by Jeremy Lybarger
East Was Eden
Fire in the Belly
(Bloomsbury USA, 2012)
“My eyes have always been advertisements for an early death.”
—David Wojnarowicz, The Waterfront Journals
When he died in 1992, David Wojnarowicz was given a political funeral in the streets of New York. The Marys, a coalition of AIDS activists, shepherded the silent processional through the East Village, the neighborhood where Wojnarowicz had lived, worked, and, like so many other luminaries of the downtown art scene, succumbed to AIDS. His was not only the first such political funeral, but also the realization of a vision described in his now landmark essay “Postcards from America: X-rays from Hell”:
I imagine what it would be like if friends had a demonstration each time a lover or a friend died of AIDS. I imagine 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 D.C. 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. It would be comforting to see those friends, neighbors, lovers and strangers mark time and place and history in such a public way.
Here you can sense the tension that strobes through all of Wojnarowicz’s work, whether literary or visual—the bursts of empathy, outrage, and a kind of combative ethics. In his formulation, mourning is a guerilla act. The centerpiece of his own memorial was a banner declaring DAVID WOJNAROWICZ, 1954–1992, DIED OF AIDS DUE TO GOVERNMENT NEGLECT. As far as epitaphs go, it’s about as true and insufficient as they come.
Cynthia Carr’s Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz is the first extensive biography of this iconoclastic artist. His work—raw, dreamlike, erotic—is harder to classify than that of contemporaries like Jeff Koons, Keith Haring, and Cindy Sherman. Even Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose primitive chic aesthetic mined a similar vein of sex and drugs, feels more cohesive. Wojnarowicz’s wayward mediums—photography, sculpture, collage, painting, graffiti, music, film—preclude an easy summing up. His iconography borrows elements from pop art, surrealism, neo-expressionism, postmodernism, and performance art, begging the question: What, exactly, is his style? But perhaps the real reason he remains an overshadowed figure has to do with waffling attitudes about the public role of art. For better or worse, Wojnarowicz is best remembered today as the enfant terrible of arts funding, with his role as culture warrior tending to eclipse serious analysis of his work.
Carr first met Wojnarowicz in 1982 while working at Artforum. He came to the office late one night hoping to score cash from one of her colleagues. “He made a strong impression quickly,” she writes, and it’s worth pointing out here one of the great pleasures of Carr’s book: her personal relationship with Wojnarowicz, which evaded the melodrama he inflicted on so many other confidants. Their friendship intensified after she interviewed him for a 1990 Village Voice cover story. During the final months of his life, he would call her to hash over memories, art, the ghosts erupting from AIDS wards all across America. He gave her a Leica camera that had belonged to Peter Hujar, his former lover and mentor also lost to AIDS. Carr’s name also appears in the acknowledgments of Wojnarowicz’s memoir, Close to the Knives.
Wojnarowicz was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, in 1954. His father was, among other things, an alcoholic and a merchant seaman; his mother, Dolores, was a phantom snagged on dreams of making it as a model in New York. His childhood was a Dickensian blur of beatings and abandonment. Dolores had no qualms about locking her children in a summer-hot attic for hours while she went out. His father’s violence was more overt: “In 1955, he threw a mirror at Dolores, cutting her on her face and head. In 1956, he came home drunk, chased Dolores upstairs, then closed all the windows and turned on the gas. She heard a crash and came downstairs to find [him] on the floor, laughing.”
In the mid-’60s, Wojnarowicz and his siblings decamped to their mother’s one-bedroom apartment on Eighth Avenue. It wasn’t an ideal arrangement. There were numerous blowups, and, as Carr discreetly notes: “Dolores had put a life together that didn’t exactly jibe with full-time motherhood.” Wojnarowicz started skipping class to hustle in Times Square and Central Park, badlands of 24 hour porn, winos, junkies, grifters trolling the neon strip for easy marks. His real education began here, with lessons in the metaphysics of sex.
