PRINT Summer 2018


Peter Hujar, David Wojnarowicz (Village Voice “Heartsick: Fear and Loving in the Gay Community”), 1983, gelatin silver print, 9 7/8 × 10". © The Peter Hujar Archive LLC.

I’VE BEEN TRYING TO FIND a couple of lines written by David Wojnarowicz, lines I came across while researching my biography of him, Fire in the Belly (2012). I remember them being scrawled in one of his small notebooks, yet somehow they aren’t in my “Notebooks” file—or in “Journals.” But the gist is burned into my brain. What he described more poetically than I’m able to was the sight of a homeless man lying in a refrigerator box. Only the man’s feet and lower legs were visible. David photographed the scene, and, as I recall it, he wrote in the elusive notebook: “That was once someone’s tiny little baby.”

David had a great capacity to empathize and to see the larger meaning of every life and every struggle. I believe he wrote that line in 1988, after he’d been diagnosed with HIV. He wasn’t just acutely aware of his own mortality. He was aware of all our mortalities.

The photo of the man in a box became part of Weight of the Earth, Part II, 1988–89. After the 1987 death of his great friend and mentor Peter Hujar, David moved into Hujar’s loft, where he finally had access to a darkroom, and he began to create his complex photo pieces. Weight of the Earth, Part I, 1988, and Weight of the Earth, Part II, each have fourteen carefully chosen photographs and one small watercolor. These works seem so central to what David was about, and I’ve never said enough about them. I won’t say enough here. They have to be seen.

David Wojnarowicz, Weight of the Earth, Part I, 1988, fourteen gelatin silver prints and watercolor on paper mounted on board, 39 × 41 1/4". © The Estate of David Wojnarowicz.

David once wrote in an essay that he did not consider himself a photographer. He also never admitted to being a poet, though he’d started his career that way, even cofounding and editing a literary magazine, a fact he kept secret throughout his life. The Weight of the Earth pieces are clearly the work of a poet-photographer, however. Like most writers, David knew the limits of language. Each photo shows almost more than words can describe, but here’s the shorthand: a wrestler flipping through the air. A snake capturing a frog (with one of the frog’s legs already in its mouth). A man standing in a pool of white light. A hand holding a burning globe. A tiger lying on its side with front legs tied together. A naked blindfolded man swinging a hammer. A sad costumed monkey at a circus. And so on. These images resonate with and against each other. They’re subtle. On a worksheet, David scribbled, “Weight of the Earth is about captivity in all that surrounds us.”

David included Parts I and II in what he thought might be his final solo show. It wasn’t, but how could he have known? Hujar hadn’t lasted a year—diagnosed on New Year’s, dead on Thanksgiving. David felt a great self-imposed pressure to get his messages out while he was still asymptomatic. “In the Shadow of Forward Motion” opened at P.P.O.W in New York early in 1989 with more than forty new pieces, including many that are now iconic: the eight photomontages in the “Sex Series (for Marion Scemama),” 1989; the collage Fear of Evolution, paintings like Something from Sleep IV (Dream), all of the ant photos, and the falling-buffalo piece, Untitled,all 1988–89. David described what these works meant to him in the photocopied catalogue. Weight of the Earth, he wrote, is about “the weight of gravity, the pulling in to the earth’s surface of everything that walks, crawls, or rolls across it,” and “the heaviness of the pre-invented existence we are thrust into.” Of the homeless man’s shelter he noted, “It’s the box the man sleeps in because the commodity of his body and soul are no longer valuable to others / they can find no use for his existence.”

And wasn’t that at the core of government indifference to the plague? Those in power simply had no use for anyone who’d contracted the virus.

This is an outrage from which it’s impossible to recover. When grief fuses with rage, it doesn’t lift.

David Wojnarowicz, Weight of the Earth, Part II, 1988–89, fourteen gelatin silver prints and watercolor on paper mounted on board, 39 × 41 1/4". © The Estate of David Wojnarowicz.

IN THE BIOGRAPHY, I describe meeting Keith Davis one day on Houston Street in 1987. Keith was a graphic designer I’d worked with, and a friend. But he was a much better friend of David’s. I hadn’t seen him in a while, and there he stood with a big Kaposi’s sarcoma lesion on the end of his nose. He made a little joke about how kids would ask him if he was a clown and he’d say, “Yes. I am.” He assured me that he was going to beat AIDS. At least, he thought, he could live for five more years. He hoped he could even live to be forty. But Keith was dead less than two months later, at the age of thirty-two.

When grief fuses with rage, it doesn’t lift.

