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The 'Fire' man

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 10, 2010; C01

A positive diagnosis for HIV in 1987 didn't leave you with many options. The pharmaceuticals that have extended life spans for many of those now infected were not then available. Hostility and fear were rampant. It was reasonable to assume not only that you had received a death sentence, but that there was no hope on the horizon for those who, inevitably, would follow in your footsteps: an anguished decision to be tested, an excruciating wait for the results, a terrifying trip to the testing center, and a life-shattering conversation with a grim-faced nurse or social worker.

Some turned to holistic medicine and yoga. Others to activism. Many just returned to their apartments, curled up in the corner, and waited to die.

But some, like David Wojnarowicz, who died in 1992 at the age of 37, used art to keep a grip on the world. He was the quintessential East Village figure, a bit of a loner, a bit crazy, ferociously brilliant and anarchic. He was a self-educated dropout who made art on garbage can lids, who painted inside the West Side piers where men met for anonymous sex, who pressed friends into lookout duty while he covered the walls of New York with graffiti. In 1987, his former lover and best friend, Peter Hujar, died of complications from AIDS, and Wojnarowicz learned that he, too, was infected with HIV.

Wojnarowicz, whose video "A Fire in My Belly" was removed from an exhibition of gay portraiture at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery last week after protests from a right-wing Catholic group and members of Congress, was an artist well before AIDS shattered his existence. But AIDS sharpened his anger, condensed his imagery and fueled his writing, which became at least as important as his visual work in the years before he died. In the video that has now been censored from the prominent and critically lauded exhibition "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," Wojnarowicz perfectly captured a raw Gothic, rage-filled sensibility that defined a style of outsider art that was moving into the mainstream in the late 1980s.

It may feel excessive now, but like other classic examples of excessive art - Allen Ginsberg's 1955 poem "Howl," Krzyzstof Penderecki's 1960 symphonic work "Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima" or Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1975 film "Salo" - it is an invaluable emotional snapshot. Not simply a cry of anguish or protest, Wojnarowicz's work captures the contradiction, speed and phantasmagoria of a time when it was reasonable to assume that all the political and social progress gay people had achieved in the 1960s and '70s was being revoked - against the surreal, Reagan-era backdrop of Morning in America, and a feel-good surge of American nostalgia and triumphalism.

The image that provoked William Donahue of the Catholic League, a relatively small organization that has leveraged a remarkable amount of influence in the culture wars over the past two decades, was part of a repertoire of Catholic imagery used by Wojnarowicz over his career. Excerpted from the grainy, stream-of-consciousness video with a hard-edged soundtrack was a brief clip of a crucifix with ants crawling on it. Wojnarowicz was also attracted to images of Saint Sebastian, often depicted in Western art as a sexually enticing young man pierced by arrows, whom Catholics consider a defender against plague. And he was as happy to expand the legions of Catholic saints - introducing figures such as the homosexual French writer Jean Genet into their ranks - as to rail against them.

In interviews, Wojnarowicz remembered cruel treatment in a Catholic school he briefly attended, and in one of his works, which often mixed images and text, he recalled "the religious types outside St. Patrick's Cathedral shouting to men and women in the gay parade: 'You won't be here next year - you'll get AIDS and die ha ha . . . ' "

In his writings and spoken theater pieces, he assailed the pope and prominent Catholics, including Cardinal John O'Connor, then archbishop of New York, and conservative Catholic commentators William F. Buckley and Patrick Buchanan. These attacks were generally part of elaborate, imaginative social vignettes that captured the topsy-turvy nature of the world in the late 1980s - the fear of nuclear holocaust, the increasing moral faith in untrammeled capitalism - but when excerpted from their context, they can seem purely scabrous.

But anger at the church was only natural, for reasons political, historical and artistic. Politically, the Catholic Church opposed the use of condoms, the only proven way to prevent transmission of the disease if one didn't subscribe to a proscription of sex outside of marriage - a contract unavailable to all gay people at the time, and to most of them today. In New York City, where the Catholic Church was almost a branch of the city government, where popular festivals such as Saint Patrick's Day excluded gay people from participation and often devolved into gay bashing in the West Village, the church's edicts were particularly powerful.

Prominent Catholic leaders were also in the forefront of a cultural counterattack on homosexuals in the late 1980s. Buckley, the founder of the National Review who was lavishly praised upon his death as a genial and erudite gentleman, wrote in 1986, "Everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals." It was a chilling and apparently intentional reference to Nazi treatment of the Jews, and it was entirely within the mainstream for public commentary on the disease the year before Wojnarowicz found out he was HIV-positive.