Wojnarowicz is often lumped in with other gay New York artists such as Mapplethorpe, Haring, and Hujar, but his iterations of sexuality are in some ways more fragile than theirs. For him, sex—especially anonymous sex—is a meditation on mortality. His descriptions of cruising the Christopher Street pier have an abstract, almost Blakean otherness:
Passing doorways in slow motion, passing through shadowed walls and along hallways, seeing briefly framed in the recesses of a room a series of men in various stages of leaning. Seeing the pale flesh of the frescoes come to life: the smooth turn of hands over bodies, the taut lines of limbs and mouths, the intensity of the energy bringing others down the halls where guided by little or no sounds they pass silently over the charred floors.
His paintings and collages are equally neutral. In place of fucking, we get figuration; instead of cocks, conceptualism. Even his comparatively frank “Sex Series,” eight photomontages featuring vintage porn cameos over desaturated landscapes, has a nearly forensic chill. Writing in Artforum, David Deitcher noted: “Motion is of primary importance in these X-ray visions of a world gone awry, and a discomfiting sense of time’s accelerating passage emerges as its coefficient … that an image of an embrace should be juxtaposed with one of nature out of control underscores the emotional sense of peril and ambivalence that suffuses the entire series.” When contrasted with Mapplethorpe’s mannered S-and-M portraits and anthropomorphous flowers, Wojnarowicz’s imagery seems almost extraterrestrial. “The pier denizens were more than sexual objects,” Carr writes. They were disembodied forms suspended in tableaus of expectancy and desire. Wojnarowicz describes them as “a physical rejection of society’s priorities,” lending them the beatific martyrdom of a Genet antihero.
This is the key to sex in Wojnarowicz’s work: It’s never only about pleasure and is almost always a parable of isolation. Consider this description of prowling the waterfront warehouses one rain-tattered night: “I suddenly felt a hand on my crotch in the darkness and turned toward the dark void where the face should be, stepping back as I did so. The hand belonged to a small, dwarfish man.” Elsewhere Wojnarowicz writes of “losing [himself] in the language of…movements,” hinting at the piecemeal grammar of bodies edging each other towards orgasm. His journals are rife with inventories of hands and arms, mouths and tongues, catcalls delivered sotto voce from the shadows; sex is a compilation of fragments rather than an ecstatic whole. This is often represented literally in his paintings, where truncated chalklines masturbate or sodomize each other over dissociated backdrops. In an untitled collage from the early ’90s, two footless, infrared figures bareback over a map, a juxtaposition that’s simultaneously personal and universal, bestial and abstract. By presenting only the outlines of bodies—usually damaged or incomplete—Wojnarowicz rids sex of its specificity, perhaps even its intimacy. His figures recede into their own dreamscapes, enacting an ageless mythological cycle at odds with our constructed world.
After dropping out of high school at 16, Wojnarowicz spent a few years shuttling between shelters and halfway houses, living on the streets, hitchhiking—in short, doing everything he could to evade the chokehold of a conventional life. “I need constant intense experience so that I feel I’m living and alive … as opposed to dreary existence of stabilization. But for whom? … Who am I illuminating with my writings—myself and a handful of known people or what?” He wrote this in Paris, where he had gone in 1978 at the invitation of his sister. Although the experiment abroad was disastrous in many respects, it did lay the groundwork for his creative breakthrough. Shortly after returning to the States in 1979, he embarked on “Rimbaud in New York,” a series in which Wojnarowicz and friends donned a mask of the French poet and posed against several iconic New York backdrops: Coney Island, Chinatown, the West Side piers, the subway. As Carr points out: “Rimbaud was a kind of lodestar for David … they’d been born a hundred years apart … both were deserted by their fathers and unhappy with their mothers. Both ran away as teenagers. Both were impoverished and unwilling to live by the rules. Both were queer. Both tried to wring visionary work out of suffering.”
Carr views the Rimbaud series as manifesting the “compression of time,” and indeed the intervening decades offer plenty of pathos. What in the 1970s must have felt prankish and provocative now feels apocalyptic. Wojnarowicz’s Rimbaud’s whirlwind through a subterranean New York prefigures the epidemic that would turn the city into a death camp just a few years later. In these photos, the poet’s doppelganger stares at us with a half-accusatory, half-confessional candor, poised against racks of meat, porn theaters, graffitied walls; he shoots heroin in desolate rooms, pisses in a toilet, jerks off. According to a script Wojnarowicz wrote but lacked the funds to realize, Rimbaud’s American odyssey ended with the young poet OD’ing. In reality, Rimbaud died of his incurable disease at age 37. In 1992, Wojnarowicz did the same.
