Books Of the Times: ‘Fire in the Belly,’ on David Wojnarowicz, by Cynthia Carr

Wojnarowicz (pronounced voy-nah-ROH-vitch) was a painter, a photographer, a writer, a performance artist, a filmmaker and an AIDS activist — he was gifted at all these things, save perhaps filmmaking — whose work helped define the anarchic downtown Manhattan art scene in the 1980s. Much of his stuff was so resolutely ugly that it too shone with a defiant sort of beauty.

He’s probably best known for an image of striking simplicity, a photograph of buffalo falling from a cliff, taken from a diorama of the Old West at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington. It became a symbol of the AIDS crisis; the band U2 put it on the cover of its 1992 single “One.”

But most of Wojnarowicz’s painting was busier, packed with ruinous iconography: animal skulls, locomotives, soldiers, vaguely threatening flowers. Some of this iconography was sexual or considered blasphemous (like Jesus with a heroin syringe in his arm), and made him a favorite target, during the culture wars of the 1980s, of the religious right.

“Fire in the Belly” is a smart match of author and subject. Ms. Carr was a columnist and arts reporter for The Village Voice from 1984 to 2003, and she is intimate with Wojnarowicz’s milieu.

She knew Wojnarowicz, though not well, at least not until the final months of his life, when he was dying of AIDS-related illnesses at 37. She mostly maintains a firm critical distance, yet this is the only biography I can recall in which the author recounts massaging the subject’s feet.

Ms. Carr’s biography is both sympathetic and compendious; it’s also a many-angled account of the downtown art world of the 1980s. The characters who glide in and out of its pages like angelfish include Keith Haring (whom Wojnarowicz worked alongside as a busboy at the nightclub Danceteria, and disliked), Nan Goldin, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kiki Smith and Karen Finley.

The author braids small, unlikely narratives among the large ones. There’s an account of the art store clerk who gave away free supplies to poor artists he admired, and one of Redden’s, the sole funeral home in Manhattan that would accept AIDS patients in the early days of the crisis, winning the loyalty of many gay men.

Ms. Carr, by lining Wojnarowicz in her sights, has seized upon a vivid and peculiarly American story. Born in Red Bank, N.J., in 1954, he was the third child of a seaman on passenger ships and an aspiring model. His father beat Wojnarowicz and his siblings. He was an alcoholic so malignant he fed his unwitting children the family’s pet rabbit, variously telling them it was lamb or New York steak.

After his parents divorced, Wojnarowicz and his siblings shuttled between them, at one point being kidnapped by their father and taken to rural Michigan. They ultimately ended up living with their mother in a small apartment in the rough Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood.

Wojnarowicz was not much of a student; he barely graduated from high school and did not attend college. At a young age he began spending time on the streets, performing sex acts for money. (Exactly how young is in dispute. Wojnarowicz sometimes exaggerated for effect.) One of his hustling lines was, “I need money for art supplies.”

He ran away and was essentially homeless for several years in his late teens, developing a lifelong fascination with social outcasts, with whom he identified. He put in time as a clerk in bookstores, and discovered the work of self-destructive writers like Jean Genet and Arthur Rimbaud.

About their influence, and about casual gay sex, he would write,: “It’s this lawlessness and anonymity simultaneously that I desire, living among thugs, but men who live under no degree of law or demand, just continual motion and robbery and light roguishness and motion.”

Time spent in Paris with his sister, who had moved there, seasoned him. So did his friendship with the photographer Peter Hujar, who became his mentor. Wojnarowicz began doing work with stencils, like one of a burning house. He made a paper mask of Rimbaud’s face and took strange and somber photographs of men wearing it in subways and in places like Coney Island.

He also began spending time among ruined warehouses on the far West Side of Manhattan, where he went for anonymous sex but also to paint on the walls. “This is the real MoMA,” he told a friend.

His work appeared in the Whitney Biennial in 1985. He became increasingly well known. But he never made much money, and he kept the traditional art world at a distance. Whenever his work was in demand, the author says, he tended to stop painting. He enjoyed provocations. One night he and a friend dumped a pile of cow bones on a stairway outside the prestigious Leo Castelli Gallery.

Wojnarowicz was often generous and funny. The writer Fran Lebowitz called him “an exceptional moral presence,” but he was a prickly character. When he was angry, his face would turn purple, and his eyes would bug out. On trips he’d suddenly decide he’d had enough of a friend, and drop that person off at an airport or bus station.

When a gallery damaged one of his paintings and refused to repair it, he pulled out a tire iron and smashed holes in the walls. “Everyone was a little scared of David,” a friend remarked.

He was 33 when he learned that he was HIV positive. His longtime partner, Tom Rauffenbart, had already contracted the virus. Told about his low T-cell count, Ms. Carr says, Wojnarowicz replied with characteristically bleak wit: “He asked the doctor to just let him know when there were few enough that he could give them all names.”

He became outspoken about AIDS, becoming an unforgettable presence in Rosa von Praunheim’s documentary “Silence = Death” (1990). His catalog essay, “Postcards from America: X-rays from Hell,” for a group show supervised by Ms. Goldin, made him infamous.

It was a beautiful and moving piece of writing, but it also included a description of Cardinal John J. O’Connor of New York as a “fat cannibal from the house of walking swastikas.” The show was supported in part by a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and opponents on the right pounced. Wojnarowicz is a raw but elusive figure in Ms. Carr’s biography. “No one who ever knew him — not even those closest to him — saw all of David,” she declares. And if her book has a blind spot, it’s that she doesn’t delve deeply into the complicated critical reaction, then and now, to her subject’s work, which can still stir controversy. In 2010 the National Portrait Gallery, bowing to pressure from the Catholic League and some congressmen, removed an excerpt from Wojnarowicz’s short silent film, “Fire in My Belly,” from a show because it contained an 11-second scene of ants crawling over a crucifix.

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.”

Not long his death his partner scattered his ashes in some of the artist’s favorite places, including Paris, New Orleans, Mexico and what was left of the Christopher Street pier. Finally, and fittingly, he threw some of David Wojnarowicz’s ashes on the White House lawn.


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