David Wojnarowicz is usually remembered as a firebrand, raging in his incendiary art and writings against the hypocrisy and cruelty of American society. He was especially vituperative towards the homophobia and malignant neglect that precipitated the AIDS crisis in the late 1980s, which decimated gay men and the downtown New York art world, and killed the artist himself in 1992 at 37. But this beautifully curated retrospective does more than just give us the raw power of his jeremiads: It balances them with the romantic, poetic and visionary side of his work that is too often forgotten.
Wojnarowicz grew up suffering abuse in a broken home and survived his teenage years as a homeless sex worker. Keenly attuned to callousness and injustice, he made himself the measure of all things in his art. In an early series of photographs, Arthur Rimbaud in New York (1978–79), Wojnarowicz took black-and-white photos of various friends wearing a photocopied mask of the French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891) as they went about their business—riding the subway, eating at a diner, shooting up, masturbating in bed—making it appear as if Rimbaud himself was living a wastrel life in the city. (In something of a cruel irony, both the artist and his subject were the same age when they died.) Though Wojnarowicz never wore the mask himself, the series reads as a portrait of the artist as a young, if dissipated, genius, and is almost coeval with another photographic exploration of the self as other: Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills.
In the early 1980s, stenciled pictographs that included a falling man, a burning house and a map of the United States sporting a bulls-eye became the basis for an expanding set of motifs that Wojnarowicz used in paintings, photos and films. So did another image showing his lover and mentor, the photographer Peter Hujar, as he slept. A self-taught painter, Wojnarowicz produced gripping Expressionist canvases with disjunctive but networked vignettes that often seem oneiric. Wind (For Peter Hujar), from 1987, features an open window, a running dinosaur, a squalling newborn in baleful red, and a tornado outlined in electric yellow, all connected by an apparent electrical schematic.
Excruciating but tender photos Wojnarowicz took of Hujar moments after he, too, succumbed to AIDS in 1988 eerily echo the earlier pictures of Hujar asleep, and they mark a turning point in Wojnarowicz’s art to an even more confrontational mode that often combined image and text to a produce revelatory and indelible condemnations of bigotry. The well-known 1990–91 print, Untitled (One Day This Kid…) features the artist’s elementary school picture surrounded by text detailing the horrors that society will visit upon him as an adult because he is gay. But this period also saw some of his most yearning works, like the 1989 Something from Sleep III (For Tom Rauffenbart); dedicated to his long-term partner, it shows a man made out of planets and stars peering through a microscope.
In the 1991 photo Untitled (Face in Dirt), we see Wojnarowicz buried up to his cheeks in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, but its inspiringly equivocal nature epitomizes the poles of his art: Does the image show him dead or dreaming of the subterranean and immanent? This overdue exhibition suggests that the answer has always been both.
“David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night” is at the Whitney Museum of American at through September 30.