PRINT October 1999

Odd Man Out

I REMEMBER WHEN WORD SPREAD that the (pre-groovy) East Village was brandishing an art scene. If memory serves, an influential tag line in one of the now-defunct neighborhood weeklies described this scene as consisting of “art that wakes up and smells the audience.” Living in the East Village in the early ’80s, as I happened to be doing, it was easy to see the beleaguered area as a kind of pocket of hard truth in Manhattan’s gridlocked reality. So it was inviting to believe that the bohemians, druggies, and artist types who called the Village home were people too rough-hewn and economically challenged to suffer the intellectual pretenses that seemed to have hypnotized contemporary art into a state of numbed, polished cleverness. Of course, “East Village Art” ended up being just another inflationary term that overrepresented a hodgepodge of recklessly sincere artists, but that’s the future talking.

David Wojnarowicz was one of the first of the scene’s few crossover stars. Unlike other name East Village artists—say, Rodney Alan Greenblat, Rhonda Zwillinger, and Keiko Bonk—he was not just distinguishable from the hordes because he manifested the goofily personal with a conventional-seeming finesse. His fierce, politicized, multidisciplinary art was the embodiment of East Village art’s grandest ideals, and, in retrospect, an almost single-handed justification of its hype. His sculptures, installations, paintings, and photographs from the early ’80s are deeply felt and formally worked out to the point where they resemble what we think of as contemporary art, yet remain crass enough and conceptually clumsy enough that they fail to make the grade. That passing resemblance nevertheless got Wojnarowicz, and by proxy the East Village aesthetic, into the 1985 Whitney Biennial, and into some notable collections, but it’s not why his work continues to be debated while the works of most other East Village artists are trinkets that escape even the art world’s memory.

Before the East Village scene’s make-believe art world attracted galleries of a more explicitly commercial intent, it provided Wojnarowicz with the opportunity to sell his work without appearing to sell out. Till that point, he was best known as a mysterious perpetrator of some obtuse graffiti—an omnipresent barfing cow’s head stenciled on random sidewalks; some hard-nosed, elusive literary phrases spray-painted in and around popular gay cruising areas. In his free time, he performed with the band 3 Teens Kill 4. Apart from the oft-published photo sequence of a young man shooting up, masturbating, and wandering the streets in a Rimbaud mask (“Arthur Rimbaud in New York,” 1978–79), Wojnarowicz’s output was less the work of an Artist than that of a creative misanthrope on a mission to assert the particulars of his disenfranchisement by disrupting others’ occasions. Whereas Basquiat’s and Haring’s graffiti works were developed, artistic gestures that transferred smoothly to galleries, Wojnarowicz’s was rather a kind of poetic tagging: Lawrence Weiner with a furious punk touch. With his first proper shows at stalwart East Village galleries like Civilian Warfare and Gracie Mansion, his work filled out conventionally, and became less an opaque “fuck you” than an illustration of a fuzzy new art movement. It was no longer at odds with its context, per se. It was the most ambitious float in a parade celebrating the Downtown sensibility, a fact that was not lost on the artist.

I’d known Wojnarowicz since the late ’70s, when I published some of his Rimbaud photos, and a few pieces of his fiction, in Little Caesar, a magazine I was editing at the time. But I hadn’t seen him for a few years when I ran into him in 1985 while making the rounds of the East Village galleries. He was a hot young artist by then, lionized as a hometown hero by the Village Voice, and name-checked by most of the major art magazines. I had mixed feelings about the sculptures and themed installations he had begun exhibiting. While it was heartening to see a true iconoclast rewarded, it seemed to me that Wojnarowicz’s work had beefed up interestingly, but, in doing so, had lost the quality of complete and pure alienation that had given his talent its bite and specificity. He seemed to have subsumed his weird range of ideas into a generalized, somewhat obvious political cartoon and begun using standard art-making techniques to make classic, even hippie-ish, anarchist statements against the usual powers that be. The riveting fuzziness of his graffiti had been replaced with overly clear-cut attacks (say, in his well-known sculptures and painting/collages in which sharks, burning children, and kissing men were given world maps for skin). Anyway, I expressed my concern, half expecting one of his famous bursts of temper.

