David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night
The Whitney Museum of American Art, July 13–September 30
“To make the private into something public is an action that has terrific ramifications”: these words introduce History Keeps Me Awake at Night, a survey of David Wojnarowicz’s work recently on exhibit at New York’s Whitney Museum. Now an icon of 1980s and ’90s AIDS activism, Wojnarowicz (pronounced “voy-na-row-vitch”) took precisely that action, creating art that revealed deeply personal outrage in an era when the lives of LGBTQ people were considered expendable. While the AIDS epidemic (and politicians’ willful apathy toward it) was at the front of his mind, Wojnarowicz’s resistance was rooted in wider, more universal concerns—gay rights, but also care for the poor and the victims of global capitalism. His oeuvre reads, in his own words, as “an iconography of crisis and vulnerability,” spurred by a desire to amplify long-suppressed voices. It wasn’t important that you liked his art, he insisted: merely that it did something to you, that it provoked. Twenty-six years after Wojnarowicz’s death from AIDS-related complications, the Whitney’s retrospective finds new relevance, resonating with calls for change in contemporary America—a divided nation, unified in familiar apathy toward those at the margins.
Wojnarowicz worked in a striking variety of media, from gelatin silver prints and paintings to plaster and collage. Yet his art isn’t that cutting-edge; his aesthetic is heavily predicated on art that preceded it. (“History Keeps Me Awake at Night” suggests, after all, engagement with the past.) His work built linearly on the burgeoning “trash aesthetic” of New York’s 1960s avant-garde, a political mode of representation introduced by artists like Claes Oldenburg and Jack Smith.
The show’s early works point to Wojnarowicz’s place in this canon of outcasts. Like other artists from the era, he was influenced by the early modernist poet Arthur Rimbaud, viewing him as something of a kindred spirit—not least because Wojnarowicz was himself also a writer. Rimbaudian formulations like “Je suis un autre,” or “I is an other,” shaped Wojnarowicz’s self-perception as a social outcast, cognizant of but powerless to confront the world’s madness. This is reflected in a series of gelatin silver prints in which Wojnarowicz’s friend, wearing a Rimbaud mask, is posed in various scenes from New York’s underbelly: a displaced flâneur alongside hanging carcasses in the Meatpacking District, or sitting among strangers on a heavily graffitied subway.