P.O.W. Gallery


Untitled (One day this kid...)

Untitled (One day this kid...) is a work in which Wojnarowicz's writings and visual art work appear alongside each other. The boy depicted is the artist at around ten years old. The image of this pre-pubescent freckled boy comes from his school photo and evokes a sense of nostalgia, whilst the text is divided in two columns and written in future tense. It discusses the challenges he will face as a homosexual in America, repeatedly opening with 'One day'. Statements like 'One day politicians will enact legislation against this kid', culminate in a list of condemnatory punishments meted out to people who are homosexual, concluding with the explanation that it will all happen because 'he desires to place his naked body on the body of another boy'.

The work is a powerful condemnation of homophobia. The viewer is confronted with the idea that this innocent child's fate will be filled with suffering due to society's prejudice and ignorance. Untitled (One day this kid...) is also a reminder to people indifferent to the suffering of those affected by the AIDS epidemic that victims were children, like anyone else. After encountering the work for the first time, critic Maurice Berger wrote: "the juxtaposition of freckle-faced, jug eared kid with the poisonous reality of homophobia moved me deeply. And while I have been 'out' for almost a decade, the work helped me to accept a part of my queer self that I had never before owned; the gay bashed, self-hating kid that struggled to survive." Although this biographical work is distressing, it might also be read as heroic, highlighting the boy's fight for his right to speak up and his martyrdom.

A reinterpretation of this work by later queer artist Jason Wooden extends the narrative, suggesting that mainstream gay culture is insufficiently attentive to the issues it raises and has largely forgotten the anger Wojnarowicz channels here. Wooden's critique suggests that Wojnarowicz laid down his life 'so that their [mainstream gay culture] pride will be signified by the sound of a thousand shrill whistles as they push and step over the unconscious bodies of their brethren'.

Photostat (edition of 10) - At various collections, including Jersey City Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, Wadsworth Athenaeum, Smith College, and Whitney Museum of American Art

Biography of David Wojnarowicz


David Wojnarowicz, originally known as David Voyna, was born in New Jersey into a dysfunctional working-class family. His father, Ed Wojnarowicz, was a seaman in a passenger's ship and a troubled man - an alcoholic and a gambler, verbally and physically abusive towards his wife and children. David's mother, Dolores McGuiness, was Australian who married Ed in Sydney in 1948 when she was 16 and he was 26. Together, Ed and Dolores had three children, Steven, Pat, and David. Several instances of abuse during their childhood, such as Ed killing and feeding the children their pet rabbit, would appear later in Wojnarowicz's writing and film (You Killed Me First, 1985).

Ed and Dolores' turbulent marriage lasted eight years. After their split, the children moved many times. They lived with Dolores in New Jersey, with Ed's family in Michigan, back in New Jersey with Ed and his new family - wife Marion and their young children; Peter and Linda - and then in New York City with Dolores. While Ed would get drunk and hurt the children, Dolores neglected them and would hide their existence from friends and boyfriends. At times, she would run into someone she knew on the streets and pretend that she was not with Pat, Steven or David, introducing them as her 'little friends'.

Both Steven and David were poor students in high school, while Pat was dedicated to her work and studies. Sometime during her late teens, she was expelled from Dolores' apartment in Hell's Kitchen, eventually becoming a successful model and moving to Paris. Steven was sent to an orphanage. David's dysfunctional family life resulted in him spending most of his adolescence hustling on the streets. Isolated from his siblings and barely supervised, David had his first sexual experiences with a 20-year-old mentally handicapped man named Anthony. He occasionally returned to his mother's apartment to shower and sleep. By the time David was 16, he started prostituting himself in Times Square. By 1971, at age 17, Wojnarowicz had cut ties with his mother and was living on the streets full time, sleeping in halfway houses and squats. During this time he was raped by multiple older clients, malnourished and in dire need of dental care.

