David Wojnarowicz’s recent Whitney retrospective—aptly titled History Keeps Me Awake at Night—bespeaks the lapses and pitfalls that come with digging into the past. Wojnarowicz, catapulting gloriously between the mediums of collage, sculpture, photography, painting, writing, and No Wave music, called into question the cultural mythologies that shape the writing of history. Inhabiting the very periphery of American life, Wojnarowicz operated from the privileged yet precarious position of the outsider. “I have always felt alienated in this country,” he writes in his memoir Close To the Knives, “and thus have lived with the sensation of being an observer of my own life as it occurs.” Living with HIV at a time when widespread misinformation and government neglect forced AIDS patients to the margins of society, Wojnarowicz struggled to voice his personal account of AIDS with volume, urgency, and accuracy. His work demands an uncompromising history of the AIDS crisis. And so it is crucial to ask: How did the Whitney and the exhibition’s framing of Wojnarowicz’s work engage with this history?
Identification with the outsider comes to the forefront in Wojnarowicz’s paintings. Looking at America from a remove, his paintings pick apart national history and reassemble it in a comic book-like constellation of kitschy Americana. Take, for example, The Death of American Spirituality (1987), whose canvas co-mingles a cowboy in a ten-gallon hat, giant industrial machinery, and a zombified Jesus head floating in space. Brought together against a background of fire and brimstone, these emblems tell stories of Westward expansion, industrialization, and Christian supremacy, of capitalism and war.
During Wojnarowicz’s lifetime, there were little to no anti-discrimination laws for gays. In Close to the Knives, he addresses the precarious condition of queer people in America: “In most areas of the u.s.a it is possible to murder a man & when one is brought to trial, one only need to say that the victim was queer & tried to touch you & the courts will set you free.” One need not look further than the 1979 trial of Dan White for the murder of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay government official in California. Unmistakably guilty, White was charged with manslaughter instead of murder (resulting in a meager seven year sentence) after his lawyer claimed that his excessive consumption of sugar led to impaired judgement. The so-called “Twinkie Defense” is just one of many examples of neglect by a political system that was (and largely still is) indifferent to queer lives.
Wojnarowicz’s lived experience is thus one of a body deprived of the protective mechanisms of the state and thereby made vulnerable to violence, death, and disease. When the government fails you, flags and cowboys lose their symbolic power. In turn, they become grotesque and ironic imitations of the ideals that they claim to uphold.
The exhibition opens with a self-portrait, which the Whitney also reproduced for all of its promotional material: Wojnarowicz stands, arms crossed, defiant stare, fire consuming his body (a flaming queen!). Why, considering the depth of this artist’s work, would the Whitney decide to elect this the crowning jewel?
Perhaps this curatorial decision was inspired by the age-old feminist adage, “The personal is political,” which seems to constitute the very architecture of Wojnarowicz’s work. Wojnarowicz lived at a time when the government did little to address or acknowledge the AIDS virus that was killing tens of thousands of American citizens. During the Reagan years, the government shut down multiple attempts to fund AIDS research. Reagan didn’t once utter the word AIDS in public until 1985, four years after the crisis began. Wojnarowicz understood that his own HIV-positive body was a reflection of broader imbalances and injustices, as suggested by his famous declaration: IF I DIE OF AIDS – FORGET BURIAL – JUST DROP MY BODY ON THE STEPS OF THE F.D.A.
The personal again collapses into the political in his heartbreaking photos of Peter Hujar on his hospital bed. These were taken after Hujar, Wojnarowicz’s former lover and long-term companion, had just died of AIDS-related pneumonia after a ten month-long struggle with the virus. The series contains close-ups of Hujar’s lifeless body: his skeletal face, his outstretched fingers, his curled toes. This public display of death serves as a kind of mourning made political: an acknowledgement that our bodies can serve as sites of resistance and protest.
