“David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night”: The Catalogue

“David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night”: The Catalogue

Whitney Museum of American Art

Amos Lassen

The first comprehensive and most definitive source to date on David Wojnarowicz is now on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art from July 13-September 30, 2018. The catalog for that exhibit is an engaging and richly illustrated book comprehensively examines the life and art of David Wojnarowicz (1954–1992), who came to prominence in New York’s East Village art world of the 1980s, actively embracing all media and forging an expansive range of work both fiercely political and highly personal. “First displayed in raw storefront galleries, his work achieved national attention at the same moment that the AIDS epidemic was affecting a generation of artists, himself included.”

“In a thoughtful overview essay, David Breslin looks at the breadth of the artist’s work as well as Wojnarowicz’s broad range of interests and influences, situating the artist in the art-historical canon and pushing beyond the biographical focus that has characterized much of the scholarship on Wojnarowicz to fully assess his paintings, photographs, installations, performances, and writing. A close examination of groups of works by David Kiehl sheds new light on the artist’s process and the context in which the works were created. Essays by Julie Ault, Gregg Bordowitz, C. Carr, Marvin Taylor, and National Book Award finalist Hanya Yanagihara investigate the relationship between artistic production and cultural activism during the AIDS crisis, as well as provide a necessary accounting and close evaluation of divergent practices that have frequently been subsumed under broad labels like “East Village,” “queer,” “postmodern,” and “neo-expressionist.”

“Beginning in the late 1970s, David Wojnarowicz (1954–1992) created a body of work that spanned photography, painting, music, film, sculpture, writing, and activism. Largely self-taught, he came to prominence in New York in the 1980s, a period marked by creative energy, financial precariousness, and profound cultural changes. Intersecting movements—graffiti, new and no wave music, conceptual photography, performance, and neo-expressionist painting—made New York a laboratory for innovation. Wojnarowicz refused a signature style, adopting a wide variety of techniques with an attitude of radical possibility. Distrustful of inherited structures—a feeling amplified by the resurgence of conservative politics—he varied his repertoire to better infiltrate the prevailing culture.”

“Wojnarowicz saw the outsider as his true subject. Queer and later diagnosed as HIV-positive, he became an impassioned advocate for people with AIDS when an inconceivable number of friends, lovers, and strangers were dying due to government inaction. Wojnarowicz’s work documents and illuminates a desperate period of American history: that of the AIDS crisis and culture wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s. But his rightful place is also among the raging and haunting iconoclastic voices, from Walt Whitman to William S. Burroughs, who explore American myths, their perpetuation, their repercussions, and their violence. Like theirs, his work deals directly with the timeless subjects of sex, spirituality, love, and loss. Wojnarowicz, who was thirty-seven when he died from AIDS-related complications, wrote: “To make the private into something public is an action that has terrific ramifications.”

This exhibition is co-curated by David Kiehl, Curator Emeritus, and David Breslin, DeMartini Family Curator and Director of the Collection.

Leave a Reply