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David Wojnarowicz: Defending NYC’s Gay Community
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David Wojnarowicz: Defending NYC’s Gay Community

Picture of Phillip Spradley
Updated: 29 January 2016
As a self-trained, AIDS inflicted visual artist, David Wojnarowicz employed a range of media as a means of representing the plight of those suffering from AIDs in 1980s New York. Phillip Spradley explores the life and work of this significant artist who constantly sought justice through his practice.

David Wojnarowicz was an openly gay visual artist, writer, and human rights activist who was prolific in late-twentieth century New York City. Through his work he both represented and defended the gay community at a time when the mainstream media was conflating homosexuality and AIDS and blaming the outbreak of the latter on homosexuals. He is known for working within a range of media and is notable for his often contentious imagery. Having not undergone a ‘traditional’ arts education, the body of work that Wojnarowicz left behind is wildly experimental and difficult to classify.



David Wojnarowicz was born on September 14th, 1954 in Red Bank, New Jersey to a dysfunctional family. After his parents divorced, Wojnarowicz and his siblings shuttled between them before ultimately settling with their mother in a small apartment in Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan. Although he attended the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan for a time, he never graduated. Instead Wojnarowicz began spending time on the streets, usually in Time Square, where he would perform sex acts for money. He left his mother’s apartment at age sixteen to live as a vagrant, developing a lifelong fascination with social outcasts, with whom he identified. For two years he fell victim to numerous assaults before seeking shelter at a halfway house.



As a young man Wojnarowicz was a nomad. He hitchhiked across the United States; he lived in San Francisco, and traveled to Paris where he stayed with his sister for several months. In 1978, he settled in the East Village of Manhattan. Time spent in Paris with his sister seasoned him. He had discovered the works of the poet Arthur Rimbaud and the novelist and poet Jean Genet. Wojnarowicz would later use these influences in his art to bring to focus the dark vision of existence that the three of them shared.




In 1979 he began dabbling with photography. He made a paper mask of Rimbaud’s face and took strange and somber photographs of friends and lovers wearing it on piers, in subways, Time Square, Coney Island, Brooklyn Navy Yard and other places around New York City. This collection of roughly 500 photographs, taken over the course of a year, is known as the ‘Rimbaud in New York’ series.



In 1980 Wojnarowicz was working as a busboy at a Manhattan nightclub named Danceteria. The nightclub had many notable acts but was shut down later that year as an illegally licensed facility. Wojnarowicz and two other busboys from work formed a band and made their debut at the Danceteria staff party. The band name, 3 Teens Kill 4 – No Motive, was taken from a New York Post headline.


Watch Tell Me Something Good by 3 Teens Kill 4:



In the early 1980s Wojnarowicz met his mentor and later lover, New York City based photographer Peter Hujar, at a bar in the East Village. Hujar shot black and white photography of drag queens, junkies, friends, animals and artists. Already a well-established artist, Hujar served as Wojnarowicz’s mentor, lover, and close friend.



Wojnarowicz began to work with stencils in the streets of New York City before he ever exhibited in galleries. The artist made his mark on the city fabric with iconic images: a burning house, a stencil of a human head with a target in the center of the face, little army men with machine guns, recoiling figures, bomber planes, explosions, and an image of a United States in mid-explosion. From his work with stencils he was introduced to the gallery system when in 1981 fellow street artist Keith Haring put Wojnarowicz into two group exhibitions. He soon after began to hold solo exhibitions at what are now well known East Village galleries such as: Gracie Mansion Gallery, Civilian Warfare, Ground Zero Gallery, Public Illumination Picture Gallery, and Hal Bromm Gallery. Wojnarowicz became a member of the first wave of East Village artists and helped galvanise a new post-modern art explosion in America. Wojnarowicz would connect and collaborate with Jean Michael Basquiat, Keith Haring, Kiki Smith, Greer Lankton and Marguerite Van Cook among many others.



A Fire in my Belly

In 1983 Wojnawicz left his band 3 Teens Kill 4 in order to spend more time pursuing visual art and writing, but continued to collaborate with the band until they ultimately disbanded in 1987. As he became progressively better known, his work was included in the Whitney Biennial in 1985. While he continued to gain recognition, he never met with financial success.



By 1987, after the death of his mentor, the photographer Peter Hujar, and his own diagnosis, AIDS had became an unvarying undercurrent in Wojnarowicz’s work. He continued to work with images of tragedy and sexuality, adopting a stance against the mainstream depiction of AIDS and the vilification of the gay community in the wake of its outbreak.



The artist’s most famous work was his Super 8mm short silent film, A Fire in My Belly – a response to the suffering his partner experienced while dying of AIDS. Twenty-one minutes long, the film is a montage of gruesome images, and shows objects dropping into a dish of what looks like blood, fire breathing, hands lacing together a loaf of bread, cock fighting, and bloody sewn-up human lips. An eleven-second sequence in which red ants are shown crawling over a crucifix elicited much controversy.



When the AIDS disease first hit the national news, some Evangelical Christians and Republicans blamed homosexuals, who initially made up the largest number of victims. That AIDS could be drastically limited through safe sex was well known early on, but little was done to spread this information. From Wojnarowicz’s point of view tens of thousands had died because of government negligence. Wojnarowicz took a public stand against homophobia which earned him the vitriolic anger of the conservative religious right, specifically Reverend Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association, John Cardinal O’ Connor and Senator Jesse Helms.



national history museum

During a trip to the National Museum of Natural History, Washington D.C. in 1989, Wojnarowicz came across a diorama that featured the Old West. Part of the installation showed buffalo being driven off a cliff. The artist Observed more in that small symbol than museum curators had intended and selectively snapped a black and white photograph of part of the scene. Through this image he sought to define, with the powerful verse of America itself, not just the brutal decade in which he was living, but also the injustice that had led up to it.



David Wojnarowicz continued to produce work until his death on 22 July, 1992 at the age of the 37. He was the first gay visual artist in America to step forward in anger and give expression to his moral outrage. Towards the end of his life his artwork had become a contentious and poignant record of his own and others’ demise from AIDS.




By: Phillip Spradley


Images Courtesy:

1: Untitled (Silence = Death), 1990, video still, P.P.O.W. Gallery


2: David Wojnarowicz
Arthur Ribaud in New York (Times Square) 1978-79
silver print
8 x 10 inches
Courtesy of The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York


3: Fire in my Belly Film Still, 1986-87, Super 8mm film transferred to DVD, black and white and colour, silent – 13:06 min and 7:00 min, P.P.O.W Gallery


4: David Wojnarowicz
Untitled (Buffalos) 1988-89
Gelatin silver print
40 ½ x 48 inches
Courtesy of The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York