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David Wojnarowicz

American Multimedia Artist

David Wojnarowicz Photo
Movements and Styles: Queer Art, Identity Politics

Born: September 14, 1954 - Red Bank, NJ

Died: July 22, 1992 - New York City, NY

"I want to throw up because we're supposed to quietly and politely make house in this killing machine called America and pay taxes to support our own slow murder and I'm amazed we're not running amok in the streets, and that we can still be capable of gestures of loving after lifetimes of all this."

Summary of David Wojnarowicz

David Wojnarowicz's multimedia practice viscerally expressed childhood experiences of abuse, homelessness and prostitution, the struggles of his early adulthood, and later, the horrors of the AIDS crisis. His expansive body of work included painting, installation and collage, film, music, performance and searing prose and memoir. Maturing as an artist in the downtown New York of the 1980s he is associated with multiple artistic and cultural movements, including the East Village Art scene, the Cinema of Transgression, ACT-UP and Gran Fury. His forthright engagement with his own sexuality and the political fury that bubbled beneath much of his work led to several clashes with the forces of censorship and repression.

Wojnarowicz's later work is now widely recognized as one of the most articulate and righteously angry responses to the AIDS crisis in the US. Since his death in 1992 of AIDS related illness his work has become an important touchstone for still wounded communities and new generations unfamiliar with the horrors of the time. But the threat of censorship still falls over his work, with right-wing politicians and religious groups still calling for its removal from federally funded institutions.

Key Ideas

Wojnarowicz's life and biography shape his work across multiple mediums - his paintings, films, writing and performances all draw on a personal iconography of symbols relevant to his experiences. Bandaged hands, for example, are a recurring image relating to his experiences of homelessness as a teenager. Animals like cows, ants and snakes similarly reflect his childhood escape from an abusive home to surrounding countryside in New Jersey.
Imagery from nature (particularly animals) in Wojnarowicz's work also often symbolically act to reflect his distaste for what he called the 'pre-invented world'. This included the limits set by repressive governments, financial mechanisms and limits of propriety. As a gay man, as an artist, and as someone who had lived outside of these boundaries, he saw these societal limits as inherently restrictive and negative.
Wojnarowicz advocated for greater inclusion and awareness of the experience of women and minorities in both the art world and wider society, and later artists and historians have championed him as a figure of immense significance to the development of later art which engages in similar questions of identity.
Much of Wojnarowicz's later work reflected his rage at the political inaction during the AIDS crisis, which decimated communities of homosexual men and intravenous drug users (both demographics heavily represented on Wojnarowicz's Lower East Side). This work was characterized by a desire to force repressive politicians to confront the realities of the crisis. It is perhaps best encapsulated by his instruction, stencilled on his leather jacket and reappearing in his writing, that 'If I Die Of AIDS - Forget Burial - Just Drop My Body on the Steps of the F.D.A'.
Wojnarowicz was therefore a key figure in the 'culture wars' of the 1980s and 1990s in the United States, with both the nature of his work (its unapologetic anger and forthright depiction of sexuality) and his efforts to redress mischaracterisation of it an important moment in this struggle for artistic expression. His court battle with the American Family Association in 1990 was, along with the 'NEA Four' case, one of the main legal flashpoints in the battle against censorship by right-wing and religious groups.
Whilst Wojnarowicz achieved wide public notoriety as a result of these clashes with politicians and religious leaders, there is now an increasing amount of scholarship that attempts to focus on the content and form of his work alongside its political resonance. Whilst documenting and critiquing the AIDS crisis was a central theme in his work from 1986, his political critique and artistic innovation was wider than a didactic or 'merely activist' practice, encompassing also political and social alienation, autobiography, and formal experimentation.
David Wojnarowicz Photo

David Wojnarowicz, originally known as David Voyna, was born in New Jersey into a dysfunctional working-class family. His father, Ed Wojnarowicz, was a seaman in a passenger's ship and a troubled man - an alcoholic and a gambler, verbally and physically abusive towards his wife and children. David's mother, Dolores McGuiness, was Australian who married Ed in Sydney in 1948 when she was 16 and he was 26. Together, Ed and Dolores had three children, Steven, Pat, and David. Several instances of abuse during their childhood, such as Ed killing and feeding the children their pet rabbit, would appear later in Wojnarowicz's writing and film (You Killed Me First, 1985).

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