Fatal Shore

David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night

an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, July 13–September 30, 2018
Catalog of the exhibition edited by David Breslin and David Kiehl
Whitney Museum, 383 pp., $65.00 (distributed by Yale University Press)
Collection of Hal Bromm and Doneley Meris/Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W, New York
David Wojnarowicz: Untitled (Green Head), 1982

There is a certain irony in the fact that the first major retrospective of David Wojnarowicz’s work since his death in 1992 appears in the spare, modern rooms of the Whitney Museum of American Art, in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, today one of the city’s trendiest neighborhoods. From the heights of the Whitney’s exterior staircase one can look down on the Hudson River and what were once the West Side piers, now devoted to bike lanes, parks, and ambitious development projects.

When Wojnarowicz lived and worked in New York, in the 1970s and 1980s, he spent much of his time in this neighborhood and on those piers, but it was a very different world. The piers, once berths for luxury cruise liners, had been abandoned and had become a refuge for transient artists, street people, and gay hustlers. Wojnarowicz was, at one point or another, all three. The Whitney exhibition features many striking photographs of him and his friends there, surrounded by graffiti, decay, and detritus.

Wojnarowicz died of AIDS-related complications at the age of thirty-seven, after just more than a decade as a visual artist. His wide-ranging work, beautifully displayed and carefully placed in its historical setting by the Whitney, is a testament to a New York characterized by urban decline, rampant crime, the AIDS crisis, and the culture wars, but also by ACT UP, the East Village art scene, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Angels in America, and the transformation of the LGBT movement. Wojnarowicz’s work, by turns angry and elegiac, haunting and disturbing, subtle and in-your-face, chronicles that period by focusing on its outcasts and vividly depicting their lives, loves, and complaints. Certain pieces, including a photograph of a diorama of buffaloes stampeding off the edge of a cliff, have become famous. But seeing the work as a whole reveals an astonishingly prolific self-taught artist who worked feverishly in multiple media to give voice to the demands for justice—and understanding—of the marginalized.

Wojnarowicz knew firsthand what he depicted. As Cynthia Carr writes in her masterful biography, Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (2012), he had an “almost Dickensian childhood.” Born in New Jersey in 1954 to an alcoholic, homophobic, and abusive merchant seaman and a hapless, overwhelmed mother, he was beaten and abducted by his father, and grew up between halfway houses, his mother’s tiny apartments, and the streets of New York. He started turning tricks as a gay hustler in his early teens and barely managed to graduate from the Manhattan High School of Music and Art. But he had remarkable talent, an adventurous spirit, and a keen eye for both the structural injustices of what he called the “pre-invented world” and the beauty to be found in its misfits.

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