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Remembering renegade artist David Wojnarowicz in new bio

by Lewis Whittington
Contributor
Tuesday Sep 4, 2012
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Cynthia Carr was a journalist at the Village Voice in the 1980s, who covered New York’s renegade art scene in the East Village with its cadre of artists and curators who snubbed their noses at the rules of the uptown art establishment. The volatile scene was just as much about the clubs, the drugs and the street life as it was about the far-reaching cultural phenoms like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Perhaps the unlikeliest art star of this era was David Wojnarowicz, a gay hustler-turned-artist and filmmaker whose confrontational imagery made him a lightning rod of controversy both in the insular Manhattan art world, and in the Capital where he was lumped with the NEA four as being a sacrilegious pornographer.

Wojnarowicz’s life and times are brought vividly to life by Carr in "Fire in the Belly," her masterfully written and passionate portrait of the artist. In a phone interview from New York, Carr talked said the book was so consuming that she took only one day off from it in the last 18 months of writing it.


Full dimensional

For a first biography, Carr achieves a full dimensional portrait of the artist, his process and his relationships.

"In 2006, I got to know Tom (Rauffenbart), David’s boyfriend," Carr explained.

"He said that he would love if someone wrote a bio and thought I would be the person David would have wanted to do it. I knew that he had a compelling life story, but I also knew that there were parts that were mysterious that I could potentially uncover."

Since Carr had lived through this defining era in New York, she saw it as an opportunity to "write about the East Village art scene, and the AIDS crisis and the culture wars. All three of those things I cared about...David was at the center of it all."

Wojnarowicz had a harrowing childhood of emotional and physical abusive father and distant mother. The author had difficulty fleshing out his teenage years because, she said, "there was part of his life that he just kept secret. Even in his own papers," she noted, "he was editing his life."


Insecure as an artist

But, Carr was exhaustive about verifying facts about his childhood and his years as a hustler. "David wrote about his early life in his monologues, as he calls them. Some are his own stories that he fictionalized, and I was able to find some people to confirm that the stories were accurate. Many of the details sync up."

"He was insecure about his artistic ability. I tried to trace all of that. He didn’t go to art school," Carr recalled, "so he had pretty spotty knowledge. He found a book about surrealism in the garbage, for instance. I try to track how he developed his own iconography based on his own life experiences. He learned from his environment and he has literary roots, with his first pieces were inspired by gay French writers Arthur Rimbaud and Jean Genet."

Carr got to know Wojnarowicz through covering his shows, but in the last year of his life, "He started calling me at Village Voice to talk," she recalled. "Fortunately, I always took notes at the Voice of calls. Then when I started spending more time with him, I was making journal entries."

Carr eventually had access to all of Wojnarowicz’s private papers and recordings of "very intimate tapes and his feelings about his imminent death, things in the art world and his dreams. I felt I had access to David’s inner life," she said. "I wanted to be able to show what this one man with AIDS was going through."

"There are also love stories in here," which she feels were of equal importance.

"His relationships, even with his ex-lovers, Tom and Peter Hujar, really sustained him," Carr observes. "They were his family and the emotional threads running through his life."


Fearless spirit

He also maintained a long distance relationship with Jean-Pierre Delage, in which the pair traveled back and forth between France and the US. There were also a string of anonymous hook- ups with the artist’s ’fellas,’ as he called them.

The book also captures a lot of the artist’s fearless and adventurous spirit. He may have been immersed in the New York art world, but he took regular cross country art exploration trips (ala Kerouac). Carr also describes David’s dreams as a key to understanding his surrealistic imagery.

Wojnarowicz most famous work was his short silent film "Fire in the Belly," which elicited controversy because of an 11-second sequence that featured ants crawling over a crucifix. Made in 1986-1987, it was never completed. Instead was called "Film in Progress." Regarding the crucifix scenes, Rauffenbart told the Wall Street Journal that they should be viewed in terms of Mr. Wojnarowicz’s extensive use of Catholic imagery: "He had a positive image of Christ and had his own version of what Christ represents. He was tied to saints, too, that suffered and were martyred."

When a portion of the work was included in the 2010 National Portrait Gallery exhibit "Hide/Seek" (which featured the works of American gay artists), the "crucifix" sequence was criticized by such religious groups (as the Catholic League) and conservative politicians (Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner), who threatened to remove funds for the Smithsonian. Bowing under pressure, the Smithsonian removed the excerpt from the exhibit.

"It’s the usual thing with the right wing," Carr observed, even though she was shocked that the film was being targeted again. "They don’t look at what the artist is trying to say, but they react to the imagery and David’s imagery is pretty blunt. It was totally misinterpreted- it’s not about sacrilege and it’s not about AIDS," Carr explains. ("The film was shot before David was diagnosed and before he got involved with the AIDS movement," Rauffenbart told the Wall Street Journal.)


His last days

What has led to the confusion is that a seven-minute excerpt was used in another film-Rosa von Praunheim’s "Silence=Death" (1989). It was a four-minute, truncated version that was shown at the Smithsonian along with a soundtrack from a June 1989 audiocassette of an ACT-UP demonstration found in Mr. Wojnarowicz’s papers. "Smithsonian curators Jonathan Katz and Bart Everly made the changes with permission from Mr. Rauffenbart," reported the WSJ.

Carr’s care and scope not only gives intimate dimension of Wojnarowicz’s last days, but also reflects that phase of the AIDS epidemic "and what it did to people. Even though it’s very sad, I hoped to bring people close to David," she said.

In the early 90s at the height of his artistic success, Wojnarowicz was getting sicker by the day battling AIDS and fighting on the front lines with ACT-UP. He was one of the lost generation of New York gay artists who would turn their work into political art as a j’accuse to the Reagan administration’s homophobia. (In a story about the book in the New York Times, Dwight Garner reported that at "an AIDS demonstration in 1988 Wojnarowicz wore a jacket that declared in block letters across the back: ’If I die of AIDS - forget burial - just drop my body on the steps of the F.D.A.’")

Carr said that beside his artistic legacy, Wojnarowicz’s gay activism is just as important to remember citing his many writings and art works dealing with AIDS. "His photographs and account of Hujar’s death, we particularly moving to me," Carr said. "what it was like to live with AIDS, his anger and his fantasy about going after the villains who were preventing AIDS education and research." And Wojnarowicz’s protests continued after his death with what he called his ’political funeral.’

In response to the most recent censorship in Washington, other gallery owners immediately started exhibiting the film and protesters at the National Gallery walked around streaming ’Fire in the Belly’ on their laptops. Wojnarowicz would approve.


Fire in the Belly The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz; By Cynthia Carr Illustrated. 613 pages. Bloomsbury. $35.

Watch this sequence from "Fire in My Belly" (1987): by David Wojnarowicz, with music by Diamanda Galas



Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.

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