Instead, Wojnarowicz sat down with me on a stoop and launched into a tormented, self-righteous, hour-long harangue that has, ever since, struck me as definitive of East Village Art’s brief moment, for better or worse. He said that his success was destroying him because he couldn’t reject it in good conscience. He’d dreamed of this kind of recognition and had even fantasized about exactly the kind of black-sheep art world that the East Village scene encompassed in theory, a situation where art could be anything at all, and where walking into a gallery would always involve a disconcerting, confrontational experience with an uncompromised, individual vision. But this belief had been contingent on the idea that New York was secretly full of artists who had as clamorous a sensibility as his own. Instead, he found himself surrounded by peers whose talent was merely raw, and raw only by virtue of economic hardship, but whose sensibilities were as coddling and self-indulgent as those of the Salles, Fischls, and Longos who populated the official art world. As a consequence, similar delusions of greatness had settled over the scene. In response, he’d rebelled against his peers by giving his work a social conscience and physical grandiosity, both to counteract the ongoing romanticization of the homespun and to embody what he imagined an “East Village Art” should be. But his rebellion had backfired. The political sheen had given critics and curators a way to pigeonhole his work and had led them to misdiagnose his personal rage as the spearhead of a movement with which he felt no camaraderie whatsoever. He said he was going to quit making art, and stormed off.

Of course, Wojnarowicz didn’t quit, and he never stopped exhibiting his work in galleries; in fact it’s generally thought that his post–East Village shows at SoHo’s P.P.O.W. gallery were the best of his career. That improvement has been famously attributed to his lucid response to testing positive for HIV in the mid-’80s: He could express his horror unreservedly, knowing that the politics swirling around his illness would do the job (ham-fisted or otherwise) of ascribing social meaning to his personal battle. It might also be true that the SoHo context provided a more inappropriate and therefore more fruitful locale for the contentiousness that underscored his best work, although, if anything, his later works were Art with a capital A—discreet, Conceptual, and object-oriented. I’d argue that while the East Village scene made Wojnarowicz a proper artist, it also reinforced his interest in writing, leading ultimately to the publication of his memoir, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (Vintage, 1991), one of the more significant volumes of contemporary prose. It’s as though the particular privacy of the act of writing allowed him to work with greater care and complexity in the same sneaky, solitary way he had done when decorating deserted sidewalks. By contrast, his visual art seemed to have devolved into something of a part-time job, an interesting way to pay the bills.

Whereas Wojnarowicz’s art is probably doomed to an eternity spent in gay- and/or aids-themed group shows, his writing is far more likely to be remembered. Falling into loose association with similarly self-taught, self-absorbed geniuses like Jean Genet, Celine, and his beloved Rimbaud, Wojnarowicz’s poetic, ranting prose translates his life story, fantasies, and outrage at society’s imbalance into something that bears little stylistic resemblance to other writing, but rings as natural as any diaristic jotting. Where most of his visual art works have a slight staginess problem, and tend toward the illustrative and agitprop, his inventive yet direct use of language encompasses his deeply contradictory nature without the least sign of strain. It’s telling that in the last year or so of his life Wojnarowicz wrote continuously, made almost no art that didn’t illustrate some text, and, according to some reports, had plans to write a novel. It’s not a huge surprise that in his recently published journals, In the Shadow of the American Dream (Grove, 1998), there’s almost no mention of his visual art, much less his career in the art world, East Village or otherwise.

The various successes and failures of Wojnarowicz’s visual art illustrate the problem of the East Village scene. Unlike, say, punk or the rave scene, two vaguely similar grassroots cultural movements, it failed to have any impact whatsoever, either on art itself or even on the way we think about art’s presentation. It was a poignant blip, a retarded, well-meaning art world-ette that not only didn’t have enough evidence to prove its case but didn’t have much of a case to begin with. For all the meaning that could potentially be attributed to its pseudopopulism, it seems in retrospect to have aspired to be a grittier Chelsea, albeit with more entertaining openings. If Wojnarowicz was its truest and most hard-core product, his work’s endurance says nothing about the half ton of East Village art entombed in the far reaches of some very embarrassed collectors’ storerooms. If the East Village scene proved anything, it’s that a gallery is always and only a gallery, regardless of where it happens to be located and irrespective of the occasional artist who passes through its doors on his or her way to meaningfulness.