By 1989, nearly 40,000 Americans had died of AIDS. Approximately 20 percent of them lived in New York. As Carr writes:
Every day now began with a look at the obituaries. I could sense the path of the virus around me, the tornado that devastates one house and leaves the next pristine. It was a time to worry about friends—and all the other brilliant, aspiring, wild spirits who’d landed in what we then called “downtown.” We were not prepared to see each other die.
The East Village, in particular, became a kind of macabre pageant. Carr describes encountering an acquaintance on the street and being spooked by how nonchalantly he confessed his diagnosis:
“So how are you?” I finally blurted.
‘Oh, I have AIDS.’ He pointed to his nose. “This is Kaposi’s.”
I grabbed his hand and arm. “Oh, Keith.”
He shrugged off my reaction, completely cheerful.
For Wojnarowicz, the most devastating loss was Peter Hujar, the photographer with whom he forged a profound emotional and philosophical bond. Wojnarowicz froze the moment of Hujar’s 1987 death in his journal: “This is the most important event of my life and my mouth can’t form words and maybe I’m the one who needs words, maybe I’m the one who needs reassurance and all I can do is raise my hands from my sides in helplessness and say, ‘All I want is some sort of grace.’”
David Wojnarowicz was diagnosed with AIDS in the spring of 1988. For the next four years, he was arguably America’s preeminent artist-activist. His visual art, along with his journals and memoirs, candidly evoke what might be termed AIDS consciousness: the dichotomous state in which solipsism and empathy conjoin. Perhaps recognizing this duality in himself, Wojnarowicz writes: “I sometimes feel bad for that other David and can’t believe he is dying.” In a sense, that “other David” became Wojnarowicz’s public agent, exorcizing all of his fury and sorrow, his character assassinations, his scathing political critiques. “He was so comfortable with rage, so accustomed to it, and he could use it as armor or, at least, a mask,” Carr writes.
His armor of rage was tested in 1989. That year Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, Nan Goldin’s exhibition of AIDS-themed art, opened at Artists Space. Wojnarowicz was commissioned to write an essay for the catalogue. The resulting text, “Postcards from America: X-rays from Hell,” became the battleground upon which the National Endowment for the Arts, the Catholic church, and the American Family Association waged scorched-earth campaigns against public funding for artists. Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” had incited a similar uproar earlier that spring, heralding conservatives, five-alarm crackdown on immoral art nationwide. Wojnarowicz’s hitlist of bigoted and homophobic public figures—Senator Al D’Amato, Senator Jesse Helms, and Cardinal John O’Connor of the New York Archdiocese—still crackles with a nearly Burroughsian acidity: “At least in my ungoverned imagination, I can fuck somebody without a rubber, or I can, in the privacy of my own skull, douse Helms with a bucket of gasoline and set his putrid ass on fire or throw Congressman William Dannemeyer off the Empire State Building.” Cardinal O’Connor is dubbed the “fat cannibal from the house of walking swastikas up on Fifth Avenue.” The furor that engulfed Goldin’s show was just the opening salvo in a culture war that still rages today. In 2010, John Boehner and Eric Cantor decried an exhibition on display in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture included a short Wojnarowicz film, “Fire in My Belly,” which contained close-ups of ants swarming a crucifix. The Catholic League condemned the film as “hate speech,” proving that hell hath no fury like a symbol scorned.
Twenty years after his death, David Wojnarowicz continues to confound. His artistic legacy often feels precarious—the last major retrospective was at the New Museum in 1999—while his activism and political demonstrations have been respectfully remaindered, the stuff of AIDS timelines and oral histories. In his journals, Wojnarowicz pondered his artistic fate: “What is it I want or need?…. I want to create a myth that I can one day become … I want blood in my work.” Thanks to Carr’s meticulous portrait, his work again feels primal, magicked away from the bluster of whatever controversies it provoked. We come away from a book like this with a keen sense of life’s strangeness and haste, its abuses and beauty, its ultimately terrible vanishing.