David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) was as full of contradictions as the changing East Village neighborhood he lived in during the 1980s. For nearly every quality of mind or personality the emblematic artist-activist possessed, its opposite seemed to coexist within him. His commitment to speaking truth to power, for instance, was countered by a difficulty revealing intimate feelings to friends. The heroic public persona he created was both a mask to disguise his psychic pain and a mirror that accurately reflected the impassioned artist. As his longtime friend Susan Gauthier told Cynthia Carr, author of the new biography Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz, the artist “wanted to be a puzzle nobody could figure out.” Carr goes even further, insisting that “he never told everything.” And yet her compelling and authoritative account is likely to answer any conceivable question a reader might have about Wojnarowicz.
Like many other people who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, Wojnarowicz saw his early life documented in innocuous-looking snapshots, several of which appear in the book. These Ozzie-and-Harriet-style photos are extremely incongruous, given Carr’s stark descriptions of the artists’s upbringing in a household devastated by alcoholism and physical abuse. Rivetingly awful, Wojnarowicz’s home life seems deeply relevant to his later life and work.
The family history begins with the marriage in 1948 of David’s father, the then 26-year-old seaman Ed Wojnarowicz, and his mother, Dolores, an Australian beauty 10 years Ed’s junior. Of their three children—a girl and two boys—David, born in Red Bank, N.J., was the youngest. Violence—both real and vividly threatened—was a traumatic constant. Dolores divorced Ed in 1956, when David was two. Ed remarried and, in 1958, kidnapped the three children and took them to his native Michigan. A year later, for seafaring convenience, he moved the family back to coastal New Jersey. In 1976, Ed hung himself, and two days later, on Christmas Eve, David came out to the family as gay.
Improbably, Dolores’s performance as a mother—marked by a truly disturbing unpredictability—was little better. Just before Ed kidnapped the kids, Dolores boarded them out, moved to Manhattan, and did not see them again for five years. (Carr points out that this “boarding them out” is not synonymous with putting them up for adoption—but, either way, it sounds a lot like desertion.) Later, Dolores occasionally reached out to David—often by postcard at birthdays—and attended a couple of his early readings. But for the most part, she coyly discouraged contact, causing David’s siblings to banish her from their lives for the first half of the 1980s. Yet David found Dolores impossible to excise from his life or consciousness—because, Carr believes, she (unlike Ed) remained alive, undercutting his impulse to re-create her for a romanticized version of the family history.
One hardly needs a psychoanalyst to connect the dots between David’s later behavior and his parents’ instability: Ed’s drunken bullying and beatings seem to have provided a model for David’s high-decibel, often unjustified outbursts of temper and hurt; Dolores’s controlling and withholding behavior probably set the pattern for David’s exasperating on-again/off-again relationships with several female friends. Two of the most notable of these nonsexual connections were with fellow East Village artist Kiki Smith and with Marion Scemama, a photographer from Paris. He and Scemama sometimes worked collaboratively, and their bond may have been the most intense of his adulthood.
In the male domain, Wojnarowicz’s deepest rapport seems to have been with the photographer Peter Hujar, who was 20 years older than the newcomer. Briefly a lover, Hujar was far more essential as gay mentor and urbane art-world guide. In 1987, Wojnarowicz took 23 photographs of Hujar immediately after his death and thereafter continued to work with them, saying later, “Everything I made, I made for Peter.” For the last seven years of Wojnarowicz’s life, his lover was Tom Rauffenbart, a child welfare worker who was sexy, good-hearted, middle-class and “utterly dependable,” according to Carr. He also operated from an emotional remove nearly as vast as Wojnarowicz’s. The artist kept Rauffenbart and the majority of his friends so far apart that some of them were unaware of his existence until Wojnarowicz’s death grew imminent.
Fire in the Belly deals with far more than psychology. Carr describes in minute detail Wojnarowicz’s evolution from writer and fledgling rocker (he was part of the band 3 Teens Kill 4—No Motive) to visual artist, performer and neophyte video- and filmmaker, all set against the backdrop of the East Village and the AIDS epidemic. Writing was a far more constant element of Wojnarowicz’s work than visual imagery or music, and the first work for which he received credit (and payment) was literary. A promiscuous boundary breaker, he relished the postmodernist dissolution of barriers between disciplines and often repurposed his Beat-inflected texts in his artwork or peppered his writing with visual art. This mix is strikingly evident in Close to the Knives, a selection of his short literary nonfiction published in April 1991, a year before his death.
Knives originated when a very determined Random House editorial assistant named Karen Rinaldi encountered a Wojnarowicz text in a downtown gallery. (She would later acquire and edit Carr’s Fire in the Belly.) Wojnarowicz, who thrived on the cultural density and ferment of New York, also loved nature and had itchy feet. For a starving young artist, he spent a surprising amount of time traveling in Paris, the Southwest and Mexico. It was in Teotihuacán that he shot the footage for the never-finished film A Fire in My Belly, which in late 2010, some 18 years after the artist’s death, would cause a censorship dispute fomented by the Catholic League and other organizations of the religious right. These groups objected when the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., included a brief video version of Fire in the gay-themed survey exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” As edited by the show’s co-curators, the piece contains an 11-second sequence depicting ants crawling over a crucifix—a scene that League president William Donohue charged was blasphemous. The head of the Smithsonian Institution, fearing congressional defunding, peremptorily removed the video, and the incident created the sort of uproar that first brought Wojnarowicz national attention in 1989.
