A season in hell

Words by Amei Wallach

24 years after his death, the work and life of David Wojnarowicz continues to enthrall the art world. Ahead of a major retrospective at the Whitney, Amei Wallach speaks to the artist’s friends and collaborators, retracing his progress from New York’s abandoned piers to the city’s galleries and museums

It was January 1990. In New York, in San Francisco, in cities throughout the US everyone in the gay and the arts communities knew someone, friend or lover, who was dead or dying of Aids. David Wojnarowicz was 35. It had been two years since he’d got his diagnosis. He’d tended his mentor and friend, the photographer Peter Hujar, to the end and knew well from evidence of the plague around him that his own death would be imminent and ugly. 

His response was an eruption of creativity in the astonishing array of media with which he’d learned to articulate what he had to say. Through painting, sculpture, installation, texts, photography, video, performance, music and printmaking, he celebrated the periphery, crossed borders and took savage aim at structures of power with a potent brew of in-your-
face eroticism, horseplay, hostility, political dissent, social commentary
and lyricism. 

That January, Wojnarowicz’s first retrospective, Tongues of Flame, opened at the Illinois State University in Normal. In the catalogue the culture critic Carlo McCormick called him “a vigilante for the world’s most oppressed and excluded regions of social identity… The bile he has coughed up and spat at the world was never (as so many would like to believe) the last thing anyone needed, but rather precisely the very thing everyone needed,”. “Wojnarowicz’s voice is as upsetting, mesmerizing and desperately needed today as it ever was. The spleen, like the heart and the mind, will never be an obsolete organ in our societal anatomy.”

Thirty-six years later Wojnarowicz’s voice seems no more obsolete than it did then. David Wojnarowicz, it turns out, was that rare artist who encapsulates a time and re-emerges with new relevance long after it ends. 

Read more in Issue 2...