Sites of Attraction: David Wojnarowicz at the Whitney
David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Up at Night at the Whitney Museum of American Art
July 13 to September 30, 2018
99 Gansevoort Street, between 10th Avenue and Washington Street
New York City, whitney.org
In a counter-intuitive approach, the exhibition “David Wojnarorwicz: History Keeps Me Up at Night” opens with the photographic series, “Arthur Rimbaud in New York,” (1979) a group of black and white photographs. Wojnarowicz disguises himself as the poet Arthur Rimbaud with a mask of his own creation and takes it on a journey through New York City. “I fashioned a mask of Rimbaud and brought him on a narrative trail – the places I haunted when living on the streets as a teen as well as the industrial sites that were like technological meadows where I could place New York City at my back,” he wrote.
These various locations that have drastically transformed over the past twenty-five years. Ironically, Rimbaud/ Wojnarowicz finds himself at several sites near to the current Whitney Museum, an area that was formerly operational in its now quaint name, the Meatpacking District, as well as a pick up zone for transvestite prostitution. The nearby piers were once a gay male sex destination. Other rapidly disappearing haunts, such a Greek coffee shop, graffitied interiors of subway cars, and an extremely seedy Times Square, are remnants of a lost cityscape. One notable image has him by a warehouse wall graffitied with the phrase “The Silence of Marcel Duchamp is Overrated.” Central to the installation of the series is the actual Rimbaud mask, encased in glass on a vertical axis, mounted on a pedestal. The mask, to some extent like the series itself, begs the question: artwork or archival object?
In the same gallery there are images that include other iconic gay literary figures, William S. Burroughs and Jean Genet amongst them, in works such as the photographic collage Untitled (Genet After Brassaï) (1979). The opening exhibition wall text is juxtaposed with a large-scale self-portrait of the artist that combines photography, painting and collage. The self-portrait contains leitmotifs such as maps, flames, globes, clocks and a fleeing man engulfed in flames that appear in numerous artworks throughout the exhibition.
Wojnarowicz’s oeuvre encompasses multiple media and genres: painting, sculpture, drawings, photography, installation and performance, as well as film, music, and literature. The stunning Gallery 7 contains the four remarkable paintings from his series on the four elements first exhibited at Gracie Mansion Gallery in the East Village in 1987. The layered imagery is powerfully compelling, bringing the viewer into multiple visual and symbolic readings of earth, air, water and fire.
Wojnarowicz’s prolific output is well organized by the curators in bringing together disparate works from his curtailed career (he died in 1992, aged 37). The later flower series (1990) includes the mixed media painting History Keeps Me Up at Night, revealing another innovation of the artist in terms of layering techniques. The series consists of painted (phallic) flowers with square cutouts and red yarn sutured in small black and white photographs. The floral images are overlaid with text blocks of the artist’s memoirist writings silk-screened onto the picture plane, the texts often referencing the AIDS crisis, his own activism, and personal, everyday experience. Sculptures of reconfigured globes are exhibited in the same gallery linking personal reflection to a geo-political context. Notable is Wojnarowicz’ use of black and white photography in multiple images that are individually framed within a single composition such as Spirituality (For Paul Thek) (1988-89).
Another gallery is filled with truncated bust-like sculptures both painted and/or covered with various materials such as maps, masks, collage, and paper currency. Despite working in the heyday of post-modern appropriation, Wojnarowicz consistently avoided seductively slick advertising materials, preferring, for example, to utilize cheap silk-screen posters that advertise food sale specials in grocery stores windows. These crude, ephemeral advertising posters serve as canvases on which the artist paints graphic stenciled images.
A prescient figure in his use of photography and innovative painting techniques, Wojnarowicz is all the more remarkable for harnessing this creativity to the pressing issue of the AIDS crisis, addressing the horrors of living with the disease and demanding political action. In an elaborate installation, The Lazaretto (1990), a collaboration with artist Paul Marcus AIDS organizations were invited to distribute informational materials in the gallery alongside the sculptural tableaux. This installation, however, and the activism it incorporated, isn’t reconstructed for the Whitney show. Similarly absent is Wojnarowicz’s literary contribution: a vitrine or reading area could have represented such works as “Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration,” “Memories that Smell Like Gasoline” and “7 Miles a Second,” a prescient graphic novel created in collaboration with James Romberger & Marguerite Van Cook
This exhibition demonstrates the extreme depth and breadth of this artist’s work while concurrently leaving the viewer with the sense of profound loss. It is a loss of an extremely talented young artist and the work that he may have produced; as well as the magnitude of lost lives in the wake of the AIDS crisis. Wojnarowicz wrote of the Rimbaud Series, “I didn’t see myself as Rimbaud but rather used him as a device to confront my own desires, experiences, biography and to try to touch on those elusive ‘sites of attraction’; those places that suddenly and unexpectedly revive the smell and traces of former states of body and mind long left behind…” As a whole the exhibition is an elegy to a generation that lived and endured through the perils of the AIDS crisis. It stands both as a memorial to the era and as a testament to progress won, in part, through the efforts of activists like Wojnarowicz. In the landmark case, Wojnarowicz vs. American Family Organization and Donald Wildmon (1990) the artist defeated the misuse of his artwork in political propaganda leaflets that discredit the National Endowment for the Arts
An artist as complex, prolific and engaged as David Wojnarowicz rarely appears at so appropriate a moment within the arc of art history, as this exhibition hauntingly reveals.