- Andrew Barron
Wojnarowicz, David (14 Sept. 1954–22 July 1992), artist, filmmaker, writer, and activist was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, the third child of Edward Wojnarowicz, a merchant seamen from Michigan, and Dolores McGuinness, a receptionist from Australia. Wojnarowicz’s childhood was marred by violence and instability. Following his parents’ divorce at the age of three, Wojnarowicz and his two older siblings, Pat and Steven, were placed in a boarding home by their mother in 1957. There they experienced routine abuse at the hand of its owner. The following year they were kidnapped by their father and taken to a relative’s farm in Michigan. They remained there until 1959, when they briefly relocated to Long Island and then back to New Jersey. The surrounding woods became an escape for Wojnarowicz from the frequent beatings and constant threat of physical injury spurred by his father’s alcoholism. Around 1964 he began making trips to New York City, one of which included a visit to the Museum of Modern Art, Wojnarowicz’s earliest exposure to art and the moment that inspired him to become an artist. When he was eleven years old he moved to his mother’s Manhattan apartment with his sister and brother. All three children were estranged from their father from that point until his suicide in 1976.
Once in New York Wojnarowicz had sexual encounters with older, predatory men and was molested within two months of being there. Shortly after arriving he claims to have begun working as a hustler. In fall 1968 he entered the High School of Music and Art. Wojnarowicz turned to hustling on a regular basis at the age of fifteen, working once a week in the seedy underground of Times Square. It was around this time that he started living on the street, returning home only sporadically. His existence during this period was full of dangerous encounters; Wojnarowicz was often attacked and sometimes raped. When he was seventeen he left home permanently and lived nomadically. He found temporary shelter at a halfway house on two separate occasions, as well as with acquaintances and clients-turned-partners. Growing increasingly desperate, Wojnarowicz stopped hustling toward the end of 1973. He finished high school that September, receiving his diploma just in time for his nineteenth birthday.
After his stint as a teenage sex worker, Wojnarowicz settled momentarily in an apartment on West End Avenue during which time he worked as a bookseller, devoured and wrote poetry, and dabbled in drawing. However, his desire to explore led him beyond the city, first to a farm in upstate New York and then to San Francisco. Wojnarowicz returned to New York in the fall of 1976. It was at this point that he began living openly as a gay man. In 1978 he left for Paris where his sister had relocated. Wojnarowicz stayed there for the next nine months, writing in his journal nearly every day, before moving back to New York more or less permanently in 1979.
Wojnarowicz spent much of his time in the late 1970s on Manhattan’s west side at the abandoned piers along the Hudson River, which were potent sites of artistic creativity and a cruising ground for public sex. Some of his earliest works consisted of large-scale graffitied murals inside these dilapidated structures. In 1979 he created photographic series based around the French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Jean Genet, two writers with whom he identified. The Rimbaud series earned Wojnarowicz the first documented compensation for his art. Other early works include short Super 8 films and stenciled paintings that depict burning houses and silhouetted male figures, both recurrent symbols for the artist. In 1980 he formed part of the band 3 Teens Kill 4—No Motive, its title taken from a headline in the New York Post. Wojnarowicz met the photographer Peter Hujar the following year in what would prove to be one of the most significant friendships of his life. He later recounted, “Everything I made, I made for Peter”(Carr, p. 179).
Wojnarowicz belonged to the 1980s East Village art scene, a short-lived but vibrant downtown community of queer outsiders that constituted what biographer and critic Cynthia Carr has called New York’s “last bohemia.” Taking hold by 1982, this scene helped launch the careers of Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kiki Smith, Nan Goldin, and many other artists, and it soon became the epicenter of the New York art world. Wojnarowicz exhibited at many of the popular local galleries over the course of the decade, such as Gracie Mansion, Public Illumination, Ground Zero, and Civilian Warfare, but his politicized and overtly homoerotic work resisted the more commercial trends of the time. In 1985 Wojnarowicz participated in the Whitney Biennial, a showing of the most progressive American art of the past two years that, in many ways, marked his arrival as an artist. The year 1985 was also the year he met Tom Rauffenbart, the man with whom he would remain intimate for the rest of his life.
The 1980s were ravaged by the AIDS epidemic, known only as the “gay cancer” in the early years of the crisis. Hujar died from AIDS-related pneumonia in 1987, and later that year Wojnarowicz was diagnosed HIV-positive. His work took on a decidedly activist tone after his diagnosis to more directly address sexuality, mortality, and governmental inaction. In 1989 he became embroiled in controversy when the National Endowment for the Arts rescinded funding for a show about AIDS at the alternative exhibition venue Artists Space, for which Wojnarowicz contributed an incendiary catalogue essay that was deeply critical of America and its institutions. The censorial event was emblematic of the Culture Wars of the 1980s and 1990s, a polarizing era marked by fierce, and often violent, social debate. The artist’s retrospective at Illinois State University, Tongues of Flame, came under fire a year later by Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association (AFA)—a Christian fundamentalist non-profit—for a selection of photo- and text-based works that Wildmon deemed pornographic. Wojnarowicz sued the AFA in 1990 and won. Wojnarowicz died of AIDS-related complications in his Manhattan apartment. In October 1996 his long-time partner Tom Rauffenbart participated in a demonstration in Washington, D.C. and threw Wojnarowicz’s ashes on the front lawn of the White House, the artist’s final act of defiance. David Wojnarowicz is now recognized as one of the most important American artists of the twentieth century and a leading queer voice of his generation. His art bore witness to a deadly zeitgeist, offering palpable expressions of rage and beauty at a time of immeasurable loss.
The David Wojnarowicz papers are located at The Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University. A handful of personal writings by the artist were published during his lifetime and posthumously. These include Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (1991); Memories That Smell Like Gasoline (1992); The Waterfront Journals (1996), parts of which were originally published as Sounds in the Distance (1982); and In the Shadow of the American Dream: The Diaries of David Wojnarowicz, ed. Amy Scholder (2000). Cynthia Carr has written the most comprehensive biography of the artist to date; see Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (2012). A major retrospective exhibition catalogue by the Whitney Museum of American Art debuted in 2018; see David Breslin, et al., David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night (2018). An obituary can be found in The New York Times, 24 July 1992.