Seeing Wojnarowicz’s flaming face at the entrance to the show points to the political weight of personal history. Yet I am reminded that a retrospective at the Whitney swings a door wide open into ranks of the art market. Putting Wojnarowicz’s self-portrait on blast—this is how artists get historicized—biography come to the forefront, which in turn creates a brand name. Wojnarowicz’s monumental face looms over the exhibition—a potent reminder of how an institution consumes an artist. And yet, remarkably radical in their lifetimes, Wojnarowicz and Hujar largely rejected the commercial art world.
The new Whitney is a symbolic venue for a Wojnarowicz retrospective. Just a few decades ago, on these very same grounds stood the dilapidated old warehouse of Pier 52. It was here where Gordon Matta Clark (illegally) cut out giant chunks of wall and ceiling in a grand experiment with natural light. Many downtown artists came to these now demolished warehouses to create large-scale work. The exhibition memorializes the piers in a slideshow of images by Andreas Sterzing of massive sculptures and murals by Matta Clark and others amidst the wreckage of urban decay. These temporary autonomous zones also served as cruising grounds for Wojnarowicz, who sought refuge from the sexually repressive politics of his time.
Nowadays it’s next to impossible to imagine that the Meatpacking District—with its high-end retail and $5 cups of coffee—once housed anarchist DIY artists and secret orgies. Considering the neighborhood’s fraught history of gentrification, it’s difficult to see the Whitney host a Wojnarowicz retrospective without feeling like his life and work have been sanitized.
In Gentrification of the Mind, author and ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) activist Sarah Schulman engages with the ways gentrification impoverishes both city and spirit. (Wojnarowicz likewise was actively involved in ACT UP.) Schulman unravels the relationship between AIDS and gentrification, which, in New York, are inextricably linked. It is no coincidence that the height of the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s and ’90s coincided with the onset of gentrification. This is partially because the death of tens of thousands of New Yorkers in downtown neighborhoods (Chelsea, SoHo, East Village) freed up apartments and allowed landlords to inflate the rent sometimes double or triple the original price. This phenomenon was facilitated by the fact that many gay men were prevented from inheriting their dead partners’ leases. After Hujar’s death, Wojnarowicz himself had to take Hujar’s landlord to court in order to keep the apartment where they had lived together for years.
The queers, creatives, and long-time New Yorkers who had died of AIDS were subsequently replaced by mainly upper-middle class tenants who could afford the newly exorbitant rents. This in turn created the homogenized urban environment that characterizes gentrification. And without complexity, difference, and individual specificity, urban reality becomes emptied of meaning. (Take, for example, the East Village Target store that attempted to pay tribute to the legendary punk bar CBGB by replicating its façade, while the bar’s original location is now a high end shoe store—a cruel reminder of the commodification of downtown New York.)
Schulman connects the paradigm of spiritual gentrification to the AIDS crisis, which often falls victim to simplification. This in turn lends to a false sense of safety—even satisfaction—regarding the current state of AIDS:
We still have to work every day to assert the obvious, that in fact, there are two distinctly different kinds of AIDS that are not over.
1. There is AIDS of the past.
2. There is ongoing AIDS.
Neither is over, although they are treated quite differently in the present moment… Ongoing AIDS is both maintained and addressed by globalization, a sort of worldwide gentrification in which specificity of experience, understanding, and need are glossed over by a homogenizing corporate net.
Alongside the fiscal failure that was George W. Bush’s “AIDS in Africa” fund (which, according to Schulmann, delivered twenty cents on the dollar to its intended recipients), the gentrification of AIDS includes the false historicization of past AIDS. Pretending away years of plague and death, acting like the AIDS crisis ended with PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) and PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis)—both contribute to an evacuation of nuance, accuracy, meaning. It’s therefore the Whitney’s job to maintain a certain integrity to Wojnarowicz’s personal account of the AIDS crisis, especially considering the exhibition’s title with its proclaimed focus on history.
