A personal view of David Wojnarowicz on his would-be 60th birthday (September 14th)
By JOSEPH NECHVATAL, OCT. 2014
The artist and writer David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) lived a wild life and died a harrowing death of AIDS at the early age of 37 after an impressive stretch in AIDS activism and in the defense of freedom of expression. I met him as part of the now mythic East Village art scene that was active between the late 1970s and late 1980s, then a sanctuary for diehard artists and galleries. A period that soon was followed by the neighborhood’s gentrification, along with its art community’s devastation by HIV/AIDS and the national culture wars of the 1990s.
I encountered David’s long face and deep voice for the first time in May 1983 at the Speed Trials noise rock concert series organized by Live Skull members at White Columns. This was just after the famous Noise Fest series there. David and I did the art on the walls for the Speed Trials as an anonymous space share. It was not collaborative. Within it, various performance artists, such as Ilona Granet, intermixed with the live music of The Fall, Beastie Boys, Live Skull, Sonic Youth, Lydia Lunch, Elliott Sharp, Swans and Arto Lindsay.
It had been a pleasant experience working next to him and I remember him from that day as being gentle and pleasant. I had seen David in an exhilarating performance with the noise band 3 Teens Kill 4 at the Pyramid Club, but David had recently left 3 Teens Kill 4. As we walked back from far west Spring Street to the Lower East Side together after completing the installation, we talked about our favorite bookstores and books, about our passion for Arthur Rimbaud and French Symbolist poetry, about the growing nuclear war threat in relation to his stencil street work of the burning building and my nuclear war street posters. Also we spoke about his dumping of a pile of cow bones on the stairs outside of the Leo Castelli Gallery (of that I did not approve). He did not impress me as someone particularly angry - or for that matter as someone into anonymous sex (he exhibited no gay clone cliches, no gay cruising come-ons) - and I was surprised to learn otherwise much later.
However, we did not become close friends and I did not know him in any profound way. He did not participate in the conceptually bent Gallery Nature Morte scene, as I did, nor the more political Colab / ABC No Rio circles that I was active in at the time. But I would see him now and again and say hello at East Village openings or nightclubs.
We next appeared together in the Tellus Audio Cassette Magazine #5-6 - Special Audio Visual Issue (that I co-edited). His admirable noise piece for that issue was a collaboration with Doug Bressler called “American Dreamtime” - that is now archived on the web at Ubuweb.
The next time we spoke was in 1985 at the studio of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders when Timothy photographed us, together with other East Village artists, for "The New Irascibles," cover of Arts Magazine. David was not very cordial that day, as I recall. Yet he seemed still tender, if distant, to me.
Perhaps some aspects of David’s life and work need not to be romanticized. Years later in 1989 he would rage against me for not including his collaborative work on sex and AIDS with Marion Scemama in my show “Erotic America” at Galerie Antoine Candau in Paris (catalogue essay by Eleanor Heartney), comparing me to Hitler. Such is the insufficiency of crowning him with the militant hero persona. My intention for the show was to address the AIDS epidemic with a counter-attack of ecstatic Eros. But perhaps something positive came from David and Marion’s disproval of my choice of not including their work in the show (it was attacked via Marion for ignoring HIV/AIDS in Liberation, the leftist Parisian newspaper, while at the same time being censured by the local police). I learned later that this event inspired David to speak out on HIV/AIDS even more explicitly in his work and activism. This is important to me, as Wojnarowicz’s gay activism is the most important thing I think to cherish about him, as preserved in his many writings and art works dealing with AIDS (certainly not the lousy and nasty death trip stuff he fooled around with as part of the Cinema of Transgression).
It is quite possible that this event nudged me closer to my HIV/AIDS themed Computer Virus Project that began in 1991 (ongoing). I usually attribute the birth of the computer virus project however to my direct experience with, and exposure to, the deadly virus through my relationship to the tormenting AIDS death of Bebe Smith. That and the AIDS death I witnessed of my friend and neighbor the performer Tron Von Hollywood. That period cracked open an emotional range in me between dread for one’s life and happy memories of a fading wild sexual freedom.
Regardless, I had little idea of David’s terrible AIDS background at the time. Not until I read Cynthia Carr book “Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz” did I fully understand. Nor did I know that he had had a harrowing childhood of emotional and physical abusive at the hands of an alcoholic father and distant - soon divorced - mother, or that he was at one time a young gay hustler. On this last point however, Carr points out that even as she was exhaustive about verifying facts about his childhood and his years as a hustler, Wojnarowicz sometimes exaggerated his hustling, for effect.
Equally, I knew nothing of the years Wojnarowicz spent working on poetry before he became an artist. Carr did a remarkable job cataloging David’s early poetic publications and readings. I was well aware of his key relationship to the photographer Peter Hujar, his mentor, but not at all with his longer, if punctuated, relationships with Jean-Pierre Delage and then Tom Rauffenbart - or his hard drug use. Indeed it seems to me that David took the wrong drugs while reading the right books (Jean Genet). Nor did I know of his times spent in Paris.
