David Wojnarowicz - Biography and Legacy
American Multimedia Artist
Red Bank, NJ
New York City, NY
Biography of David Wojnarowicz
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).
Ed and Dolores' turbulent marriage lasted eight years. After their split, the children moved many times. They lived with Dolores in New Jersey, with Ed's family in Michigan, back in New Jersey with Ed and his new family - wife Marion and their young children; Peter and Linda - and then in New York City with Dolores. While Ed would get drunk and hurt the children, Dolores neglected them and would hide their existence from friends and boyfriends. At times, she would run into someone she knew on the streets and pretend that she was not with Pat, Steven or David, introducing them as her 'little friends'.
Both Steven and David were poor students in high school, while Pat was dedicated to her work and studies. Sometime during her late teens, she was expelled from Dolores' apartment in Hell's Kitchen, eventually becoming a successful model and moving to Paris. Steven was sent to an orphanage. David's dysfunctional family life resulted in him spending most of his adolescence hustling on the streets. Isolated from his siblings and barely supervised, David had his first sexual experiences with a 20-year-old mentally handicapped man named Anthony. He occasionally returned to his mother's apartment to shower and sleep. By the time David was 16, he started prostituting himself in Times Square. By 1971, at age 17, Wojnarowicz had cut ties with his mother and was living on the streets full time, sleeping in halfway houses and squats. During this time he was raped by multiple older clients, malnourished and in dire need of dental care.
Early Training and Work
In 1973 Wojnarowicz was admitted to a halfway house and began working at Pottery Barn, bringing a measure of stability to his rootless and erratic life. There he met John Ensslin, a young writer who would introduce Wojnarowicz to New York's underground literary scene. Wojnarowicz spent most of his early career focusing on writing and occasionally drawings, moving on to work in bookstores around the city. In 1975 he embarked upon a cross country hitchhiking and freight hopping adventure. During this trip, he visited sites significant to the Beat movement including City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. In 1976 his father Ed Wojnarowicz committed suicide, although he was almost completely estranged from his children.
In 1978, Wojnarowicz visited Paris to visit his sister Pat and fell in love for the first time. Jean Pierre Delage was a hairstylist and their relationship endured sporadically for several years. Wojnarowicz returned to New York in 1979, where his artistic focus started to shift towards the visual arts. It was also around that time that Wojnarowicz began to work as a busboy at downtown nightclubs in Manhattan. At Danceteria, he became great friends with the artists Zoe Leonard, who worked at the coat check, and Keith Haring who was also a busboy. Leonard later dedicated her seminal work Strange Fruit (1992) to Wojnarowicz. With two of his colleagues, Wojnarowicz formed a band named 3 Teens Kill 4, after a tabloid headline ('3 Teens Kill 4: No Motive'). Wojnarowicz sang, manipulated tape loops and other recordings, and contributed lyrics. After three years, he left the band to fully pursue his career in the visual arts.
In 1981 Wojnarowicz met the artist Kiki Smith who became a great friend, as well as the photographer Peter Hujar. Hujar and Wojnarowicz's relationship is hard to define after it moved beyond their initial sexual connection. The relationship developed into a mentor-like interaction, a close-knit friendship between two people who deeply cared for each other. Hujar and Wojnarowicz shared terrible childhoods, and Hujar, older and already a successful photographer, helped Wojnarowicz navigate the art world. Wojnarowicz later said "everything I made, I made for Peter."
As a Lower East Side artist, Wojnarowicz had issues with the elitism of New York's main art galleries. In protest he dumped cow bones at the stairs of Leo Castelli's Gallery, one of the most important dealers at that time. Similarly, after not being selected for a show at PS1 Wojnarowicz created cock-a-bunnies - cockroaches with added bunny ears and tiny cotton ball tails - that he set free during the opening night. Alongside his guerilla interventions, in 1982 he also started painting inside derelict buildings along the Hudson river. Artists from the same generation, such as Gordon Matta-Clark were also working in these abandoned buildings. It is important to note that by the early 1980s New York had amassed a huge amount of municipal debt, with crime, drugs and poverty high all over the city.
By 1985 Wojnarowicz's career was firmly established as part of the East Village Art movement in downtown New York. Exhibiting at Civilian Warfare gallery, he began selling work and receiving publicity. In 1985 he also began to collaborate with film directors Richard Kern and Tommy Turner on a film project, Where Evil Dwells. This film was focused on Ricky Kasso, a teenager that killed his friend before committing suicide, accused of doing so as part of a Satantic or occult ritual. Wojnarowicz personally identified with Kasso's neglected childhood, although the film (as with many of his film projects) was not completed. Both Kern and Turner were regular drug users, as was Wojnarowicz at this time (although not a heroin addict like Kern and Turner). Hujar was strongly against this experimentation, telling Wojnarowicz that if he was going to keep up with his self-destructive behavior he would break off their relationship.
