A Season in Hell

Arthur Rimbaud in New York

David Wojnarowicz was just twenty-four when he shot most of the photographs for Arthur Rimbaud in New York. The series—one of Wojnarowicz’s only forays into photography—featured friends of the artist wearing a life-size mask of the French poet shot in various locations around the city. The scenes are distinctly urban and speak to a specific moment, New York in the late 1970s, post-Stonewall Riots and just before the explosion of AIDS. In the photographs, a gritty and slightly dangerous city is laid bare, teetering on the edge of crisis—one that was both cultural, political, and above all, deeply personal.

Occupying both public and private places, the figures in the Rimbaud mask chronicle the artist’s life while simultaneously (and subconsciously) pointing a prophetic finger to the future.

For the series, Wojnarowicz drew parallels between himself and his fated libertine subject. Both were restless outcasts, rebellious and tormented youths, persecuted for their homosexuality, raw, resolute and in possession of immensely beautiful minds. In his series, the artist resurrects Rimbaud to live out memories from his own past, visiting the places he frequented with his mentor Peter Hujar and returning to the dark corners where he hustled as a teenage prostitute. Occupying both public and private places, the figures in the Rimbaud mask chronicle the artist’s life while simultaneously (and subconsciously) pointing a prophetic finger to the future. Rimbaud is almost doomed to re-live a similarly turbulent life a century after his death, while Wojnarowicz makes sense of his own by looking back. The two men, bound by their uncompromising brilliance—and perhaps cursed by it—both died well before their time at the age of thirty-seven. 

Ah! I've been through too much:-But, sweet Satan, I beg of you, a less blazing eye! and while waiting for the new little cowardly gestures yet to come, since you like an absence of descriptive or didactic skills in a writer, let me rip out these few ghastly pages from my notebook of the damned.

Arthur Rimbaud, excerpt from A Season in Hell

David Wojnarowicz 1954–2004

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.