My aesthetic and political problems with David’s work:
David’s surrealistic imagery is way too blunt for me. His work offers little in stylistic innovation, as it depends on a pretty standard, sub-surreal, technique of collage. Worse, this collage language of deliriousness poetic free association seemed to have opened up too many superficial associations for him and to have closed down his emotional capacity to connect. So his work exudes a mood of sullen dissatisfaction that does not appear helpful in today’s world.
He discovered through French symbolist poetry the freedom of re-aligning thoughts and images, but he never went further in questioning the adequacy of standard representations. He never found the magical capacity of establishing new visual logics through the consolation of patterns. Indeed the pattern of his life was stuttered with violent ruptures and anonymous intimacy.
His work rarely winked or smiled, and I think it was that heavy earnestness about it that repelled me then and now. His compositions are stogy, almost Pre-Columbian in arrangement, and that restricts the heart from joyful leaps. Indeed, his is a mood of one who has embraced ugliness as a state of spiritual disgust. Some of the work is revolting, in the positive sense of the term. But he is too Romantic in the idealized sense. Worse, David standardizes and stereotypes in his work.
Wojnarowicz’s most famous work is his short silent film "Fire in the Belly" which elicited controversy because of an 11-second sequence that featured ants crawling over a crucifix. This is actually pretty tame stuff when compared to some mesmerizing films of Luis Buñuel, such as “L'âge d'Or” (1930).
David’s stated goal was to penetrate life so as to recover what he called the “pre-invented world” - the invented world being what most of us would recognize to be Jean Baudrillard’s simulacrum. It seems he was struggling for a de-simulation art that attempts to re-establish a private critical distance achieved through the challenge of (and disparity between) pleasure and frustration. But for me, David never achieved de-simulation in his work - nor a state of free flowing virtuosity, as did Jean Genet in his writing or as did Rhys Chatham in his post-punk guitar music. I think that perhaps David tried to do too many things: after all, he was a writer, painter, photographer, noise musician, filmmaker, and a performance artist. And so he was at times only sufficient where he might have soared if he had been committed to a craft. For example his foray into the Cinema of Transgression with the 28 minute film “Where Evil Dwells” (1985) (with Tommy Turner) then as now appears merely juvenile.
Also his writing style never developed. And even as his work is rightly heralded in gay history and queer cultural criticism for its fearlessness, it does not open an insightful window for me into gay imagination the way Pierre Molinier does. (Some of my gay friends disagree with me here.) And that insight never came through looking at his work, or reading his texts. I could not understand his deepest cravings. Clearly he was not in search of fame or deep love, not social acceptance or grace, and not, apparently, even sexual fulfillment. His ranting and raging coupled with cold spontaneous anonymous encounters are the kind of communication I now associate with the angry gibberings of Rush Limbaugh and the cold sexual exploits of Catherine Millet as recounted in her book “The Sexual Life of Catherine M” and/or more tragically the sex life of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. They all lack tender intimacy. Perhaps David’s most secret desire was to be a porn star in his own private Idaho.
I wish to remind you that Barak Obama won re-election for president in 2012 and that his late-term embrace of same-sex marriage seems to have resulted only in political benefit with no political impairment. Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin became the first openly gay person elected to the Senate. New laws to legalize both same-sex marriage and marijuana consumption were enacted in multiple states with little controversy. In short, progressive social liberalism was triumphant and crippled America's far right wing. All of this was unthinkable in the days of David Wojnarowicz. So next I will consider David’s work in light of a new America he never imaged possible: a highly diverse and broadly progressive America: multiracial, multi-ethnic, global in outlook and moving beyond centuries of racial, sexual, marital and religious tradition: perfectly symbolized by Obama’s physicality, a physicality that personifies a state of varied mutability.
The craziness of David’s old America, with its violently apocalyptic coloration, is a world I think that no longer is applicable to progressives, but rather typifies the raging, dying far right. (Are we not physically outgrowing divisions between “us” and “them”?) Moderately liberal multicultural youth around the world, I think, are unable, unwilling and uninterested in indulging in such us/them concepts and tactics. I don’t think they even see them outside of class differences.
The importance of David’s work rests not just in the place it will take in LGBT history and queer cultural criticism, but in the place it should take in American history and the larger, general discipline of art history. I think that the aggressive warring craziness of 1980s America that we see in David’s work is happily now irrelevant and hurt his art. There are no buried complex themes in his work that I can find relevant to today. David’s cold spontaneous anonymous self-centered world is gone. As I suggest above, it had, bizarrely, become the domain of the raging aggressive, abusive and paranoid world of the far right, but that world is in the process of disintegration. This is basically the problem I had then (and have now) with neo-expressionism’s valuation of the artist ego.
So remember and love David Wojnarowicz on his 60th birthday but as a cautionary tale, as we Americans move ahead without him and his cold rage. WM
Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into Noise was published by the University of Michigan Library's Scholarly Publishing Office in conjunction with the Open Humanities Press. He exhibited in Noise, a show based on his book, as part of the Venice Biennale 55, and is artistic director of the Minóy Punctum Book/CD project.view all articles from this author