Political art has become a stronger and more active current in the last century. Artists like David Wojnarowicz have worked with some of the most serious topics in history to try to make a change.
Images will always be more powerful than words, leading many artists to adopt important causes and issues to raise their voice and make a change. As you get from the title, the artist we’re going to talk about today was one of them: a man who took his feelings of impotence, anger, and suffering and turned them into works of art that have a huge relevance to this day. David Wojnarowicz became a gay AIDS icon after his death in 1992 at the age of 37, but he was turned into art to make issues ignored at the time visible to the world.
When life is full of tragedy and despair, there are only two ways to deal with it. You either channel those emotions or go down a spiral of chaos and more sorrow. For Wojnarowicz, both options sounded tempting. After his parents got divorced, and he had to endure the horrible treatment of his abusive drunk father, he decided to get away from it all and make a life for himself. As a teenager, he slept wherever night found him and doing anything he could to get money to survive, even prostituting himself on the streets of New York.
Then, his life changed when he started working as a busboy at a nightclub. It was here that he met famous artist Keith Haring, who was also working there at the time. Soon he found himself in the growing art circles of Nan Goldin, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Peter Hujar. The latter, a talented photographer, became a key figure in Wojnarowicz’s artistic and personal life. Hujar taught him how to channel his emotions, his concerns, and more importantly, his anger toward society and the government. He became Wojnarowicz’s artistic mentor, as well as his lover and friend, something he had barely had so far.
Wojnarowicz started out as a poet, though words weren’t his forte. It was during the eighties that he actually started shifting towards the visual arts. He started making stencils and painting on walls, but soon, he found what would become his iconic and particular style: a critical, honest, and uncensored art that would reach the entire world. As an outcast himself, he spoke through art as an alienated artist who empathized with what others endured in life. He spoke about the persecution of minorities, the government’s focus on war instead of the people, and many other injustices he noticed in the world.
In 1987, Wojnarowicz’s best friend, mentor, and former lover died of complications of AIDS, and that same year he was diagnosed with the disease that became a central topic in his work. Right after his lover’s death (and I mean literally right after his death), Wojnarowicz took pictures of his dead body to create one of his most famous artworks. He was mainly angry at Ronald Reagan’s posture on the AIDS crisis, which was basically ignoring the fact it existed. This infuriated Wojnariwicz, who saw how the people he cared about were dying of this disease, and the government didn’t care. Not only that, he saw how the gay community was being attacked and persecuted. After these events, his art became more aggressive and poignant.
Hujar’s death and where his own life was going made him realize that the best way to make a statement was turning “the private into something public.” In 1990, he decided to make what he knew was going to be his last trip to New York. He took photographer Marion Scemama with him to make what is probably his strongest and most appalling work. He dug a hole in the ground and buried himself all the way up to his face. It’s been interpreted as his farewell, showing himself as an inert body about to be completely buried in the ground. The other interpretation is kind of the opposite, the idea of the dead Lazarus rising from the dead, as if saying that his work will still resonate as long as nothing is done on the matters he cared about.
He was probably right. After his death in 1992, his work became really famous due to the relevance of the topics he dealt with. As the years passed, it would seem that these matters and his particular visual style grew in relevance to the point that talking about these subjects under the light of his art, seems really pertinent and applicable. Not to say that his work isn’t good, but it would be better to analyze and enjoy his work without having to read them through the unsolved issues he talked about decades ago.
You might also like these:
Cover: Self-portrait of David Wojnarowicz (1983-1984)