I’d been on my way to see a Lydia Lunch performance that day, and I remember the encounter with Keith feeling like a body blow, because I knew, of course, that he was going to die. What I didn’t say in the book was that I then watched Lydia’s show with new eyes. Suddenly, her nihilism, cynicism, revulsion, and ranting seemed to perfectly describe the parameters of a great spiritual void in the culture.

When I got home, I clipped an article from that day’s New York Times: “AIDS Expert Sees No Sign of Heterosexual Outbreak.’’

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (Spirituality), 1988–89, gelatin silver print, 16 × 20". From the “Ant Series,” 1988–89. © The Estate of David Wojnarowicz.

I KEEP THINKING OF DAVID, who died in July 1992. He was someone who burned bright, whose work always had a layer of moral outrage, and who always had something to say. I often think of him when some new horror occurs.

“David, look downtown.” I imagine taking him to a rooftop to show him what’s missing. Or I see him watching the twin towers collapse, a fulfillment of the apocalyptic theme that runs through so much of his art, like Soon All This Will Be Picturesque Ruins, 1984.

I think of him whenever some new horror is elected.

“David, remember how much you hated Bush the First? You will not believe what happened during the reign of Bush the Second! And now we have Trump. No, not joking. Don’t scream.” David would be responding. He’d be so busy.

I’d also have to tell him about all the advances in gay rights—which I think would astonish him. Not just that “marriage equality” and “gays in the military” had come about, but that those were priorities at all. I can almost hear him asking some guy: “You want to get married? And join the army?”

Then, given that David is having a retrospective this summer at the Whitney Museum of American Art, I’d have to break the news to him about the Meatpacking District. The curators moved in, and the butchers moved out—along with the sex clubs and the streetwalkers. David wouldn’t have expected them all to disappear the way the Hudson River piers did. “No kidding, David, the spot where you posed Rimbaud in front of hanging beef carcasses”—for the series “Arthur Rimbaud in New York,” 1978–79—“it’s probably a boutique.”

David Wojnarowicz, Soon All This Will Be Picturesque Ruins, 1984, acrylic and collage on Masonite, 48 × 48". © The Estate of David Wojnarowicz.

It’s embarrassing to admit that I’ve had fantasies of David’s return. But I suspect that I’m not alone. The only thing I remember—probably the only thing I liked—about Longtime Companion (1989), the first mainstream movie about AIDS, was the final scene. All the characters who died during the film suddenly reappear on a beach to greet those who survived. It was so easy to get into that fantasy. Our friends and colleagues who died weren’t supposed to be dead.

Really—they were supposed to live past their thirties. As Keith wished to. A few years ago, in 2015, the New York-based collective of queer women artists fierce pussy installed a version of their 2013 work For the Record at MoMA PS1, wallpapering a room with strips of newsprint that read, IF HE WERE ALIVE TODAY HE’D BE STANDING NEXT TO YOU IF SHE WERE ALIVE TODAY YOU’D BE TEXTING HER RIGHT NOW IF HE WERE ALIVE TODAY HE’D BE GOING GRAY IF THEY WERE ALIVE TODAY I WONDER WHAT PRONOUN THEY’D BE USING . . . The original members of this collective were all AIDS activists. A couple of them had helped to organize David’s political funeral.

David Wojnarowicz, Something from Sleep IV (Dream), 1988–89, gelatin silver print, acrylic, and collaged paper on Masonite, 16 × 20 1/2". © The Estate of David Wojnarowicz.

EARLY IN 1993, about six months after David died, British writer-director Steve McLean arrived in New York to shoot Postcards from America, a film based on David’s books Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (1991) and Memories That Smell like Gasoline (1992). David had signed off on this project from his sickbed. At the time, I thought of it as his afterlife, his work getting used.

The film wasn’t exactly a success, but those were the early days of “queer cinema,” and I remember the dedication everyone brought to the project. Nan Goldin, who’d been a friend of both David’s and Hujar’s, had come all the way from Berlin to shoot stills. I was there to cover it for the Village Voice. McLean was filming a scene that day in which the David character visits the Hujar character in the hospital. We were at Theater for the New City, just blocks from the loft where Hujar had lived and then David. The loft hadn’t even been emptied. It all felt very raw. “For everyone who’s still alive,” Nan said, “it’s like meeting after a shipwreck.”

Cynthia Carr is a New York-based writer. Her book Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (Bloomsbury, 2012) won a Lambda Literary Award for gay memoir/biography in 2013. She is currently at work on a biography of Candy Darling.