Fighting Back : Art and Survival: The Trials of David Wojnarowicz


Artist David Wojnarowicz can scarcely keep from cracking a smile at the memory. Days before the start of a court hearing last month in a lawsuit he brought against a right-wing group headed by the Rev. Donald Wildmon, Wojnarowicz caught himself in a fantasy.

Counting down the days before his appearance at the U.S. District Court in New York City, Wojnarowicz said, he let his imagination get the better of him: “I saw myself, when I saw Wildmon walking up to the witness stand. Despite all the work and preparation (for the case), I thought it would be so great if I could leap over the railing and start strangling the guy.

“I’d definitely lose. Everything would be thrown out the window. But it would be such a hilarious moment in time.”


As it turned out, Wojnarowicz and Wildmon both testified without incident--calmly and as dispassionately as they could in a lawsuit bearing on homosexuality, fundamentalist Christianity and art, and the ways that their combination could conflict.

Not inconsequentially, Wojnarowicz won an injunction against Wildmon’s Mississippi-based American Family Assn. barring further use of a mailing that relied on unacknowledged, drastically cropped reproductions of Wojnarowicz’s images. A final ruling is expected in several weeks.

Wojnarowicz (pronounced “wahn-uh-ROW-vich”) recalled his courtroom fantasy a few days ago on the sun deck of a friend’s apartment near Venice Beach. He had flown in just three hours earlier and--predictably for someone with AIDS--the trip took a great deal out of him.

It hasn’t just been the political controversy on top of the illness that has drained him, or even so many friends dying in the epidemic. (Wojnarowicz is so fatalistic that he jokes about still smoking because every friend who quit and otherwise cleaned up his life has contracted the disease and died within months after doing so.)

Rather, he said, it’s the constant strain of events--from AIDS and the National Endowment for the Arts crisis to such disruptions as a hostile note from his landlord, slipped under his East Village door two days before he flew here. It notified him that he would have to clear out of his apartment for two months for “renovations” that the artist suspects are related to a dispute between tenants and the building’s owner.

He had come for the opening of his show, “Tongues of Flame,” at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. The exhibit runs through Sept. 5, and is part of the Los Angeles Festival. It is the same show that appeared at Illinois State University in Normal, Ill., this year, attracting the attention of right-wing congressmen and Rev. Wildmon. It was Wojnarowicz’s second foray into the NEA controversy. The show includes a variety of photographic images and paintings that involve explicit sexual--particularly homosexual--themes.


In November, it was other images and a catalogue essay by Wojnarowicz that figured in the blowup that ensued when NEA Chairman John E. Frohnmayer canceled a $10,000 grant to Artists Space, the New York gallery that proposed to show the work in an exhibit called “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing,” which focused on the AIDS epidemic. The furor ultimately forced Frohnmayer to restore the money.

In keeping with his proclivity for playing artiste provocateur, Wojnarowicz had described--in the NEA-funded catalogue--New York Roman Catholic Cardinal John O’Connor as a “fat cannibal” and detailed a fantasy in which Wojnarowicz dreamed of throwing California Rep. William Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton) off the Empire State Building. Frohnmayer’s actions didn’t surprise him, Wojnarowicz said, “because I couldn’t foresee any of these people having the guts to back freedom of expression as it pertains to work like mine.

“Whole elections are won on absolutely nothing. (Honest politicians’) fears of their opponents’ 30-second commercials are real. That’s the state of the country. It’s enraging that these people can’t deal in any way with reality in a way I can respect.”

Sitting in the sun in Venice, however, Wojnarowicz, 35, recalled that--with the greatest irony, as things have turned out in his life--as a child, he constantly fantasized about invisibility. He describes it as a self-image of a ray gun in which he could zap his enemies--real and imagined--but never himself be seen.

As he sat and dispassionately described growing up, it was difficult to understand how Wojnarowicz ever survived his childhood. One of three children of a mentally disturbed merchant seaman, Wojnarowicz grew up in New Jersey, but when his parents divorced when he was 8, the father--denied custody--kidnaped the three youngsters and spirited them to Michigan.

In Michigan, Wojnarowicz recalls years of basement beatings--with chains and two-by-fours--and constant shuttling between relatives who grudgingly cared for the children during their father’s frequent absences. The paternal relationship was so bad, Wojnarowicz has consciously tried to free his memory of the year his father finally committed suicide--he thinks he was 20 or 21 at the time, but isn’t sure.

Back eventually in New York and living at least nominally with his mother in Hell’s Kitchen, Wojnarowicz led the double life of a High School of Music and Art student by day and male prostitute by night. “I’d run away for a week or two, or sometimes an entire summer,” he said. “But even when I was on the streets, I continued drawing, even if it was a ballpoint pen on a piece of cardboard. I’d do this staying up all night in West Side restaurants, hanging out with gangs of street people, hustlers and transvestites.”

Eventually, he talked his way into a residential arrangement with a prison halfway house, later working as a janitor before finally finding a way to both express himself and make a living through art.

“It’s something I’ve always done and always gotten flak for,” he said of the deliberately provocative nature of much of his art--not just the sexually charged material, but a larger body of work that is generally political broadside. “It was the only way I could make it through the world.

“In all those years since then, I’ve slowly stripped away the defenses, trying to deal with things openly. There is absolutely no reason the human body should be taboo. To separate politics from anything that happens in this country is absolutely impossible.”

And so Wojnarowicz continues to fight, despite AIDS and the constant drain of political events. It is a determination that left him impassive during the hearing on the injunction against Wildmon while a witness called by Wojnarowicz’s lawyers testified that the episode of the cropped images was especially damaging to Wojnarowicz’s career.

“Mr. Wojnarowicz, as we all know, has AIDS,” the witness said, “and I don’t think he’s got the same kind of time to apply to building his career as an artist.”

“It’s something I’m dealing with all the time,” Wojnarowicz said. “It’s weird. It’s strange to watch that (issue) be made use of in terms of the court stuff and yet it’s part of what I’m dealing with.

“I abstract death, just like everybody else does, if I’m going to keep working and keep moving. There are moments that I’m terrified. I have very mixed feelings in terms of what I’ve been seeing in the world that I’ve lived in. It gets very surreal.”