Writer and critic Lucy Lippard draws a parallel between the works of Wojnarowicz and those of Robert Smithson, the sculptor and photographer associated with 1970s conceptual and process-oriented art, which rejected the commercialization of art and embraced anti-urbanism. Lippard notes that both artists were accomplished writers and photographers, and shared a mutual fascination with maps, reptiles, dinosaurs, and imagery related to science fiction, geological time, the industrial landscape and industrial decay. In Wojnarowicz art there are frequent and ominous references to clocks and time, and he uses cut-up maps and money repeatedly to suggest the artificiality of geographical, social and political boundaries.
Natural subjects like insects and tornadoes are employed to suggest the biological forces of nature and mankinds present disharmony with those forces. This is powerfully illustrated by the artists emblematic photograph of a herd of buffalo being driven off a cliff (Untitled, 1988-89), an image taken from a diorama at the National History Museum in Washington, DC. The Ant Series, (1988) in which plastic ants are placed on the surface of photos that are then re-photographed, plays with sexuality, art, death and religion in an almost carefree manner.
With the unfolding of the AIDS crisis, Wojnarowiczs analysis and critique of society became increasingly focused in the late 1980s. He used his own diagnosis of AIDS as the impetus to speak out and to emphasize the artist as a public figure. Unlike many of his contemporaries such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Wojnarowiczs iconic imagery struggles to retain emotive content, with direct connections to his personal experience and political beliefs. The work of his later years convey a sense of urgency and imminent mortality, as well as capture the inherent dynamism and diversity of human experience.
Through mixed media works, photomontages, and many performances and installations, the artist addressed the personal and political dimensions of AIDS with moving clarity. In the Sex Series, (1988-89), Wojnarowicz adds a disturbing undertone to stock images of the city, a feeling heightened by the incorporation of photos, mostly explicit sex images clipped from gay pornography, set into round frames. The combination and composition of images invite us to imagine that these smaller scenes are being carried out undercover within the larger ones.
In Untitled [One day this kid ], a photo-text collage from 1990, Wojnarowicz includes a 1950s snapshot of himself as a young boy, surrounded by a foreboding text that outlines the probable outcome of the discovery of his homosexuality. The boy finds out that his desire is not controlled by himself, but by the family, church, school, medical community, law enforcement and government, and that he inevitably will be driven to conform, be silent, or suffer the disciplines of society.
It is Wojnarowiczs refusal to be silent that imbues the work with such power. His heavily documented life and the art he produced have become examples of one mans attempt to awaken social consciousness and transform the worlds disdain into a powerful indictment against intolerance and apathy.
-- by Dan Cameron, Senior Curator and Dennis Szakacs, Deputy Director, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York
Fever: The Art of David Wojnarowicz is on display at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, from January 21 - June 20, 1999.