An Outsider on the Inside: David Wojnarowicz at the Whitney

DW, Self-Portrait
David Wojnarowicz with Tom Warren, Self-Portrait of David Wojnarowicz, 1983–84, acrylic and collaged paper on gelatin silver print, detail
image courtesy | Whitney Museum of American Art

Maria Bastos-Stanek

On July 13, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York staged a posthumous retrospective of the New York-based artist and writer David Wojnarowicz. “David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night” chronicles the artistic life of a self-taught artist who mined his personal life to create formally innovative and deeply moving works of art. Known to many as an extreme polemicist of the Reagan administration and outspoken AIDS activist, much of Wojnarowicz’s art often gets overlooked in favor of his AIDS activism and anti-censorship battles. The Whitney honors Wojnarowicz by compiling the development of his art in the context in which it was created: the Downtown scene, an art scene and cultural explosion that evolved around lower Manhattan in the decades of the 1970s and 1980s. The Whitney presents a portrait of the venerated activist as how he most intimately saw himself, an artist.

Before Wojnarowicz aspired to be an artist, he aspired to be a writer. He published his first book, Sounds in the Distance, a collection of transcribed interviews with his friends and neighbors, in 1982. The Whitney’s retrospective includes early works which merge his literary inspirations with his artistic ambitions. In his first commercially successful works of art, a series of photographs titled Rimbaud in New York from 1978–1979, Wojnarowicz photographed three of his friends around New York wearing a life-size mask of the face of Arthur Rimbaud, a nineteenth-century French poet. Wojnarowicz may have felt a connection with the young iconoclast, who openly proclaimed himself as an outsider and engaged in tumultuous romances with other men. In Rimbaud in New York, Wojnarowicz updates Rimbaud’s significance for 1970’s New York. In one photograph, Wojnarowicz depicts Rimbaud wearing the standard DIY punk outfit, a denim vest and white t-shirt standing outside of the Times Square-42nd street subway station (figure 1). Across the street, a line of movie house marquees recede into the distance, recalling the notorious era when Times Square was home to another class of outsiders—hustlers and drug dealers; pimps and sex workers.

Other works in the show emphasize Wojnarowicz’s participation in the Downtown arts scene. The show’s curators David Khiel and David Breslin re-staged his 1984 exhibition at the East Village gallery Civilian Warfare (figure 2). Wojnarowicz created a group of twenty-three personalized plaster-cast heads as a post-colonial critique of conflicts raging in Central and South America at the time. Wojnarowicz created the heads as allegorical representations of the outsider. He originally displayed the heads along a wall below a painted bull’s-eye. At the Whitney, the curators set the heads on podiums of different heights, in rows, receding into the corner of a black-walled space. With the added depth, the plaster heads resemble less of the foreigner than that of the ancient Greek herm—stone pillars topped with carved heads used as boundary markers or milestones. Indeed, as a viewer, the further you cross into the receded space, the fewer the visitors surround you, and the further you travel into Wojnarowicz’s world.

While it is tempting to consider Wojnarowicz a standalone, if not anomalous figure in the art world—as much of an outsider as the subjects of his art and writing—Wojnarowicz established himself among a rich network of artists, intellectuals, and activists that made up the Downtown scene. Much like the axiom of equality, a concept in mathematics that states a number is always equal to itself, so too does Wojnarowicz possess this reflexive quality. No matter the injustices he faced as a gay man and later as a person with AIDS, Wojnarowicz was met with success in his career. The curators remark:

Wojnarowicz’s work documents and illuminates a desperate period of American history: that of the AIDS crisis and culture wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s. But his rightful place is also among the raging and haunting iconoclastic voices, from Walt Whitman to William S. Burroughs, who explore American myths, their perpetuation, their repercussions, and their violence.[1]

Wojnarowicz survived an abusive father, an absentee mother, homelessness, welfare hotels, child hustling in Times Square, cross-country freight hopping, anonymous men with hostile intentions. During that same time, Wojnarowicz achieved an alternative education through the writings of Jean Genet and Arthur Rimbaud, moved to Paris for a time to pursue a career in writing, showed his art at East Village galleries, published a memoir, and exhibited a survey of his work all during his short lifetime. Wojnarowicz understood the potential of his unconventional life, and built a political persona around his perceived differences to smack people in the face, to assault their senses, and get them to accept the Truth as he saw it.

