Marion Scemama, David Wojnarowicz in his Kitchen, New York (Exhibition Poster For Civilian Warefare Gallery, 1983

In Front of the Firing Line

David Wojnarowicz's Metamorphosis

In 1984, David Wojnarowicz opened his first solo exhibition at Civilian Warfare in New York’s East Village. Along one wall was a series of 23 heads, collectively titled Metamorphosis, situated on shelves above a painted bulls-eye, a stark reminder of a firing line wall. These alien faces, representing the 23 pairs of chromosomes in the human DNA, provided allegories of the atrocities that were being committed during the ongoing conflicts throughout Central and South America. Wojnarowicz had been deeply troubled by the human rights violations that had become part of the Contra War in Nicaragua, the Civil War in El Salvador and the Dirty War in Argentina. He saw masses being oppressed and abused as the ruling classes struggled to gain or maintain power in the regions. His series emphasizes the helpless in these societies, the outsiders, and asks what happens to them.  As he explained it, Metamorphosis is meant be an “evolution of consciousness”. 

Some of us are born with the cross hairs of a rifle scope printed on our backs or skulls.

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.

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