Economically in shambles, New York City’s impoverished state in the nineteen-seventies and eighties gave way for the growth of progressive thought. An amalgamations of artists, photographers, dancers and activists rendered downtown Manhattan a refuge for countercultural and artistic movements. David Wojnarowicz was a prominent presence in the avant-garde scene of this time. An activist, writer, visionary and visual artist, Wojnarowicz diverse form of artistic expression was borne of his experience. As a homosexual amidst the panic of the AIDS crisis, he used art as a polemical weapon against the fierce prejudice and pervasive injustice afflicting the gay community. His photographs transformed the once pathological experience of his friends and lovers into a historical archive of a revolutionary time. The provocative and confrontational nature of his work invites one to engage in a dialogue that strays outside normative narratives of the past. According to Wojnarowicz, he sought to preserve “an authentic version of history in the form of images/writings/objects that would contest state-supported forms of ‘history’”. Rejecting the hegemonic American dream, materialism and ideological conformity, he subverted notions of sexuality, gender, race and representation to create an archive divulging his own marginalized experience. Yet, for Wojnarowicz, his work was more concerned about the act of recording what he witnessed, rather than the practice of documentation.
Growing up in New York with his mother, David Wojnarowicz’s upbringing was dysfunctional and abusive. At sixteen, he dropped out of high school and left home to live on the streets. Hitchhiking across the country, he traveled on an aimless trajectory- hustling to make ends meet . In the late seventies, Wojnarowicz abandoned his transient existence to settle down in New York City’s East Village. This marks the beginning of his prolific career as an artist. Grounded on a multimedia platform, Wojnarowicz’s artistic approach relied on a spectrum of mediums, such as collage, painting, film, text and installation. Below the surface of each image, a complex narrative of his personal experience as a homosexual was inscribed. As an fervent activist for gay rights, Wojnarowicz’s images blurred the boundaries between public and private- using the body as a political weapon. According to Wojnarowicz, “to make the private into something public is an action that has terrific repercussions in the reinvented world.” His own struggle manifested as a microcosm for the collective persecution of the gay and marginalized.
David Wojnarowicz subsisted during a time when politicians, religious leaders and health care officials sat back while hundred of thousands of men died of AIDS. His world was one where social intolerance for homosexuality bred tolerance for brutal hate crimes. David Wojnarowicz writes, ”I wake up every morning in this killing machine called America, and I’m carrying this rage like a blood-filled egg”. His work inspired by AIDS victims is as haunting as it is captivating. Of all the poignant images in his collection, I was particularly moved by his diptych of Peter Hujar on his death bed, a piece he left ‘Untitled’ that captured Peter’s final exhale and lifeless hand.
Like Wojnarowicz, Peter was an gay American photographer from New Jersey who was very much apart of the East Village avant-garde scene. Although the nature of their relationship to this day remains ambiguous, the intimacy they shared is reflected in this unconventional portrait. The two artists first met in a bar in the 1980, Peter was fifty and David was in his mid-twenties. Although they reportedly had a fling for the months following their first encounter, their relationship ultimately resided in a life-long friendship. “Peter’s achievement gave David’s talent direction and definition. David’s promise gave Peter’s achievement rejuvenation and vindication.” For David, Peter was like a surrogate father and a mentor – someone he relied on for support, direction, discipline and love. Knowing the nature of their relationship makes this image even more engaging.
Taken just moments after AIDS took Hujar’s life on the eve of November 26, 1987, these two photographs bear witness to the surge of pain and ensuing rage following the loss of his dear friend. Despite the overwhelming grief Wojnarowicz must of felt, he documents a moment that would have been otherwise been shattered by anguish, lost to despair. There’s a haunting intercourse between dismay and fury, a violent undertone diluted by sorrow. As always, this image makes the private public. It allows access into the tragically intimate moment, transforming a personal loss into a social protest. Furthermore, the photograph was taken with a large format camera, as a homage to Hugar who worked with four by five. Below the photograph, a white space occupies the lower half of the framed canvas. This suggest the notion of censorship, of presence and absence. With that said, it is interesting to observe the compositional choices he made at that devastating and decisive moment.
A dialectic between the real and the subjective, a photograph often unveils more about the photographer than the subject photographed. In other words, what is left out of the image is just as important as what is kept within the frame. He choose not to show Peters lifeless body. Instead, he captures solely his final exhale and lifeless hand. Slightly gripping the folds of the sheets with his hand, two fingers are gently extended while the others curl into his palm. The lines on his face and worn hands tell a story. The pillow he rests on sinks below the weight of his head which is titled slightly upward. His mouth is slightly ajar, as if he truly was exhaling his last breath. One gathers from his sunken face and overgrown beard that he had been ill for some time. His collar bone juts out from under his spotted hospital gown. His cracked eyelids reveal eyes that do not appear completely lifeless, suggesting that death had yet to completely take him. Could David have captured a moment straddling two worlds? It’s impossible to say, yet there is something inexplicably captivating about this image.
Art critics have throughout the decades compared Wojnarowicz’s photograph to Hans Holbein’s painting, The Body of the Dead Christ Laid Out in His Tomb, completed in 1521. As in Holbein’s depiction of Christ, Wojnarowicz captures Peter in a raw, painfully honest moment where he appears neither alive nor truly dead. This hijacked moment gives a fleeting glimpse of the transference that follows the last heart beat, the final exhale. Peter’s harrowed lifeless face looks pained, yet paradoxically peaceful. Although it is said this picture was taken after he passed away, there is still life in his face. Wojnarowicz’s portrait of Peter has also been paralleled with Jacques-Louis David’s painting entitled Death of Marat portraying the French Revolution martyr Marat. Paradoxically, above the painting is a white void occupying the upper half of the framed canvas- a reversal of the negative space seen in Hujar’s Portrait. Furthermore, like Wojnarowicz’s work, it was meant to be viewed as a diptych along with his painting The Death of Lepeletier, which has disappeared.
The fact that this photograph of Peter is repeatedly paralleled with images of martyrs says something. A martyr is one who suffers and dies for a greater cause, a person who is persecuted because of what they represent. One could view Peter’s death as a form of sectarian persecution that came at the hands of discrimination and hatred surrounding the gay population. Watching his “friends and neighbors dying slow and vicious and unnecessary deaths because fags and dykes and junkies are expendable in this country” fueled his fury. The subdivisions of pride that arose in tandem to the AIDS crisis alienated and dehumanized homosexuals. Wojnarowicz’s ‘visual poetry’ speaks of conflicting discourses of gender and sexuality and the experience of marginalization. This portrait of Peter can be read as a social protest that depicts the devastating and unjust circumstances of his time. When diagnosed with AIDS, his work evolved at a tremendous momentum. Of this experience, he wrote: “realizing that I have nothing left to lose in my actions I let my hands become weapons, my teeth become weapons, every bone & muscle & fiber & ounce of blood become weapons, & I feel prepared for the rest of my life”. In 1992, David Wojnarowicz died of AID at the age of thirty-seven, the collection of images left behind after his death speaks of a generation lost in time.