Early Training and Work

In 1973 Wojnarowicz was admitted to a halfway house and began working at Pottery Barn, bringing a measure of stability to his rootless and erratic life. There he met John Ensslin, a young writer who would introduce Wojnarowicz to New York's underground literary scene. Wojnarowicz spent most of his early career focusing on writing and occasionally drawings, moving on to work in bookstores around the city. In 1975 he embarked upon a cross country hitchhiking and freight hopping adventure. During this trip, he visited sites significant to the Beat movement including City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. In 1976 his father Ed Wojnarowicz committed suicide, although he was almost completely estranged from his children.

In 1978, Wojnarowicz visited Paris to visit his sister Pat and fell in love for the first time. Jean Pierre Delage was a hairstylist and their relationship endured sporadically for several years. Wojnarowicz returned to New York in 1979, where his artistic focus started to shift towards the visual arts. It was also around that time that Wojnarowicz began to work as a busboy at downtown nightclubs in Manhattan. At Danceteria, he became great friends with the artists Zoe Leonard, who worked at the coat check, and Keith Haring who was also a busboy. Leonard later dedicated her seminal work Strange Fruit (1992) to Wojnarowicz. With two of his colleagues, Wojnarowicz formed a band named 3 Teens Kill 4, after a tabloid headline ('3 Teens Kill 4: No Motive'). Wojnarowicz sang, manipulated tape loops and other recordings, and contributed lyrics. After three years, he left the band to fully pursue his career in the visual arts.

Mature Period

In 1981 Wojnarowicz met the artist Kiki Smith who became a great friend, as well as the photographer Peter Hujar. Hujar and Wojnarowicz's relationship is hard to define after it moved beyond their initial sexual connection. The relationship developed into a mentor-like interaction, a close-knit friendship between two people who deeply cared for each other. Hujar and Wojnarowicz shared terrible childhoods, and Hujar, older and already a successful photographer, helped Wojnarowicz navigate the art world. Wojnarowicz later said "everything I made, I made for Peter."

As a Lower East Side artist, Wojnarowicz had issues with the elitism of New York's main art galleries. In protest he dumped cow bones at the stairs of Leo Castelli's Gallery, one of the most important dealers at that time. Similarly, after not being selected for a show at PS1 Wojnarowicz created cock-a-bunnies - cockroaches with added bunny ears and tiny cotton ball tails - that he set free during the opening night. Alongside his guerilla interventions, in 1982 he also started painting inside derelict buildings along the Hudson river. Artists from the same generation, such as Gordon Matta-Clark were also working in these abandoned buildings. It is important to note that by the early 1980s New York had amassed a huge amount of municipal debt, with crime, drugs and poverty high all over the city.

By 1985 Wojnarowicz's career was firmly established as part of the East Village Art movement in downtown New York. Exhibiting at Civilian Warfare gallery, he began selling work and receiving publicity. In 1985 he also began to collaborate with film directors Richard Kern and Tommy Turner on a film project, Where Evil Dwells. This film was focused on Ricky Kasso, a teenager that killed his friend before committing suicide, accused of doing so as part of a Satantic or occult ritual. Wojnarowicz personally identified with Kasso's neglected childhood, although the film (as with many of his film projects) was not completed. Both Kern and Turner were regular drug users, as was Wojnarowicz at this time (although not a heroin addict like Kern and Turner). Hujar was strongly against this experimentation, telling Wojnarowicz that if he was going to keep up with his self-destructive behavior he would break off their relationship.

In 1986 Tom Rauffenbart came into Wojnarowicz's life, after they met in the basement of the Bijou Theater, a porno theater on 3rd Avenue in Manhattan. Rauffenbart worked for the city of New York in the Child Welfare department, and they remained together until the end of Wojnarowicz's life. In the same year, Hujar was diagnosed as HIV positive.

