David Wojnarowicz Retrospective At The Whitney Explores The Enduring Resonance Of An Artist Who Merged The Personal And The Political

This summer, the most complete presentation to date of the work of artist, writer, and activist David Wojnarowicz will be on view in a full-scale retrospective organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art. David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night is the first major re-evaluation since 1999 of one of the most fervent and essential voices of his generation.

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David Wojnarowicz with Tom Warren, Self-Portrait of David Wojnarowicz, 1983–84. Acrylic and collaged paper on gelatin silver print, 60 × 40 in. (152.4 × 101.6 cm). Collection of Brooke Garber Neidich and Daniel Neidich, Photograph by Ron Amstutz. (The exhibition is organized by David Breslin, DeMartini Family Curator and Director of the Collection, and David Kiehl, Curator Emeritus, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.)

Opening at the Whitney on July 13 and running through September 30, David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night features more than a hundred works by the artist and is organized by two Whitney curators, David Breslin, DeMartini Family Curator and Director of the Collection, and David Kiehl, Curator Emeritus. The exhibition, which will be installed in the Museum’s fifth floor Neil Bluhm Family Galleries through September 30, draws upon the scholarly resources of the Fales Library and Special Collections (NYU), the repository of Wojnarowicz’s archive, and is also built on the foundation of the Whitney’s extensive holdings of Wojnarowicz’s work, including thirty works from the Museum’s collection. It will travel to the Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid, in May 2019, and to Mudam Luxembourg – Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean, Luxembourg City, in November 2019.

Scott Rothkopf, Deputy Director for Programs and Nancy and Steve Crown Family Chief Curator, remarked, “Since his death more than twenty-five years ago, David Wojnarowicz has become an almost mythic figure, haunting, inspiring, and calling to arms subsequent generations through his inseparable artistic and political examples. This retrospective will enable so many to confront for the first time, or anew, the groundbreaking multidisciplinary body of work on which his legacy actually stands.”

Beginning in the late 1970s, David Wojnarowicz (1954–1992) created a body of work that spanned photography, painting, music, film, sculpture, writing, performance, and activism. Joining a lineage of iconoclasts, Wojnarowicz (pronounced Voyna-ROW-vich) saw the outsider as his true subject. His mature period began with a series of photographs and collages that honored—and placed himself among—consummate countercultural figures like Arthur Rimbaud, William Burroughs, and Jean Genet. Even as he became well-known in the East Village art scene for his mythological paintings, Wojnarowicz remained committed to writing personal essays. Queer and HIV-positive, Wojnarowicz became an impassioned advocate for people with AIDS at a time when an inconceivable number of friends, lovers, and strangers—disproportionately gay men—were dying from the disease and from government inaction.

After hitchhiking across the U.S. and living for several months in San Francisco, and then in Paris, David Wojnarowicz settled in New York in 1978 and soon after began to exhibit his work in East Village galleries. Largely self-taught, Wojnarowicz came to prominence in New York in the 1980s, a period marked by great creative energy and profound cultural changes. Intersecting movements—graffiti, new and no wave music, conceptual photography, performance, neo-expressionist painting—made New York a laboratory for innovation. Unlike many artists, Wojnarowicz refused a signature style, adopting a wide variety of techniques with an attitude of radical possibility. Distrustful of inherited structures, a feeling amplified by the resurgence of conservative politics, Wojnarowicz varied his repertoire to better infiltrate the culture.

His essay for the catalog accompanying the exhibition Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing (curated by Nan Goldin at Artists Space in 1989–90) came under fire for its vitriolic attack on politicians and leaders who were preventing AIDS treatment and awareness. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) threatened to defund the exhibition, and Wojnarowicz fought against this and for the first amendment rights of artists. Continue reading