All of that was true, but insufficient. A comprehensive survey of Wojnarowicz’s career at the Whitney Museum of American Art connects the fragmentation of memory to the violence perpetrated on gay people during the years Wojnarowicz was active, from the late 1970s until his death in New York at age 37. By showing the richness, breadth and intensity of Wojnarowicz’s full career, it underscores how relentless the demonization of his work has been, how that suppression operated while he was alive, how it continued after he died, and how tawdry, cruel, cynical and successful, it was. The most powerful moments of the exhibition have a moral grandeur rare in contemporary art, as it becomes clear that not only was Wojnarowicz fully cognizant of the tools being used against him, he made the onslaught the subject of his work. By encompassing and repurposing all the rage directed at him, he left a monument that indicts the cruelty of the Reagan years and the bitter vindictiveness of the Christian right, which is to say, a monument of enduring power and relevance.
It was easy to make Wojnarowicz seem a scary figure. Photographs of him, including those in which he self-consciously staged his artistic presence, show a long, gaunt face, often with a cigarette. One of the most famous images depicts his lips stitched together to dramatize marginalization and the battle cry of AIDS activists: “Silence equals death.” Another shows him encased in the sun-crackled earth, staring with hollow eyes out of what seems to be a shallow grave. He and his friends were photographed in the derelict spaces where he cruised for sex, crumbling, barren rooms with graffiti on the walls, and a strong scent of the post-apocalyptic ruin that was the dominant urban flavor of New York in the 1970s and ’80s. His spoken-word monologues, especially those made late in his life, sound like angry incantations, even though they are often remarkably wry and sardonic.
It is mainly this aspect of his Wojnarowicz’s legacy that survived him, in large part because it served the homophobic purposes of the bigots who found his critique of America, religion and patriarchy intolerable. These pictures became visual shorthand and stood in for the whole of Wojnarowicz’s legacy, which remained mostly invisible, including his symbolically charged and visually dense paintings, his street art, sculpture, photography and performance. They were what circulated when the secretary of the Smithsonian, Wayne Clough, censored a National Portrait Gallery exhibition in 2010, forcing the removal of a film by Wojnarowicz, and they are among the first images that show up when one searches for the artist online. The imagery that had offended right-wing lawmakers and a fringe Catholic group — a brief scene of ants on a crucifix — was understood mainly through tendentious description, not in its context, and certainly without any background understanding of the artist’s life and highly developed symbolic repertoire.
The exhibition follows his career from an early series of photographs made in 1978-1979, in which he photographed several friends posing in the gritty byways of gay New York wearing a paper mask with the face of Arthur Rimbaud on it. Wojnarowicz was inspired by Rimbaud and sensed an affinity between himself and the young French poet, whose affair with an older man scandalized France in the 1870s. The photographic series not only suggested a historical continuity to gay identity, it embraced an idea of the creative life as a kind of wandering and self-exploration unhindered by social convention or cultural restraint.
Maps were a recurring theme in the artist’s writing and his art, including a 1984 painting and collage, “I Use Maps Because I Don’t Know How to Paint.” The title of the work seems to refer to some insecurity about Wojnarowicz’s origins as a self-taught artist, but the image is a complex riff on the idea of sight and blindness, the accuracy of visual impression, and the metaphor of the map and mapping for the self and self-understanding. Meat and animal carcasses, Mexican motifs, money, the degradation of the environment, the beauty of insects and the frequent use of texts were common elements of his visual production.
Another common strategy was inserting small visual cells like thought bubbles, or ellipses, throughout his work. These sometimes contained images culled from or inspired by gay pornography, and it was these that Donald Wildmon, a right-wing religious crusader, seized upon in 1990, cropping them out of a catalogue published for Wojanorwicz’s first retrospective, and sending them as part of a mass mailing intended to inflame anger against the artist and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Wildmon’s tactic was essentially the same as the one the Catholic League used 20 years later to inspire Clough’s censorship at the Smithsonian: Fragment and decontextualize Wojnarowicz’s work so thoroughly that there was no hope it could speak for itself. By then, Wojnarowicz had already lost his mentor and sometime lover Peter Hujar (a brilliant photographer who made some of the most powerful images of Wojnarowicz) to AIDS, and he, too, was sick. But he fought back, and won at least a symbolic judgment against Wildmon’s American Family Association for defaming and misrepresenting his work (the exhibition includes the $1 check the AFA wrote to the artist).
Wojnarowicz was targeted not just because he was openly gay and included sexuality without shame in his work. He was articulating a new morality and a new sense of self, one based on the fragmentation that men like Wildmon would exploit. He sensed himself as multiple selves, thrown into a world that preordained a single, given moral code. His life’s work was to create his own world, his own ethics of promiscuity and exploration, to make “my own order in it out of all the fragmentary stuff that surrounds us, that we call life.”
Even in the Whitney’s absorbing and comprehensive exhibition, it can be difficult to hear the decency and sensitivity of Wojnarowicz’s promiscuous world-making. For that, it is worth reading an extraordinary 1978 letter Wojnarowicz wrote to his mother, a letter, it seems, he never sent. It is one of the most powerful documents of LGBT life ever written, in which he responds to his mother’s fear of a growing “veil,” or reticence, between them. With great discretion, he alludes to his sexual and intellectual adventures, and how they lead to his “having more of an acceptance of characters and styles of living that seem to go against the established order of the church and society.” And then he gently says he’s sorry, not for who he is or what he has done, but for the inevitable pain he knows that it will cause her: “Now to place that confusion in your hands or heart could very easily create a concern or pain when connected to your possible hopes for me.”
In his defense of promiscuity, not as an attack on society but as a form of social openness and discovery, there is a delicacy and fineness of sentiment that has been lost not just in the cultural memory of Wojnarowicz, but in the larger trajectory of LGBT assimilation. His feelings, and his art, would harden in later years, as his friends died, his body failed and he was subject to attack by bigots and opportunistic politicians. He ended as a fighter, but as this exhibition makes clear, that was only one of the several Wojnarowiczes who inhabited this world for just 37 years, and it is by no means the most dangerous of them. The young man who loved Rimbaud, hated war, defended women and unapologetically slept his way through New York and Paris was far more of a threat, and that’s why most people today still know only the angry artist losing his war against a virus.
David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through Sept. 30. For information, visit whitney.org.