The AIDS epidemic was devastating New York at this time, killing many of Wojnarowicz's friends. Ignorance and prejudice was rife, and the government was doing very little to develop effective treatment or provide support to those suffering. Hujar's diagnosis (and death in 1987) is widely considered as the moment when Wojnarowicz's work turned to engage directly with the AIDS crisis. This was true of both his personal work, and marked the start of his involvement with ACT UP, which fought for awareness and a coherent political response to the crisis. Less than a month after Hujar's death, Rauffenbart was also diagnosed as HIV positive. Wojnarowicz received his own diagnosis as HIV positive in Spring 1988.

Late Period

In 1989 Wojnarowicz's friend, photographer Nan Goldin, was curating a show about the epidemic titled Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing. He was invited to participate in the exhibition and the catalogue. His text Postcards from America, X-Rays from Hell, printed in the exhibition catalogue, took aim at powerful politicians: "At least in my ungoverned imagination, I can fuck somebody without a rubber, or I can in the privacy of my skull, douse [Senator Jesse] Helms with a bucket of gasoline and set his putrid ass on fire or throw Congressman William Dannemeyer off the Empire State building." In the same text, Wojnarowicz calls Cardinal John O'Connor a "fat cannibal from the house of walking swastikas." The text caused a political backlash from both politicians and religious leaders, eventually leading the National Endowment for the Arts to withdraw funding. After significant outcry, funding was eventually restored on the condition that it did not fund the catalogue. After this episode, Wojnarowicz became known and hated by right wing and religious groups in America.

His 1990 retrospective Tongues of Flame became an issue when Reverend Donald Wildmon, who was a lobbyist for the right-wing religious group the American Family Association, mailed cropped and enlarged images of sex acts from Wojnarowicz's Sex Series (1988-89) to every US congressman. Wojnarowicz filed suit against the American Family Association, stating that his images were mutilated and denied their proper context. He won the case and was awarded a symbolic $1 in damages by the court. This court case was part of the 'culture wars' of the 1980s and 1990s in the US, where right-wing politicians (particularly Senator Jesse Helms) led an effort to defund the National Endowment for the Arts and defame work they deemed to be harmful to public health. This included work that featured depictions of homosexuality, female agency, alternative lifestyles and subcultural activity.

In 1992, after months of deteriorating health, Wojnarowicz died at age 37 in his apartment with his partner Rauffenbart and his sister Pat at his side. A political funeral was held, in which protesters marched through the East Village with a banner declaring "DAVID WOJNAROWICZ, 1954-1992, DIED OF AIDS DUE TO GOVERNMENT NEGLECT." As a way to comply with his statement that his body should be dumped on the steps of a government building, Rauffenbart joined ACT UP's second 'Ashes Action' in 1996, throwing some of Wojnarowicz's ashes onto the White House lawn.

The Legacy of David Wojnarowicz

Many artists have since been influenced by Wojnarowicz. Formally his repurposing of stencils and other street art tropes is influential, as well as his incorporation of photographic images into paintings. Artists such as Shannon Ebner share his use of high contrast images of dereliction, whilst Henrik Olesen's work reflect Wojnarowicz's juxtapositions of imagery and queer aesthetics. Zoe Strauss and Wolfgang Tillmans are also influenced by Wojnarowicz's rawness and unabashed exploration of sexuality. As noted by critic Lucy Lippard, "his work was made defiantly outside of contemporary art history, even as it helped form it."

His work is hugely important in terms of artistic representation of the AIDS crisis, and many of the artists of that era, including AA Bronson, Felix Gonzales-Torres, Keith Haring and Nan Goldin cite him as an influence (or direct collaborator). His writing and performance work is similarly cited as incredibly influential by Ron Athey, Karen Finley and other performance artists engaging in social critique. His work is passionate and provocative, inviting the viewer to rethink his/her own prejudices and taboos. As a figure he remains totemic of personal integrity, righteous anger and unapologetic queerness to his devoted admirers.

Even after his death, he continues to be controversial, as exemplified by the 2010 exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture hosted by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., in which A Fire in My Belly (1986-87) was censored as a result of political pressure from religious and right-wing groups.

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