Yet with all its talk of history, the Whitney falls into the very same traps that Wojnarowicz so fiercely criticized. When I visited the museum on the evening of July 27th, a protester from ACTUP stood at the entrance with a sign that read: “AIDS IS NOT HISTORY. THE AIDS CRISIS DID NOT DIE WITH DAVID WOJNAROWICZ.” A flyer drew attention to the fact that the exhibition—while bemoaning the horrors of in the AIDS in the ’80s and ’90s—neglected to mention that AIDS is, obviously, an ongoing problem. This seems like a recurring trend when people construct a timeline of the AIDS crisis: people started getting sick in 1981, it got bad in the late ’80s, then in 1996 the FDA developed adequate treatment and poof, the virus disappeared. (In response to the ACT UP protests, to the museum’s credit, the Whitney updated some of its exhibition labels to include information about society’s ongoing struggle with AIDS.)
Cultural apathy towards ongoing AIDS is only exacerbated by the fact that preventative medications, PrEP and PEP, are now widely available. While these medications are a godsend for some, for many they remain inaccessible. Gilead, the pharmaceutical company that manufactures Truvada (the antiviral medicines that prevent HIV cells from multiplying in the body) and maintains a patent on PrEP, is notorious for jacking up the price. A monthly dose costs about $6 to produce, but the cost of purchasing the drug can be up to $1,500, particularly in the United States. For those without health insurance, HIV transmission remains a serious problem. Relegating the virus to the annals of history merely diverts attention away from the serious issue of ongoing AIDS, which, in turn, depletes AIDS research of much-needed funding. Meanwhile, the virus continues to spread, disproportionately affecting those without access to adequate education and healthcare, such as black communities in America and poor populations in Africa.
Public health services in New York are currently attempting to minimize infections by setting up clinics that provide quick and easy access to PrEP. But at-risk groups also include people who simply don’t want to take medication for the rest of their lives. Consider this statement from Paul B. Preciado—author of Testo Junkie—on the relationship between pharmaceuticals, sex, and power:
What is happening with AIDS research is that they are thinking of consumers who can become lifetime consumers… The management of subjectivity and identity is not so related to the body and the movements of the body, but much more to the very materiality of the body. The level of control has been downgraded to a molecular level.
As opposed to manufacturing a cure—a one-time pill that kills the virus immediately—the repeated nature of taking PrEP allows for long-term patronage. This is just the reality of America’s privatized health care system. I’m reminded of the Goldman Sachs research report from last April, where medical analysts asked the question: “Is curing patients a sustainable business model?”
While casting off Truvada wholesale would be undoubtedly rash, it’s important to address the full breadth of its implications. Truvada is a temporary fix, but surely not an end to AIDS; the epidemic and its repercussions cannot be remedied in one fell swoop. The ACT UP protests remind us to be wary of a history that is too neatly packaged.
We’ll never know what David Wojnarowicz would have thought of all of this: of gentrification, the commercial art market, PEP and PrEP. He died prematurely of an AIDS-related illness in 1992, at the age of 37. The tragedy of the AIDS crisis is that it decimated an entire generation of artists, activists, and storytellers who no longer survive to recount their lives with accuracy and complexity. Now it is the job of the living to let their voices carry into the present.
An image that haunts me is a 1991 photograph of Wojnarowicz half-buried in rubble. His face is a site of struggle–it’s unclear whether he is emerging from or descending into the earth. This portrait, taken just a year before his death, seems to speak to the ongoing problem of his legacy. We can bury his account of the AIDS crisis like an unpleasant memory, or allow his life to extend well into the future, and carry with it his wisdom, urgency, and radicality, his looming face persisting.
Eddie Baker attends Columbia University and studies art history with a special interest in performance. His past performances include an homage to Italian porn-star-turned-politician Cicciolina and nihilistic puppet theater in the park. He currently works at Artforum.