PRINT Summer 2018


David Wojnarowicz, Arthur Rimbaud in New York, 1978–79, gelatin silver print, 8 × 10". From the series “Arthur Rimbaud in New York,” 1978–79. © The Estate of David Wojnarowicz.

DAVID WOJNAROWICZ first became widely known during the brief vogue of the East Village art scene in the 1980s, but he distinguished himself from his contemporaries with the seriousness of his literary interests and the depth of his rage. In a passage from his book Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, he describes his writing as a way of overcoming alienation:

I had almost died three times at the hands of people I’d sold my body to in those days and after coming off the street and adapting to familiar routines of working and living under a roof, I could barely speak when in the company of other people. There was never a point in conversations at work, parties or gatherings where I could reveal what I’d seen. That weight of image and sensation wouldn’t come out until I picked up a pencil and started putting it down on paper.

David Wojnarowicz, Rimbaud mask, ca. 1978, photocopy mounted on card stock, rubber bands, 11 5/8 × 8 7/8". © The Estate of David Wojnarowicz. Photo: Fales Library and Special Collections, NYU.

Wojnarowicz stood out as a poor, ethnic loner in a scene populated by rebellious middle-class kids with vivid assumed names. He spent much of his childhood in the New Jersey suburbs, but he experienced nothing resembling a normal middle-class upbringing. His volatile, alcoholic father subjected the family to horrific abuse. Homeless and hustling around Times Square as an adolescent, he found a way out of that life with the support and affection of a married lawyer, who could have gone to prison for having a relationship with him. His relationship with lover and mentor Peter Hujar, whom he met sometime in late 1980 or early 1981, prompted Wojnarowicz to pursue his artistic ambitions, which were never exclusive to painting, although his work in that medium overshadowed his writing and earned him a living for the last decade or so of his life. He rose in the world, but he never lost his fear of being evicted, impoverished, on the street—and he never forgot where he came from.

To characterize Close to the Knives as the agitprop of a particular moment of the AIDS crisis is to miss many of its virtues as literature.

Close to the Knives was published in 1991, the year before Wojnarowicz died of aids, by Vintage. That a major publisher accepted it was a small miracle in the most conservative segment of the culture industry, which had gotten somewhat less conservative for a time. Polite, depoliticized, upper-middle-class literature had dominated American letters since the beginning of the Cold War. Between the end of the Federal Writers’ Project in 1943 and the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965, the United States government’s support for literature came in the form of covert CIA funding. Combining fiction, memoir, and political essays, Close to the Knives was a complete departure from CIA-approved style.

David Wojnarowicz, Arthur Rimbaud in New York, 1978–79, gelatin silver print, 10 × 8". From the series “Arthur Rimbaud in New York,” 1978–79. © The Estate of David Wojnarowicz.

By reputation, Wojnarowicz became identified primarily as an aids artist. His polemics against political figures, ranging from ineffectual bureaucrats to outright fascists, gave vehement expression to the demands and frustrations of aids activists. Yet to characterize Close to the Knives as the agitprop of a particular moment of the crisis is to miss many of its virtues as literature. The book’s second chapter, “Losing the Form in Darkness,” an impressionistic account of cruising written in 1979, reads like William S. Burroughs’s prose at its sexiest, simultaneously depersonalized and intimate. Wojnarowicz used the device of the “routine,” or monologue, pioneered by Burroughs in Naked Lunch (1959), for his first published book, Sounds in the Distance (1982, reissued in 1996 as The Waterfront Journals). Some of this material, drawn from conversations with people at the margins of society, later became part of Close to the Knives. Wojnarowicz waxed nostalgic for hobos, the displaced workers (most numerous during the Great Depression) who drifted free of family obligations and regular employment. He wrote about them as they fell to the status they have now: that of bodies more privileged people step over to get somewhere. Wojnarowicz’s narratives of passing through vast American landscapes, particularly “In the Shadow of the American Dream,” call to mind Jack Kerouac without Neal Cassady, the road without romance. At one time, this comparison would have been outrageous to all parties concerned, but Kerouac has come to seem much gayer than he once did.

Altered Polaroid of 3 Teens Kill 4, Julie Hair’s apartment, East 4th Street, New York, June 27, 1982. Photo: Julie Hair.

The longest piece of writing by far in Close to the Knives, “The Suicide of a Guy Who Once Built an Elaborate Shrine over a Mouse Hole,” recounts the life of Montana Hewson, an eccentric gay denizen of the East Village. It is a biography with a void at its center, partly because the subject’s family, who had burned all of his artworks, seemed likely to refuse permission to reproduce his letters, and partly because the narrator assembling these fragments of a damaged life writes in such a compelling voice that it overpowers the material. The “Guy” of the title provides Wojnarowicz with an opportunity to analyze his social milieu and its relation to conventional society. In this and many other contexts, Wojnarowicz denounces the “pre-invented existence,” shorthand not only for the work of ideology but also for the straight life rejected by the Beat generation: “I want to throw up because we’re supposed to quietly and politely make house in this killing machine called America and pay taxes to support our own slow murder. . . .” More visceral and urgent than anything written by the Beats, Wojnarowicz’s denunciation bears a resemblance to the rhetoric of the Black Panthers, whose meetings he attended in the late 1960s. It is an anathema delivered by a dying man who understands the implicit message in the inaction and hostility of the powers that be: that he and his kind are expendable.

David Wojnarowicz, Arthur Rimbaud in New York, 1979, gelatin silver print, 10 × 8". From the series “Arthur Rimbaud in New York,” 1978–79. © The Estate of David Wojnarowicz.

David Wojnarowicz has been compared to Rimbaud, a comparison he encouraged. His first substantial work of art was the photographic series “Arthur Rimbaud in New York,” 1978–79, shot in locations from Chinatown to Coney Island; each image featured a friend wearing a mask made from one of the few surviving pictures of the poet in his youth. The two writers share certain similarities: Both were prodigies from troubled families; their formal educations ended at secondary school; they were uncouth radicals and compulsive flaneurs; both died at age thirty-seven. No figure of a similar stature in literature and art has replaced Wojnarowicz as America’s Rimbaud, though the search continues. In a highly professionalized culture full of aspiring MFAs, many crushed by debt, the only plausible candidates presenting themselves turn out to be frauds or pasticheurs. Barring a drastic change in American society, few if any of America’s disenfranchised will be able to follow the example of David Wojnarowicz. Today he looks less like the harbinger of a new wave than like the very last of the Beats.

William E. Jones is an artist and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. His first novel, a pornographic bildungsroman titled I’m Open to Anything, is forthcoming from We Heard You Like Books.