That was the year he wrote “Postcards from America: X-Rays from Hell,” an incendiary catalogue essay for “Wit-nesses: Against Our Vanishing,” an exhibition of work by artists with AIDS,organized by the photographer Nan Goldinfor the New York nonprofit Artists Space. Dedicated to the still-living of the downtown scene—though many of the participants were presumably soon to be deceased, given the futile treatment options for HIV at the time—the project had received $10,000 from the NEA. Wojnarowicz’s essay was a rude, impassioned indictment of inaction and/or opposition to effective responses to the AIDS crisis. He targeted primarily local and federal government officials and the Catholic Church, personified by New York’s archbishop, Cardinal John O’Connor, whom Wojnarowicz characterized as a “fat cannibal from the house of walking swastikas.” As in the controversy over Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ that same year, it was words rather than images that most offended censorious legislators in Washington. John Frohnmayer, the dithering chairman of the NEA, convened an expert panel, which found merit in the show’s art—a judgment that incensed Senator Jesse Helms and his conservative cohorts and led to Frohnmayer’s nonsensical decision to fund the show but not the catalogue.
In the process of covering the spectacularly messy events at Artists Space for the Village Voice, I spoke with Wojnarowicz on the phone daily—and periodically for my arts-politics column after that. (Disclosure: Carr and I were colleagues at the Village Voice from 1987 to 1992, although I didn’t know her well. I had similar relationships with many of the artists, gallerists and activists who figure in the book.) Despite the grim realities of the day, the only topic Wojnarowicz invariably raised during our numerous calls in 1989–90 was his anger at being used as a bogeyman by the religious right, especially for fundraising purposes.
By the time of the Artists Space incident, the loss of the East Village to money and hype, pseudo-artists and real-estate developers, was ancient history. Commentators like Rene Ricard and Carlo McCormick had announced the neighborhood’s death years earlier, and a consensus developed among hipsters that the late-1983 arrival of nonartist Pat Hearn’s posh new gallery on Avenue A signaled more than the beginning of the end. (Some 25 galleries had opened by this time, with another 150 or so on the way.) Wojnarowicz, remaining indifferent to money, never cashed in on the frantic commercial activity of the East Village during the mid-’80s, and he later rejected an invitation to do a Gap ad.
Fear of controversy—reinforced by a sort of informal blacklist—may help account for the fact that Wojnarowicz had only a single museum solo during his lifetime (and few since, most notably Dan Cameron’s career survey for the New Museum some 13 years ago). Thanks to a suggestion from dealer Gracie Mansion, Barry Blinderman, director of the Illinois State University galleries in Normal, organized a large retrospective of Wojnarowicz’s work, “Tongues of Flame,” which opened in 1990, two weeks after “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing” closed. At the time, I recall, it was noteworthy for the positive buzz and large audiences it drew during its yearlong U.S. tour. Now—thanks to Carr’s prodigious reporting—we also learn that, despite his diminishing energy, Wojnarowicz struck up a long-term, nonsexual mentoring relationship with Patrick McDonnell, an ISU grad student who helped him install the show in Illinois. Moreover, Carr points out, the formation of Normal’s ACT UP chapter took place inside the university gallery, surrounded by Wojnarowicz’s work.
I have only a few cavils with Carr. She occasionally falls for Wojnarowicz’s self-exoticizing stance as a hustler-turned-unschooled-artist. (He was both, having peddled himself for sex in Times Square, yet how long can someone so visually sophisticated and morally driven be considered a delinquent?) And she can be oddly reticent about interpreting some of his art. Referring to a work that includes the image of a Savarin coffee can, Carr doesn’t recognize (or at least doesn’t acknowledge) this as a signature motif of Jasper Johns, the superstar (and closeted gay) artist of the day, who had retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum during the late 1970s and ’80s. More important—and surprising—Carr treats the so-called culture wars ahistorically, as though they emerged with the assaults on the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, rather than at least a century earlier in such forms as the Comstock laws. (Named after Postmaster General Anthony Comstock, these laws clamped down on “indecent” photographs and books, as well as abortion and contraception information and devices shipped by mail across state lines.)
Interestingly, Fire in the Belly arrives two years after the publication of Patti Smith’s Just Kids. Smith’sNational Book Award-winning memoir describes the coming-of-age she shared with Mapplethorpe, like Wojnarowicz a gay artist who lived in downtown Manhattan amid the censorship skirmishes and died of AIDS before his time. Yet how different are these artists and their art! While Mapplethorpe’s photographs represent gay liberation, unitary identity and a late modern mode of representation, Wojnarowicz’s wildly protean queer art anticipates postmodern practice, with its shattering of representational norms and forms, its flickering focus and lack of resolution.
Carr’s lucidly written, novelistic narrative sometimes portrays Wojnarowicz as engaged in an existential struggle to heal himself, physically and psychologically, before he dies of AIDS. Late in his short life, the artist entered psychotherapy, but he remained plagued by his dysfunctional background and constant depression, while the East Village body count from AIDS rose steadily. Nonetheless, the book’s inevitable conclusion is devastating.
Fire in the Belly will surely prompt readers to meditate on loss and possibility. Loss not just of the work Wojnarowicz never got to make but also of the ideal of moral authority he came to personify. Yet larger than any individual loss was the tragic devastation of an entire community of artists, gay and/or needle-using, in downtown New York. Some of those individuals, now obscured by time’s haze or critical neglect, were once avidly talked about; others died too young to have reached—or even truly discovered—their potential. Perhaps Carr’s book is a hopeful harbinger of the numerous AIDS-art-themed books and exhibitions currently in the works. If there is a God, their artist-subjects will receive the probing and insightful treatment Carr accords Wojnarowicz in this monumental biography.
ROBERT ATKINS is cofounder of the advocacy group Visual AIDS, founding editor of the online journal Artery: The AIDS-Art Forum and co-curator of the traveling exhibition “From Media to Metaphor: Art About AIDS”(1991-93).