What was the Truth as Wojnarowicz saw it? Towards the end of his career Wojnarowicz gained notoriety for his direct, potent, and militant AIDS activism—but much of the work he created during this late period in his life carries a deep ambiguity about AIDS in the gay community. The demands of his public persona as an activist did not allow him to express his feelings of isolation from within the community that he aligned himself with. Wojnarowicz would have felt ostracized from the gay community due to his HIV positive status. His art allowed him to express his feelings of vulnerability and of tensions towards the gay community, while allowing him to remain a strong and uncompromising figure in the fight to end AIDS.

Perhaps Wojnarowicz revealed his vulnerability most strikingly in his Sex Series (For Marion Scemama), a series of eight black-and-white photomontages, or composite photographs, created between 1988–1989 (figure 3). Each untitled image consists of two components: a large pictorial field in which smaller circular images are set. Large images of man-made structures mix with small images culled from pornographic magazines or newspaper photographs. Many of the smaller images are difficult to identify. Far more discernible than images of intimacy are those of police brutality, such as in Untitled (train) (figure 4). Wojnarowicz resists the dominant ideology which positioned gay men as sick and dying, victims of their own promiscuous lifestyle, but he does not wholly celebrate his sexuality either. He politicizes his grief and makes public his personal desires—not using his noted anger, but through the layers of complexity of his lived reality. So too does the Whitney give rise to these tensions. Wojnarowicz embodies the spirit of resistance precisely because of unique perspective as an artist.

Wojnarowicz became an artist to feel less isolated, and in viewing his retrospective, so do we as an audience. “David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night” is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, New York through September 30, 2018.

DW, Rimbaud in New York
(fig. 1) David Wojnarowicz, Rimbaud in New York, 1978-1979, gelatin sliver print
image courtesy | Whitney Museum of American Art
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(fig. 2) David Wojnarowicz, exhibition view of Metamorphosis series, 1984, collage paper and acrylic on plaster image taken by author
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(fig. 3) David Wojnarowicz, exhibition view of Sex Series (For Marion Scemama), 1988–1989, eight gelatin silver prints image taken by author
DW, Sex Series, Train
(fig. 4) David Wojnarowicz, Untitled, from Sex Series (For Marion Scemama), 1989, gelatin silver print image courtesy | New York Magazine

endnotes

[1] Museum label for David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night, Jul. 12–Sept. 30, 2018, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Radical Transformations: Art, AIDS, and Activism

maria j. bastos-stanek

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Installation view, An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1940-2017
image courtesy | Whitney Museum of American Art

The Whitney Museum of American Art’s current exhibition, An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1940-2017 constitutes an encyclopedic walk-through of the history of protest art in the United States from the second half of the 20th century onwards. Past the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam draft dodgers, and the consciousness-raising feminist groups, lies a very different sort of protest art titled Mourning and Militancy. The artists that responded to the crisis of HIV/AIDS during its chaotic reign over the 1980s and early 1990s, banded together not on the basis of identity politics like earlier groups, but rather on the singular impulse to fight for survival at a time when death was unignorable and more than likely. Walking through the exhibition takes time due to the large amount of visual information available to the museum-goer. Art is literally wallpapered to the walls. Atop this wallpapering appears even more layers of art, invoking the race to get one’s message onto the streets and into the discourse. “Did you see Haring’s new chalk drawing at 72nd St. Station?,” “No, but I saw a new Gran Fury t-shirt in Queens.” The Whitney curatorial team manages to incite these probable conversations from the 80’s through their presentation of these powerful and derisive works.

Much like today, America in the 1980s was in a time of crisis. The conservative politics of the Reagan administration and the rise of the Christian Right sought to take back hard-won Civil Rights gains from the 1960s in favor of a gutted social welfare system deemed “family values.” At the same time, identity politics which formed the bedrock of civil rights activism had reached a turning point. Postmodernists broke away from the established cannon, the cult of the male genius, and began to create visual works that critiqued art institutions that legitimized their practice and centered the lives and experiences of marginalized groups. The art world, which at the same time that HIV/AIDS threatened the wellbeing of its own population, faced threats of censorship and cuts to public funding from a conservative U.S. government.

The 1980s and 1990s were a time when everyone understood the changing terrain of representation. Images, not words, television, not newspapers, held the power of representation, and the government took aim at art they considered obscene, such as Robert Mapplethorpe’s X, Y, and Z portfolios. In doing so, the government threatened to take down the entire structure of public funding for the arts in America through its most important institution, the Museum.

Artists of the AIDS crisis sought support and acceptance from outside traditional avenues of patronship, and in doing so rearticulated the power of activism for a national audience. Groups like Gran Fury, the artistic branch of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), incorporated art into its AIDS activism as fuel for the movement. Born by the movement, for the movement, Gran Fury’s iconic pink triangle, originally used in concentration camps to signify homosexual prisoners, appeared everywhere, littered around masses of protests, launched high into the air on wooden stakes, worn by protesters on screen-printed t-shirts, and plastered onto the walls of New York City. Constructing the AIDS crisis through images proved a compelling maneuver for activism—both invigorating and substantive for a culture saturated by images.

