As I investigate the history of the A.I.D.S. crisis in Greenwich Village and delve into the Downtown Collection at Fales Library, It is difficult not to get caught up in one particular personal collection. Expansive and varied, the Wojnarowicz collection is uniquely alluring. I am fascinated by works in progress and ways in which the artistic process if made visible and legible and the Wojnarowicz collection offers unusual insight into the life and work of an exceptional and influential local artist.
David Wojnarowicz was a prominent member of the 1980s East Village art scene. His collection includes hundred of photographs, manuscripts, correspondence and phone logs as well as original video and art. Excitingly, Wojnarowicz’s notebooks have been digitized and are available here.
It’s amazing to be able to read through his notes, some fragmentary and some complex. The content is fascinating but it is also interesting to note that the Wojnarowicz notebooks are the most contemporary digitization project at Fales Library. With the support of the Wojnarowicz estate, hundreds of pages of his notebooks are available online.
As an openly gay artist, Wojnarowicz’s depictions of eroticism and experience are implicitly controversial; but after the loss of his lover to A.I.D.S. and his own diagnosis in the mid-1980s, his work dealt explicitly with themes of disease and decay, confronting issues of ignorance and fear surrounding the A.I.D.S. epidemic. His documentation of his own experiences as a gay man struggling to articulate an unrepresented identity through art is powerful, violent and visual. Wojnarowicz’s use of the the male body imagery of death help to symbolize the violence done to real gay bodies.
Wojnarowicz was an iconic member of the A.I.D.S. activist and art scenes in the Greenwich Village area but he is maybe better known because of his legal clashes with the religious Right. After the American Family Association distributed cropped reproductions of his works in an attempt to eradicate funding for “obscene” art in 1989, Wojnarowicz successfully sued for defamation.
Wojnarowicz’s obscenity became the subject of debate again in 2010 when controversy emerged over his short film A Fire in My Belly. After the Catholic League complained about imagery that included ants crawling over a crucifix, the piece was removed from the Smithsonian exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” The controversial removal spawned debate about arts funding, freedom of speech, and queer representation. His work continues to ignite fury in American fascists decades after his death.
Wojnarowicz died of A.I.D.S. in 1992. His coffin was carried through Greenwich VIllage in the first “political funeral” of the A.I.D.S. epidemic.
“To turn our private grief for the loss of friends, family, lovers and strangers into something public would serve as another powerful dismantling tool. It would dispel the notion that this virus has a sexual orientation or a moral code. It would nullify the belief that the government and medical community has done very much to ease the spread or advancement of this disease.
I imagine what it would be like if friends had a demonstration each time a lover or a friend or a stranger died of AIDS. I imagine what it would be like if, each time a lover, friend or stranger died of this disease, their friends, lovers or neighbors would take the dead body and drive with it in a car a hundred miles an hour to washington d.c. and blast through the gates of the white house and come to a screeching halt before the entrance and dump their lifeless form on the front steps.”
– DAVID WOJNAROWICZ
Cotter, Holland. “As Ants Crawl Over Crucifix, Dead Artist Is Assailed Again.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 10 Dec. 2010.
Kimmelman, Michael. “David Wojnarowicz, 37, Artist in Many Media.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 23 July 1992. Web.
Liebenthal, Ryann. “The Many Fictions of David Wojnarowicz, Chronicled in a New Biography | Capital New York.” The Many Fictions of David Wojnarowicz, Chronicled in a New Biography | Capital New York. Capital, 31 July 2012.