A Child Again

Life, Death and Rebirth in the Work of David Wojnarowicz

David Wojnarowicz had been staying with his sister Pat in Paris on the day that his niece was born. He recalls waking in the morning to Pat’s alarm clock, but she and her husband were gone. They had left for the hospital in the night and Pat had given birth to a baby girl. Wojnarowicz was devastated to discover he had been left behind, and as the day went on, his anxieties grew worse. He wrote, “I am unhappy with my thoughts. Angry. I want to cry and turn to someone bigger than me—emotionally or physically bigger. Am I a child again in this state?” Eventually his brother-in-law called with the good news, and Wojnarowicz visited the little family and took photos of his new niece.

Something from Sleep II, 1988-89, acrylic and collage on canvas 36 x 36 inches. Private Collection

Prior to her birth, the artist had been developing and ruminating on, imagery of fetuses: tiny bodies held in the palm of the hand, floating in air, an infant suspended in space, tethered by the umbilical cord. The present lot, an Untitled work from 1987, illustrates an elephant walking up to a floating elephant fetus, an image which Wojnarowicz would revisit in his later work. In Mortality, a painting completed in 1988, the central image of the elephant and floating fetus is surrounded by a border of veins that become vines, with sprouting leaves and a solitary yellow flower. Later that year, Wojnarowicz incorporates this image again in Something from Sleep II, a composition reminiscent of work by Frida Kahlo where a slumbering man dreams of the elephant, time and love.

After his time in Paris, Wojnarowicz returned to New York and learned that he was HIV-positive. Reflecting on his diagnosis, he said “I see the threads of the unconscious revealing to me that this virus was making its way through my body.” It was visceral, and the images from his past began to spell his fate. In her book Fire in the Belly, author Cynthia Carr describes Wojnarowicz coming to the realization that his niece was created to replace him. She writes, “On the day of her birth, he sensed the “historical thread” leading from earliest organisms to dinosaurs and then to all of human history.” Like the elephant who slowly approaches the edge of the water, Wojnarowicz is faced with a premonition, a harbinger of things to come and a reminder of things that have passed—life, death and rebirth.
 

Hell is a place on earth. Heaven is a place in your head.

David Wojnarowicz

David Wojnarowicz 1954–1992

Painter, photographer, writer, filmmaker, performance artist, songwriter/recording artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz’s work was heavily influenced by his difficult childhood and even more traumatic young adulthood. Born in New Jersey, he had an abusive father and as a child struggled not only with the physical and mental effects of that abuse, but also with an emerging sense of his own homosexuality. By the tender age of sixteen he had dropped out of highschool and began working as a street hustler in Times Square. He hitchhiked several times across the United States and lived for short periods in San Francisco and even Paris, all before settling in New York’s East Village in 1978.

Wojnarowicz quickly emerged as an important voice in the East Village avant-garde art scene, drawing upon his personal history and the myriad of stories he absorbed on his travels to create art that challenged viewers and gave voice to individuals stigmatized by society. In 1985, his work was included in the Whitney Biennial and he was soon showing in museums and galleries throughout the United States, Europe, and Latin America. He collaborated with other prolific artists of the time, including Nan Goldin, Kiki Smith, and Peter Hujar, who would become his lover and mentor and remained an important fixture in Wojnarowicz’s life until Hujar’s untimely death in 1987 from AIDS. Hujar’s death, and Wojnarowicz’s own AIDS diagnosis around the same time, moved the artist to create even more starkly political and explicit works, especially in relation to the social and legal injustices of the AIDS epidemic.

The nature of Wojnarowicz’s work–sharply critical of societal norms, the treatment of gay people, the government’s handling of the AIDS crisis, and often containing difficult, violent, or pornographic subject matter–led to his entanglement in public debates about medical research and funding, morality and censorship in the arts, and the legal rights of artists. He died at the age of 37 from AIDS-related complications, but his life and work continue to inspire artists and activists to the present day. His artwork can be found in many public and private collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.