Nancy Princenthal on David Wojnarowicz


As part of the Annual Guide to Galleries, Museums, and Artists (A.i.A.’s August issue), we preview the 2017–18 season of museum exhibitions worldwide. In addition to offering their own top picks, our editors asked select artists, curators, and other experts to identify the shows they are looking forward to. Here, Nancy Princenthal talks about David Wojnarowicz.

“We haven’t seen a quantity of David Wojnarowicz‘s work together for over a decade. The changing context for art that has any kind of activist impulse, the changing context for thinking about AIDS and everything to do with identity, makes his work seem especially pertinent. He was a pioneer in many ways. It’s time to take another look at how he worked across mediums, implementing a performance practice along with painting, collage, and photography.

“More than anything else, Wojnarowicz defied stereotypes and barriers that have to do with class, which is the most divisive thing in our culture at the moment—more challenging than race or gender identity. He was sophisticated and plugged in but taught himself about art. The idea of being a self-educated artist is something that has come under a lot of scrutiny in the last decade. Works once relegated to ghettos for outsider art are now being integrated more and more into mainstream exhibitions and collections. 

“I can’t say exactly how I became familiar with his work. I know I saw shows at Civilian Warfare and Gracie Mansion in the East Village. He’s deeply associated with that scene. Now it seems like a different planet. I remember thinking, ‘This guy is telling me something that I don’t know.’ I wasn’t familiar with that kind of life—one of street hustling and childhood abuse. Wojnarowicz was so savagely honest about where he came from and making it part of his work, which is full of passion and rage but still has this amazingly lyrical touch. He never turned his back on his background. This is still unusual. The art world as it is now likes to think of itself as class blind but is increasingly distorted by the market. This has been an issue for as long as I’ve been in the art world but seems to be growing exponentially. 

“The ‘Rimbaud in New York’ photo series [1978–79]—all those shots of a man wearing a mask that bears the face of the French poet—exemplifies a kind of intervention in the civic world in a radical performative mode, one aspect of his work that I think has been very influential. Wojnarowicz increasingly became an AIDS activist, and he integrated his demands for acknowledgment and support in a proactive way in his work. His courage and his honesty are important models.”


“David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night,” Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, July 2018.

NANCY PRINCENTHAL is a New York–based writer and contributing editor of Art in America. Her most recent book, Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art (2015), won the 2016 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography.