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En Español

Wojnarowicz’s work emerged directly from his life. He knew little art history, had no training past high school, and made a point of not trolling the galleries to see what everyone else was doing. Exposed to unusual hardship as a boy, as a sexually active teen, and as a street person, he didn’t see his experience reflected in the culture. Art was his antidote. Art was his way of witnessing.

-- C. Carr

Click image for enlargement


"Arthur Rimbaud in New York" (Duchamp, Pier), 1978-79.
From a series of twenty-four gelatin-silver prints,
10” x 8” each. Private collection.

David Wojnarowicz is recognized as one of the most potent voices of his generation, and his singular artistic achievements place him firmly within a long-standing American tradition of the artist as visionary, rebel and public figure. Art historian and critic John Carlin likens Wojnarowicz to the great American 19th century poet Walt Whitman, the preeminent celebrator of individual freedom. Carlin likens Whitman’s verbal poetry, which was inspired by the rhythms of New York slang and the rhetoric of American journalism, to Wojnarowicz’s visual poetry, which emerged from social history, popular culture, and his own dreams and visions.


Often overlapping text, paint, collaged elements, and photography, and sometimes organizing them in quadrants or comic strip-like frames, Wojnarowicz created provocative narratives and historical allegories dealing with dialectical themes of order and disorder, birth and death. His funky collage sensibilities are rooted in Bay Area assemblagist methods of the 1950s and 1960s practiced by such artists as Jess, Bruce Conner and George Herms. Wojnarowicz’s signature method of compressing historical time and activity with an accomplished collage technique further intensifies the impact of his work. In Crash: The Birth of Language/The Invention of Lies (1986), Wojnarowicz depicts Western culture as a metaphorical train wreck that crashes into and destroys past indigenous cultures, ultimately giving birth to language which facilitates questionable “progress” and reckless human expansion.


A strong identification with uniquely American idioms is manifest in Wojnarowicz’s art. His source materials include comics, science fiction, news, and mass advertising. Wojnarowicz developed a distinct vocabulary of symbols that took on meaning through careful combinations that played off one another ironically and metaphorically. Iconic and idiosyncratic at the same time, his recurring cast of characters includes a burning man, a man with a target over his left eye, a cowboy riding a bull, a dinosaur, and an upside-down cow.


Wojnarowicz was inspired by such Pop Art luminaries as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. He drew upon the common experiences of most Americans, and used ordinary images to construct abstract formal relationships. Symbols of the American dream are recontextualized and deployed as searing indictments of American capitalism and violence. Advertisements are transformed into visions of horror, as in his supermarket ad series. Untitled [Sirloin Steaks] (1983), is a fusion of eroticism and death, a powerful indication of the rage he felt at how much more attention society gave to killing men rather than loving them.


In his rebellious struggle against conformity, materialism and mechanization, one can see the formative influence of the 1950s Beat writers on Wojnarowicz’s art. Just as the Beats found America in the 1950s to be a dehumanized prison of exclusionary mainstream values, Wojnarowicz found America in the 1980s to be in a similar ethical state of emergency. His allegiance to the Beats, especially Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs also can be seen in his profound concern with spiritual matters. In The Death of American Spirituality (1987), Wojnarowicz depicts a cowboy riding a bull, collaged from newspaper articles referring to gangsters, Oliver North, AIDS and advertisements for cars and electronics. Images of a kachina doll, a snake charmer, and Jesus fade into a background of factories and exploding rocks. The work suggests many layers of meaning, but the implication of the loss of belief in myth, religion and history is clear.


In Water (1987), one of the “Four Elements” series, Wojnarowicz attempts to create a semblance of order from events and forces that were completely beyond his control. The painting contains a black-and-white storyboard juxtaposing explicit sexual imagery with biological specimens, circular abstractions, landscapes and other fantasy images. In this deeply personal interpretation of its theme, Water offers a wrenching glimpse of the sadness at the heart of Wojnarowicz’s struggle to become a painter, on the threshold of the final, most productive phase of his life.

"Peter Hujar Dreaming/Yukio Mishima: St. Sebastian," 1982.
Acrylic and spray paint on masonite, 48” x 48”.
Collection of Evan Lurie (a bequest of Keith Davis), New York.

"Untitled" [Sirloin Steaks], 1983.
Acrylic on poster, 47” x 32 1/2”.
Collection of Hal Bromm, New York.

"Fuck You Faggot Fucker," 1984.
Black-and-white photographs, acrylic, and collage on masonite
48” x 48”.
Collection of Barry Blinderman, Normal, Illinois.

"The Death of American Spirituality," 1987.
Mixed media on plywood (two panels), 81” x 88” overall.
Collection of John Carlin and Renee Dossick, Edgewater, New Jersey.

"Water," 1987.
Acrylic, ink, and collage on masonite, 72” x 96”.
Collection of Steven Johnson and Walter Sudol, New York.

"Untitled," 1988.
Acrylic on color contact sheets, 11” x 12 5/8”.
Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.


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