Art Exhibit of the Summer: David Wojnarowicz’s Legacy of Artistic Advocacy

Eliza Poster, Staff Writer

The first of many striking images amassed on the sixth floor of the Whitney appears the moment the doors of the palatial elevator open: a photograph of a man, unfazed by flames that engulf him, stares serenely in your direction with a cigarette clutched firmly between two fingers. Inscribed on the wall next to this piece is the title of the exhibit— “David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night.”

A retrospective of artist David Wojnarowicz’s work from the late seventies to early nineties, the exhibit, open from July 13th to September 30th, displays a vast quantity of his work and explores the intersection of sexuality with religion, politics, family, and identity. Wojnarowicz, a queer man who died of HIV in 1992  at the age of 37, engaged in advocacy most of his life and used his art as a form of activism.

The artist worked in various media throughout his career, including painting, photography, film, sculpture, music and performance. Memorable works include a self-portrait of Wojnarowicz’s face photographed submerging or emerging from crumbling sand, a kaleidoscopic cluster of objects including a newborn baby emblazoned in paint upon a huge canvas, and the clanging, robotic sound of his band 3 Teens Kill 4. But no matter the time or material, the majority of his works link back to his exploration of sexuality in life.

Despite the number of decades passed since the art was made, the spectators seemed moved by the exhibit and shocked by the relevance of the artist’s activism and social commentary.

The exhibit is a series of rooms strung together, some with curling white walls erected at the center. The exhibit has no obvious flow; spectators weave in and out of rooms as they please, encouraging further engagement with the art itself.

“It seems so direct and so vivid; his use of images and color, his work kind of confronts you in a way that is engaging but also very pointed,” Elliot Fleishman, a spectator and student at NYU, said.

One of the most enticing series in the exhibit is Rimbaud in New York, a collection of black-and-white photographs of people, often including Wojnarowicz himself, posed in various locations in New York. They are wearing masks resembling the face of Arthur Rimbaud, a French writer from whom Wojnarowicz found great inspiration and admired for his introspection and candor in depicting his own homosexuality.

“I really appreciated the New York centricity of his work,” he said. “And I think it really speaks to the emotional undercurrent we all have. For me, it was a depiction of finding poetry in life.”

Providing a coherent timeline of Wojnarowicz’s activism, the exhibit captures the sadness and complexity of Wojnarowicz’s life while retaining the art’s beauty and resonance.