David Wojnarowicz – The Fire Still Burns

By Sharilyn Neidhardt

David Wojnarowicz , Untitled (Face in Dirt), 1991 (printed 1993). Gelatin silver print, 19 × 23 in. (48.3 × 58.4 cm). Collection of Ted and Maryanne Ellison Simmons. Image courtesy the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W, New York
Like a gut-punch for the eyes, The David Wojnarowicz show History Keeps Me Awake at Night at the Whitney Museum of American Art hits the viewer with a visceral, almost-physical jolt of emotion. Bodies are veiled in photographic shadow and light, primary colors leap off large canvases stuffed with collage, lighted globes and spoken words combine to map out the passion and rage experienced by the artist in his relatively short life. There is such variety in the exhibition that my friend and I almost missed a whole gallery, mistaking it for a different artist’s work.

Inventive and wide-ranging, Wojnarowicz never seemed to sit still. He played in a band ‘3 Teens Kill 4’, shot tender photographic portraits, wrote eloquent prose and poetry, which in turn leapt onto his surreal and overstuffed canvases. A whole gallery of plaster ‘alien’ heads is gathered like an otherworldly audience. City detritus like subway posters, vinyl records, and trash can lids are variously pressed into service as painting surfaces. One imagines he created art out of anything he could set his hands on.

David Wojnarowicz, installation view, photo courtesy of Sharilyn Neidhardt

The paintings on display are as disparate in style as they are packed with symbolism. Blood cells tangle with hints of the supernatural, while collaged sheets of currency and Mercator projections are layered over with silkscreen and spray-paint. Flowers and dinosaurs compete with star systems and timepieces against a backdrop of urgency and anger. Wojnarowicz saw tyranny in conformity and this exhibition touches on the many forms of self-expression he utilized. He documented his life meticulously in journals and writing. It’s grounding to be able to listen to the artist’s voice reading from Close to the Knives and Memories that Smell Like Gasoline; or watch film clips that show him flipping through art books, see a sculpture made of a piece of bread that is crudely stitched together. The artist seemed to be creating a legend he could leave to posterity as quickly as he could experience New York City life.

David Wojnarowicz, Das Reingold: New York Schism, 1987. Acrylic and collaged paper on board, 48 1/4 × 72 × 1 3/4 in. (122.6 × 182.9 × 4.4 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; promised gift of Emily Fisher Landau P.2010.284. Image © The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, photo courtesy of Sharilyn Neidhardt

Wojnarowicz grew up with poverty, abuse, and abandonment; he hustled and was addicted to heroin. His allegiance was to the outsider and the voiceless, his rage coming from the place of a person left behind. The work on view also grapples with the AIDS epidemic-caused death he saw all around him, from tabloid headlines to his own bedroom. Some of the most affecting pieces are photographs of his partner, photographer Peter Hujar, just after his spirit had left his body. Another photo, in which Wojnarowicz’s own face is nearly obscured by the dirt of the New Mexican desert, has stayed with me long after viewing the exhibition.

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled, from the Metamorphosis series, 1984. Collaged paper and acrylic on plaster, 9 1/2 × 9 1/2 × 9 1/2 in. (24.1 × 24.1 × 24.1 cm). Collection of Beth Rudin DeWoody, photo courtesy of Sharilyn Neidhardt

David Wojnarowicz perished from the very epidemic he inveighed against as his friends were dying around him in Reagan’s America.  In this retrospective there is also an echo of something else lost to history – the westside piers where the artist found everything from camaraderie to art supplies are long gone in the wake of the High Line, the lower east side community galleries and DIY music venues he contributed to in Lower Manhattan are long gone too. The city is continually remade in the wake of history and this show provides a bracing reminder of what we have lost along the way. The ferocity of Wojarnowicz’s passion and activism still smolders in this exhibition, his voice sounds freshly relevant.

David Wojnarowicz, installation view, photo courtesy of Sharilyn Neidhardt
David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night,  at the Whitney Museum of American Art , through Sep 30, 2018


Sharilyn Neidhardt is a Brooklyn-based visual artist. She is a co-founder of the artists’ community trans-cen-der and is an assistant curator at Friday Studio Gallery. She’s an avid cyclist, loves midnight movies, and speaks only a little German. Her first solo show ‘Supermassive Black Hole’ opens Sept 7 at Art During the Occupation in Brooklyn. More at sharilynart.com