Critics’ Picks

Marion Scemama, David Wojnarowicz in his Kitchen, New York (Exhibition Poster For Civilian Warefare Gallery), 1983. 17 3/4 x 17 3/4'' (unframed).

Marion Scemama, David Wojnarowicz in his Kitchen, New York (Exhibition Poster For Civilian Warefare Gallery), 1983. 17 3/4 x 17 3/4'' (unframed).


David Wojnarowicz and Marion Scemama

New Galerie
2 rue Borda Ground floor
October 11–December 14, 2019

David Wojnarowicz’s canonization cemented his reception as a forever outcast, the self-proclaimed Rimbaud of a quickly gentrifying New York. The poet, painter, photographer, activist, and filmmaker’s short but prolific career—from the first works in 1978 to his death in 1992—was a teeming and explosive imbroglio of desire, outrage, and mourning. It has been tempting to explain his work, on one hand, as the creation of a timeless “genius,” or, on the other, as a historical document of the East Village scene and AIDS crisis of the 1980s. (These opposing tendencies, both pitfalls in a sense, were respectively on view in two recent Wojnarowicz shows: the 2018 Whitney retrospective, which privileged his output as a painter, and the KW Institute for Contemporary Art’s exhibition dedicated to his photography and films earlier this year). 

“I wake up every morning in this killing machine called America”, a two-person show devoted to Wojnarowicz and the French photographer and filmmaker Marion Scemama, traces another path, centering on a friendship that was also a collaboration. The two met in 1983, after the latter moved from Paris to New York. She started taking pictures of him, first in front of the murals he had painted on the Hudson River piers, later in his apartment as he was preparing his 1984 show at Civilian Warfare Gallery. The photograph—showing the artist smoking surrounded by plaster heads—became the poster for the exhibition. From then on, they would work together on texts, paintings, photographs and videos, some of these projects on view at New Galerie for the first time. Viewers might recognize Wojnarowicz’s recurrent tropes—ants and amphibians, blood and fluids, coins and crucifixes—but the intertwining of authorship here allows for more metaphorical readings to emerge, centered less on Wojnarowicz as a cultural icon than on symbolic meaning that is relational and (co)produced. Against selective cultural support, against mediatic information control, against his own sick body, Wojnarowicz created works close to spiritual revelation in a world from which the gods have departed. To comprehend friendship and solidarity as necessary parts of this struggle is this show’s most moving and significant contribution.