Around 1982, Wojnarowicz met Kiki smith, who invited him to participate in the "A-more" Christmas store, run by the large, anarchistic artist's group Colab (Collaborative Projects). The two artists collaborated on some prints incorporated psychiatric drawings and Rorschach tests Wojnarowicz had found in a warehouse--part of a cache of abandoned police files on people who were arrested in the ‘50s. Also in 1982 he was in a group show at a SoHo gallery that offered him a solo show:
Some creep from SoHo thought I might be the next Keith haring. I'd never really painted, but I said, oh, yeah, I do paintings, and I went home and put it together in three months. There was some very adamant homo art in it, a thing called Wild Boys Busting Up Western Civilization--all these naked guys having sex, armed with rifles, an explosion of civilization, money, statues, all this cultural stuff. They freaked out. They kept asking why can't you do something like Keith that's so positive?
The show took place but was ill attended and things ended badly, with the gallery destroying some of the paintings through neglect telling Wojnarowicz he was crazy. That might have been the end of his art career (always a haphazard affair in any case), but at the same time he met Dean Savard, then handling out free supplies from the art store where he worked. Savard was opening the iconoclastic Civilian Warfare gallery in the East Village and asked Wonjnarowicz to show there. He made a mural on "one of those photographic things you can buy to transform you room into a tropical rain forest or whatever." The huge work--figures painted over the surface of the moon (executed in section in a tiny storefront on Houston Street)--was well received and so " was something else after the experience in SoHo."
This was the moment when the "East Village Art Scene" was born. "Grace Glueck came in and started talking about this stuff called East Village art, which we privately thought was a big joke," Wojnarowicz recalls, "but we kept a straight face through it: Oh yea, east Village art."
When the foreign journalists starting coming we realized oh my god this is serious. It was basically a media invention, and it was interesting to watch the whole process. As soon as the real money started hitting us it all fell apart. Everybody suddenly panicked. Stated thinking about heir futures, their lives, great amounts of money. Most people were extremely naïve, including myself. By 1986 I realized there were spotlights, and they moved around.
Although he had briefly attended the high school of Music and Art (where his huge panoramas of street battles between radicals, Black Panthers and the police--"very late ‘60's"--were hidden or destroyed by teachers), Wojnarowicz's high school career didn't last long, and it was years before he considered himself and artist.
The first couple of years I was showing stuff I was just waiting for somebody to find out that I wasn't an artist and blow the whole thing. I felt bogus. I'd thought artists were over forty.... I also had a lot of loose ideas about what art might be. I knew nothing about the structure of the art world. I thought that when you had a show, then somebody bought a painting, then somebody else bought a painting, that it was a lifelong process that never stopped, that once you started, people would watch the growth of what you do. Very, very naïve.
Even in the early days, Wojnarowicz's overcast vision of nature and culture separated him from his comrades in the Lower East Side boom. Having experienced real danger and depravity, he didn't need to exaggerate it. But despite his nightmarish subject matter, a sense of beauty and order has always permeated his own detailed, tightly constructed work. At that time, a lot of his friends were down on the art worlds, and he realized that even though he respected their disenchantment, he really did care about making things:
I thought, what are my options? I could go back to being a janitor, but I'll be more miserable.... My own feelings about the art world are weird. At the bottom line it's like the drug hierarchies. Certain people put the price on [the art], determine what it is t, the amount. It's distasteful, but economically it gives you access to time, access to thought, to a dialogue with yourself. It's a form of communication, a whole slew of forms that can act as magnets, draw people to it, make people feel less alien in this environment. That's how it served me. When I was a skid, being a public figure, anyone, who could have touched me, it would have been a connection and I could have been off the streets a lot earlier.
For a couple of years in the mid- to late ‘80s, Wojnarowicz was selling his art and getting a lot of attention, although abjuring the social encounters with those who bought or might buy his work. Then things went sour." I was really confused by all this money, success. It was really overwhelming, and I was just very angry. I just pulled back. Things just seemed to disintegrate." At the same time Hujar had become ill"
This guy was my family, like a father or brother. Even in my own fears of getting a diagnosis, I'd never imagined that Peter would ever be ill or die. All I could imagine even in the worst depression was that his guy would tell people at my funeral who I was.... I was broke. The strain was incredible. I thought I was going off. The on good thing that came out of it was I hit a point of finding out what was important to me, what I cared about in my life.
Wojnarowicz says he is "mapping out the world as I see it... questioning the safety zone." In a period obsessed with power and desire, his work simply is powerful, and it oozes with desire on the sexual, emotional, and intellectual levels. In the monumental painting Late Afternoon in The Forest (1986), the only light in the tarry dusk comes from the upper left-hand corner where two images of the Parthenon flanking the White House gleam white--the ironic last flicker of Western civilization. The rest of the canvas presents a terrifying ruin, with the Wojnarowiczian mask-head with sewn lips ruling over the dark gray rubble. The only sparks of color are provided by and Indian warrior, a four-armed (or forearmed), angel, a tribal figure with drum, the anatomy of a bird grafted onto a place wreck and giant red ants occupying a gothic church. The central gray image in the sharp gloom is three disembodied gears—a dues ex machina. In his writings, he compares the rusting remains of industrial civilization to an insect that has metamorphosed and left its crumbling shell behind.
Late Afternoon is painting about death in the broadest, sense a truly fearsome scene of total desolation, a deeply pessimistic vision of the world that lacks the angry vitality of much of Wojnarowicz's work. AT the same time, the artist's disaffection is in itself a sign of vitality, belying the loss of hope suggested by the disappearing "white light" of the dominant culture. As the French writer Felix Guattari has written of Wojnarowicz's work in general: The image is not only meant to exhibit passively significant forms, but to trigger an existential movement, if not of revolt, then at least of existential creativity." Wojnarowicz has said that his recurrent dreams of tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, and volcanoes--natural forces that take control out of human hands--"gave me faith in the nature and possibilities of change." Where he once gained comfort from psychic mysteries and the other worlds experienced in dreams, he now resists all extrasensorial solace" "There Is something I want to see clearly, something I want to witness in its raw state. And this need comes form my sense of mortality.
Along these lines, inspired by the outrageous "third death" from AIDS of his friend Keith Davis (doctors had brutally "saved" him the fist two times), Wojnarowicz wrote:
Hell is a place on earth. Heaven is a place in your head. The garden is the place I'll go if I die. I don't believe in afterlife, really.... But that doesn't mean I don't like the idea of tiny angels or ghosts accompanying people in life and death and offering them small comforts in unimaginable ways. Gimme a dozen angels; sweet sexy angels; little creatures that fly around like dumb bugs in the wind.... So this garden is where I'll go' the gears are the residue of the manufactured world I was bon into. The train is the acceleration of time; the tornado the force of displacement in death; the Indian chief a cheap WWII doll that for me translates culture into something that can be owned--less than a century ago the wholesale slaughter of Indians was commonplace and they'd have been completely exterminated if not for organization and resistance; today the homosexual in America sustains the same slaughter which is socially acceptable in most areas.
Wojnarowicz maintains in his art an overwhelming vision of the energies that connect everything to everything else. While so many artists today seem ready to tackle the Big Questions, their approaches too often seem simultaneously well intended and faked. One senses that the question are being addressed because "they are there," and because mainstream art has neglected them in the last two decades and their time has rolled around again, rather than from any visceral necessity to ask them Wojnarowicz, on the other hand, seems almost helpless before these questions, unable to avoid them. He also has the courage to take sides: " I put these things out there because that's what I want to see out there. I want to see strength. I want to see people fighting back. I want to be part of thousands out there."