Few artists have managed to fly so consistently under the microscope of the art world’s fascination with downtown New York in the way that David Wojnarowicz has for so many years. Beginning in the late 1970s, the artist created a body of work that spanned photography, painting, music, film, sculpture, writing, and activism. Largely self-taught, he came to prominence in New York in the 1980s, a period marked by creative energy, financial precariousness, and profound cultural changes, yet his body of work has long been held off from the more hallmark names of the era in terms of impact and historical resonance. This month, The Whitney seeks to remedy this situation, granting the artist his first major museum retrospective, and turning its focus on a body of work that has long shone brightly even away from the limelight.
The show is presented with an almost breathless sense of enthusiasm, spanning a broad range of the artist’s work in a manner that unites his tireless innovations in painting, collage, performance, music and sculpture, often twisting through multiple forms and uses at the same time. There’s the artist’s fascinating paintings, conflations of text, imagery and simple symbols that rock back and forth into varied levels of symbolism and meaning. Taking Wojnarowicz’s punk spirit and sharp sense of political critique, the work on view is a staggering confluence of social and political cues, often moving into the artist’s own personal history as a gay man before and during the height of the AIDS-crisis (the artist was a collaborator with ACT UP and long incorporated his political activism into pieces sharply criticizing the do-nothing policies of the Reagan government). In several works, the artist’s body, and that of ailing friends and family is presented in a vocal condemnation of the state of American politics and social policy during the era, twisted up among a range of divergent images and stenciled graphics that mix together street poetry with life or death urgency.
The show makes a stark case not only for the artist’s personal vision made political, but equally for the tireless energy of his output. The images here are as potent in color and line as they are in vocal advocacy for their subject matter. Of particular note is the increasingly decisive formal abilities of the artist, as his practice evolved up from the creation of show posters and massive collages to tightly executed paintings and assemblage work. As one follows the artist through the years, a sense of a relentless innovator and a studious laborer come to the fore simultaneously.
Perhaps equally noteworthy is the notion of the artist’s work and its evolation in relation to the city of New York. A consummate “artist’s artist” of the New York scene, Wojnarowicz’s evolution from a downtown punk stylist into the tightened abstractions and dreamscapes of the later work equally trace the course of the city’s arts scene from the same sense of dark abjection through to a more formally refined practice, even as the social fabric of the city’s arts communities were breaking apart under the strain of AIDS. All of this is reflected through Wojnarowicz’s work, marking his practice as part of the social poetic history of the artist’s he idolized, Jean Genet, Kerouac and others. For each of these artists, the documentation of the world around them, and the transformative power of the work itself were always able to cross over. Here, the Whitney has rightly placed Wojnarowicz into this same continuum, and the emotional potency the show carries more than makes the argument for him.
The show is open through September 30th.
— D. Creahan