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(fig. 1) Donald Moffett, He Kills Me, 1987, offset lithograph
image courtesy | Metropolitan Museum of Art

Consider He Kills Me (figure 1), a 1987 poster created by Donald Moffett, the founding member of Gran Fury. The poster visually represents the life and death circumstances that affected people living with HIV/AIDS at the time. He Kills Me concerns two images placed side by side. On the left we see the image of alternating black and orange concentric circles. On the right, a black and white portrait appears of former president Ronald Reagan in a suit and tie. On the bottom, the words “HE KILLS ME” are placed in capital orange block letters. In the same way that a hypnotist brings patients to a heightened state of focused attention, so too does Moffett with the concentric circles. His message is clear: Reagan’s inaction kills people with HIV/AIDS.

Reagan appears unflattering to say the least. Moffett depicts his face scrunched up with tightly pressed lips and squinting eyes, making the wrinkles around his mouth and neck particularly prominent. Could he be in the act of speech? Reagan famously did not publicly utter the word AIDS until 1987, six years after the epidemic began and 41,000 people had died. The poster, though, does talk, through the lens of an unnamed narrator, presumably HIV positive. “HE KILLS ME,” placed alongside a target, is meant to spirit the government into civic action, and test the limits of public sentiment along with it. While He Kills Me now hangs on the white walls of the Whitney Museum, at the time of its creation, would have been seen at protest rallies, ACT UP planning meetings, the homes of activists, and even strewn like garbage in the streets of New York—anything to get the images seen and the message across to as many people as possible. 

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(fig. 2) Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled, 1989, screenprint
image courtesy | Whitney Museum of American Art

Artists did not wholly abandon the museum as a site for activist interventions. Another artist, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, considered himself an infiltrator rather than an agitator. He succeeded in bringing politically engaged art out of the streets and into the museum through formal innovation. For Gonzalez-Torres, a conceptualist, formal issues are not just a vacuous terrain of line or color from which to experiment with. Those aesthetic choices actively construct the work’s meaning. Form constructs notions of gender, race, and sexuality, as much a person’s interior understanding of “the self” does.

An Incomplete History of Protest includes Untitled, 1989 (figure 2), a small screen print commissioned along with a billboard project for the Public Art Fund of New York City meant to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots. In the larger version, Sheridan Square Billboard (figure 3), Gonzalez-Torres directly addresses the gay community by transforming the past into a potential site of collective intervention. The billboard consists of a black background and two lines of white text on the bottom. The text reads from left to right, People With AIDS Coalition 1985 Police Harassment 1969 Oscar Wilde 1895 Supreme Court 1986 Harvey Milk 1977 March on Washington 1987 Stonewall Rebellion 1969, referencing specific events in gay and lesbian history of both victory and loss. For example, “Stonewall Rebellion 1969” refers to the Stonewall riots which are popularly understood to have ignited the modern gay rights movement, while “Supreme Court 1986” references Bowers v. Hardwick, a Supreme Court ruling that upheld U.S. criminalization of sodomy, which was not overturned until Lawrence v. Texas in 2003. The billboard reaffirms the ongoing struggle, while geographically locating the center of that struggle. The text in both the screen-print and the billboard are meant to be read as a caption, encouraging the viewer to look around and engage with gay history.

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(fig. 3) Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Billboard Poster), 1989, billboard
image courtesy | Public Art Fund

Gonzalez-Torres himself took up the politicized perspective of groups like Gran Fury and ACT UP. He described his work as a “virus” within art institutions, and alluded to the usage of art as a vehicle to “smuggle” AIDS-related content into a seemingly depoliticized institution.[1] In the early 1990s, access to HIV/AIDs preventative education was a contentious battleground. ACT UP infamously targeted the Catholic Church in their 1989 “Stop the Church” action in which they protested Cardinal John O’Connor’s disapproval of safe sex education. To have weathered an almost decade long battle over access to healthcare for people with HIV/AIDS, and to survive in a society which regarded gay men as disposable, defines the context in which Gonzalez-Torres created Untitled, 1989.

An Incomplete History of Protest attests to the power of artists to critically engage with political issues and play an active role in creating a future we can all benefit from. Mourning and Militancy is just one case study of many, and the Whitney showcases a dazzling array of activist strategies employed by artists. Selections from An Incomplete History of Protest will be on view between August 18, 2017 to August 27, 2018 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, New York.


endnotes

[1] Peter Kalb, Art Since 1980: Charting the Contemporary (London: Pearson, 2013), 185.

