Friday, August 14, 2009


Today is the birthday of painter, writer, photographer, film maker and performance artist David Wojnarowicz. Had he lived, he would be just 55 years old. Wojnarowicz was born in Red Bank, New Jersey in 1954 and spent his youth in agony that his homosexuality and his dysfunctional family did not square with the ideals of the 50's. His parents divorced when he was 2; he and his two sisters lived with their mother until their father kidnapped them.

Sexually precocious, Wojnarowicz was 9 when he turned his first trick in Central Park. Encouraged by his mother to draw and paint -- he earned lunch money by sketching the carnal fantasies of his friends -- he entered the High School of Music and Arts but dropped out at 16 and became a thief and a prostitute. After hitchhiking many times across the U.S. and living for several months in San Francisco and Paris, he settled in New York's East Village in 1978.

Wojnarowicz created artwork that boils with rage against the political and religious powers that branded him a pariah. Many of Wojnarowicz' works incorporate experiences drawn from his personal history and from stories he heard from the people he met in bus stations and truck stops while hitchhiking. By the late 1970's he had created and collected an extensive catalog of images, writings and objects that capture the personal voices of individuals stigmatized by society and form a forceful rebuke to mainstream history.

In the late 1980's, Wojnarowicz was diagnosed with AIDS, and his art became more sharply political than ever. He was entangled in highly public debates about medical research and funding, morality and censorship in the arts, and the legal rights of artists. He challenged the nature of public arts funding at the National Endowment for the Arts, and won a lawsuit against the American Family Association of Tupelo, Mississippi, an anti-pornography political action group that Wojnarowicz accused of misrepresenting his art and damaging his reputation.

Wojnarowicz died of AIDS in 1992, at the age of 37. Over his brief life, he wrote five books, including the memoir "Close to the Knives," which remains one of the most important documents on living with AIDS during the onset of the epidemic, and created art that is now in numerous private and public collections including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

"The ancients believed that light came from within the eyes and you cast this light upon things in the world wherever you turned. I remember wondering if the world disappeared or was cast into darkness when you closed your eyes, or, even further, if you died, did the world die also."

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