In 1986 Tom Rauffenbart came into Wojnarowicz's life, after they met in the basement of the Bijou Theater, a porno theater on 3rd Avenue in Manhattan. Rauffenbart worked for the city of New York in the Child Welfare department, and they remained together until the end of Wojnarowicz's life. In the same year, Hujar was diagnosed as HIV positive.
The AIDS epidemic was devastating New York at this time, killing many of Wojnarowicz's friends. Ignorance and prejudice was rife, and the government was doing very little to develop effective treatment or provide support to those suffering. Hujar's diagnosis (and death in 1987) is widely considered as the moment when Wojnarowicz's work turned to engage directly with the AIDS crisis. This was true of both his personal work, and marked the start of his involvement with ACT UP, which fought for awareness and a coherent political response to the crisis. Less than a month after Hujar's death, Rauffenbart was also diagnosed as HIV positive. Wojnarowicz received his own diagnosis as HIV positive in Spring 1988.
In 1989 Wojnarowicz's friend, photographer Nan Goldin, was curating a show about the epidemic titled Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing. He was invited to participate in the exhibition and the catalogue. His text Postcards from America, X-Rays from Hell, printed in the exhibition catalogue, took aim at powerful politicians: "At least in my ungoverned imagination, I can fuck somebody without a rubber, or I can in the privacy of my skull, douse [Senator Jesse] Helms with a bucket of gasoline and set his putrid ass on fire or throw Congressman William Dannemeyer off the Empire State building." In the same text, Wojnarowicz calls Cardinal John O'Connor a "fat cannibal from the house of walking swastikas." The text caused a political backlash from both politicians and religious leaders, eventually leading the National Endowment for the Arts to withdraw funding. After significant outcry, funding was eventually restored on the condition that it did not fund the catalogue. After this episode, Wojnarowicz became known and hated by right wing and religious groups in America.
His 1990 retrospective Tongues of Flame became an issue when Reverend Donald Wildmon, who was a lobbyist for the right-wing religious group the American Family Association, mailed cropped and enlarged images of sex acts from Wojnarowicz's Sex Series (1988-89) to every US congressman. Wojnarowicz filed suit against the American Family Association, stating that his images were mutilated and denied their proper context. He won the case and was awarded a symbolic $1 in damages by the court. This court case was part of the 'culture wars' of the 1980s and 1990s in the US, where right-wing politicians (particularly Senator Jesse Helms) led an effort to defund the National Endowment for the Arts and defame work they deemed to be harmful to public health. This included work that featured depictions of homosexuality, female agency, alternative lifestyles and subcultural activity.
In 1992, after months of deteriorating health, Wojnarowicz died at age 37 in his apartment with his partner Rauffenbart and his sister Pat at his side. A political funeral was held, in which protesters marched through the East Village with a banner declaring "DAVID WOJNAROWICZ, 1954-1992, DIED OF AIDS DUE TO GOVERNMENT NEGLECT." As a way to comply with his statement that his body should be dumped on the steps of a government building, Rauffenbart joined ACT UP's second 'Ashes Action' in 1996, throwing some of Wojnarowicz's ashes onto the White House lawn.
The Legacy of David Wojnarowicz
Many artists have since been influenced by Wojnarowicz. Formally his repurposing of stencils and other street art tropes is influential, as well as his incorporation of photographic images into paintings. Artists such as Shannon Ebner share his use of high contrast images of dereliction, whilst Henrik Olesen's work reflect Wojnarowicz's juxtapositions of imagery and queer aesthetics. Zoe Strauss and Wolfgang Tillmans are also influenced by Wojnarowicz's rawness and unabashed exploration of sexuality. As noted by critic Lucy Lippard, "his work was made defiantly outside of contemporary art history, even as it helped form it."
His work is hugely important in terms of artistic representation of the AIDS crisis, and many of the artists of that era, including AA Bronson, Felix Gonzales-Torres, Keith Haring and Nan Goldin cite him as an influence (or direct collaborator). His writing and performance work is similarly cited as incredibly influential by Ron Athey, Karen Finley and other performance artists engaging in social critique. His work is passionate and provocative, inviting the viewer to rethink his/her own prejudices and taboos. As a figure he remains totemic of personal integrity, righteous anger and unapologetic queerness to his devoted admirers.
Even after his death, he continues to be controversial, as exemplified by the 2010 exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture hosted by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., in which A Fire in My Belly (1986-87) was censored as a result of political pressure from religious and right-wing groups.