Julie Ault, Gregg Bordowitz, C. Carr, Marvin Taylor, and National Book Award finalist Hanya Yanagihara, New York, 2018.
Hardcover, 383 pp., color illustrations, 12 x 9.5 x 1.5 inches.
This engaging and richly illustrated catalogue, accompanying the Whitney's 2018 exhibition comprehensively examines the life and art of David Wojnarowicz (1954–1992), who came to prominence in New York’s East Village art world of the 1980s, actively embracing all media and forging an expansive range of work both fiercely political and highly personal. First displayed in raw storefront galleries, his work achieved national attention at the same moment that the AIDS epidemic was affecting a generation of artists, himself included.
In a thoughtful overview essay, David Breslin looks at the breadth of the artist’s work as well as Wojnarowicz’s broad range of interests and influences, situating the artist in the art-historical canon and pushing beyond the biographical focus that has characterized much of the scholarship on Wojnarowicz to fully assess his paintings, photographs, installations, performances, and writing. A close examination of groups of works by David Kiehl sheds new light on the artist’s process and the context in which the works were created. Essays by Julie Ault, Gregg Bordowitz, C. Carr, Marvin Taylor, and National Book Award finalist Hanya Yanagihara investigate the relationship between artistic production and cultural activism during the AIDS crisis, as well as provide a necessary accounting and close evaluation of divergent practices that have frequently been subsumed under broad labels like “East Village,” “queer,” “postmodern,” and “neo-expressionist.”
Largely self-taught, David Wojnarowicz (1954–1992) came to prominence as an artist in New York City in the 1980s, a period marked by creative energy, financial precariousness, and profound cultural changes. Intersecting movements—including graffiti, new and no wave music, conceptual photography, performance, neo-expressionist painting—made New York a laboratory for innovation. Wojnarowicz refused a signature style, adopting a wide variety of techniques with an attitude of radical possibility. Beginning in the late 1970s, he created a body of work that spanned photography, painting, music, film, sculpture, writing, and activism. Distrustful of inherited structures—a feeling amplified by the resurgence of conservative politics—he varied his repertoire to better infiltrate the prevailing culture.
Wojnarowicz saw the outsider as his true subject. Queer and HIV-positive, he was an impassioned advocate for people with AIDS as an inconceivable number of friends, lovers, and strangers—disproportionately gay men—died from government inaction. Wojnarowicz himself died from AIDS-related complications at the age of thirty-seven. However, Wojnarowicz’s work is too frequently treated as a footnote to a desperate period of American history, that of the AIDS crisis and culture wars. His true place is among the raging and haunting iconoclastic artists who have explored American myths, their perpetuation, their repercussions, and their violence.