Historically, the church was also a rich target. Although gay rights today have largely embraced a vision of equality premised on inclusion within traditional social structures - marriage and the military - in the 1980s those goals were so unlikely as to seem absurd. Wojnarowicz came from an artistic tradition that included prominent sexual "outlaws" such as Genet ("canonized" as a saint by Jean-Paul Sartre), the prostitute-turned-novelist John Rechy, the drug-hoovering provocateur William S. Burroughs and the classic poete maudit Arthur Rimbaud. Which is to say that the elaborate and radical antisocial agenda that conservative critics fear lurks behind demands for marriage equality today was, in fact, very much part of Wojnarowicz's worldview. And as the oldest continually functioning institution in Western society, the church stood in for other forms of oppression that artists such as Wojnarowicz were attacking.

Born in 1954, Wojnarowicz led a life that placed him on the outside of most cultural institutions. He described his family as "psychotic," and remembered an alcoholic father who regularly abused his wife and children physically. Wojnarowicz was, as friends would say later, given to flights of self-mythologizing, emphasizing the fallen and desperate in his narrative. He began a 1989 interview about his life and work saying, "Well, I was born on a horse farm in West Virginia and moved to Cairo, Egypt," and, "At that time I was sold to some slave traders, worked as a cabin boy on a coal ship and . . . "

But there's little doubt that he did indeed work as a male prostitute from a young age, and his drug use was prodigious, though not to the point that destroyed other artists, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died of a heroin overdose in 1988. Today these things are seen as purely self-destructive, but within Wojnarowicz's milieu, they were also deemed forms of exploration, and the richness - the breadth, depth and even degradation- of a life was all fodder for artistic production.

Wojnarowicz never came back empty-handed from the darkest events of his life. When working as a farm laborer near the Canadian border - a chapter that for other artists might have been idyllic - he observed a dark pathology in rural life. "All these farm wives were stabbing their husbands to death for fooling around with other women," he remembered.

But while working as a hustler in Times Square, he also remembered picking up a particularly unattractive, even odious, man and suddenly feeling intense pity for him. In a 1989 interview, Wojnarowicz says he kissed the man, who then began weeping with gratitude.

Episodes such as that suggest the artistic affinity he felt for the church that he also attacked. When AIDS was ravaging the gay population of New York, the church was officially the enemy; but some Catholic service organizations were on the front lines of relief. The church was a complicated organization, monolithic only in the minds of its leaders. Wojnarowicz's imagery was richly Catholic because Catholicism was richly multivalent. Even the image that has recently sparked controversy - a crucifix covered in ants - is a complicated amalgam of the artist's personal and religious themes.

Ants, for Wojnarowicz, were a mysterious stand-in for humanity and part of a lifelong fascination with the natural world that his friend, artist Kiki Smith, recalls was part of a charmingly boyish rapture with creepy, crawling things. When asked what he thought of God, he responded by wondering rhetorically "why ants aren't the things that destroy the world instead of people." There is a host of theological possibility in that thought: Is God as indifferent to humans as humans are to ants? Should we love the small things of the planet as we hope to be loved by God?

Wojnarowicz was no saint and once said as much in an interview, rejecting a comparison to Jesus Christ that ran in Interview magazine. His rage could be all-consuming. One friend remembers him taking a tire iron to the walls of an art gallery that had damaged one of his works. Others remember him as generous but prickly and explosive. Even his posthumous reputation as an East Village artist who remained vigorously true to his anti-establishment ethics obscures his ability to manipulate outlaw credibility and martyr status into artistic marketability.

But on June 25, 1990, he found himself talking about his life and work in a context where he was compelled to speak clearly and tell the unvarnished truth. Late in life, Wojnarowicz sued the American Family Association for misusing his work in a virulently anti-gay flier that excerpted small pornographic and allegedly blasphemous images from larger collages and presented them as the main substance of his work. His courtroom commentary on a 1979 work (which showed in one corner a picture of Christ with a hypodermic needle in his arm) illuminates the crucifix video that the National Portrait Gallery removed as anti-Catholic.

"I thought about what I had been taught about Jesus Christ when I was young and how he took on the suffering of all people in the world," Wojnarowicz said in the trial transcript. "And I wanted to create a modern image that, if he were alive before me at that time in 1979 when I made this, if he were physically alive before me in the streets of the Lower East Side, I wanted to make a model that would show that he would take on the suffering of the vast amounts of addiction that I saw on the streets."

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