The Statue of Liberty: An Evolving Allegory

nicholas p. fernacz

The Statue of Liberty is seen on the 130th anniversary of the dedication in New York Harbor

The Statue of Liberty, New York Harbor
image courtesy | Time

unless stated otherwise, all mentions of immigrants are in reference to those who are undocumented, a more politically correct term for “illegal.”

Uniquely characteristic to the Statue of Liberty, designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and given to the United States as a gift from the French people in October 1886, is its defiance of temporality. Its shifting colorway has allowed the statue to represent the evolving values of the United States. In the late 1880s, when the copper statue would have been deep brown, America valued “relatively free and open immigration.”[1] However, as capitalism encourages, money has become the largest factor in much of American politics. Capitalism, America’s greatest value above all else, and its commodification of Black and Brown bodies is reflected in today’s Statue of Liberty, with her brown skin turning a shade of green that reflects the U.S. dollar.[2]

Immigration, in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, was a key issue, with America electing Donald J. Trump whose platform urged voters to support him in erecting a wall along the U.S. and Mexican border. A rampant quip among conservatives, “they are stealing our jobs,” illuminates the frustrations of lower and middle class white Americans who feel as if their current incomes are in danger because of immigrants who are willing to work under-the-table for cheaper wages. The “they” that conservatives are referring to here are undocumented immigrants. What these voters fail to realize are two key aspects of an immigrant’s experience.

The first aspect is: immigrants are willing to work for lower wages due to two hegemonic relationships they are engaged in. These relationships are: 1) the immigrant and the State, where the immigrant has no other option but to break the law in order to work/support himself, and 2) the [immigrant] worker and the manager, where the worker is forced to bend to the will of the manager in order to protect his employment. When these two relationship are forced upon the same person, they must be willing to be submit to their oppressor in fear of being reported to the United States’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, also known as ICE.

The second aspect is: many of the immigrants that are being targeted by ICE are people of color, from places like Africa, and South and Central America. Many of these immigrants are fleeing nations with rampant drug violence, where politicians are being openly assassinated. These refugees are coming to America in order to create a better life for their families, a fundamental American value, represented by the Statue of Liberty when many of white America’s ancestors immigrated here.

I am sure that many immigrants would be willing to work while abiding by laws, but that is impossible for many of them. In the midst of this political discourse, people are taking action and protesting, with over 700 demonstrations occurring across the United States in late June 2018.

On July 4th, Therese Patricia Okoumou, an immigrant who attained the status of naturalized citizen, took it upon herself to kick start a national conversation by scaling Lady Liberty’s pedestal. In doing so, she made international press, culling a large support of, in particular, other women of color. Her actions spoke to the frustrations of immigrants, who, at the hands of the United States government have been separated from their families and kept in cages. Again, the Statue of Liberty’s symbolism evolves to center the contemporary values of the United States, this time setting the stage for police violence against a person of color, and the detaining of an immigrant. What was once a symbol of freedom is now a symbol of State oppression.

Statues permeate current leftist discourse, particularly, what do we do with Confederate memorials? In this article, I posit that the interpretation of objects, particularly statues, can change over time. While statues of Confederate soldiers were once monuments to “veterans,” they are currently being interpreted as monuments to Black oppression. It is my opinion that the Statue of Liberty, and Confederate statues, still have something to teach us. The Statue of Liberty provides us with hope for the future, the promise of the American Dream. She teaches us to be compassionate to people who are coming here from far away in order to be safer. Confederate monuments teach us that our history is tainted. They remind us that what is happening to immigrants now is a part of our larger history, and that these legacies of injustices do not disappear. Perhaps this can remind today’s leaders that their actions are not just for today, but are etched into American history.

On June 20th, President Trump signed an executive order to end family separation. Protesters urge for more to be done, including: uniting separated families, and abolishing ICE, which has been likened to the German Gestapo of WWII. My, and many others’ hope is, that President Trump will look to Lady Liberty’s enlightening torch as a symbol of hope and freedom, in which the United States can support its proposed value of liberty and justice for all.


endnotes

[1] “Early American Immigration Policies.” USCIS. Accessed July 7, 2018. https://www.uscis.gov/history-and-genealogy/our-history/agency-history/early-american-immigration-policies.

[2] Lyric Prince. “Watching Okoumou’s Heroic Climb Up the Statue of Liberty.” Hyperallergic. July 07, 2018. Accessed July 07, 2018. https://hyperallergic.com/450417/therese-patricia-okoumou-the-statue-of-liberty/.