Perhaps it was inevitable that the Whitney Museum’s David Wojnarowicz retrospective “History Keeps me Awake at Night” would be underwhelming, despite comprising over a hundred and forty pieces. Over ten years of consideration, months of marketing, concurrent exhibitions (at P.P.O.W. and Mamdouha Bobst galleries), and much gilded coverage, have built an epic situation. This all preceded his exaltation into the canonical pantheon he earned during his lifetime. But the results were unlikely to equal the expectations, and they haven’t. 

The dismay is two-fold. The Whitney has underestimated the pulse and scope of Wojnarowicz’s output, while overestimating its own sanctifying capacity. While the artist longed for, received, and struggled with institutional recognition during his lifetime, his work was born of the streets, in language intended for the dreadful miasma of his day, through activism, his diaries, and on the decrepit walls of New York City’s periphery. It sits uncomfortably in museums.

In the catalog, the Whitney’s director Adam D. Weinberg, tussles with institutional influence, noting that Wojnarowicz criticized museums’ exclusivity of marginalized groups, and that “institutions are in a position of power that artists often are not.” In their introductory essay, the curators—David Breslin and David Kiehl —write that this exhibition was also an attempt to place his work beyond its usual context as a “footnote” to the “AIDS crisis and culture wars, or an act of reportage from the frontlines of those battles.”  The Whitney acknowledges its outrageous power, while utilizing that very authority to “redress” how Wojnarowicz ought to be considered anew, as “participating in an extensive cultural project that explores American myths” and “how those myths stand when faced down by American histories.”

David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps me Awake at Night

The West Side of Manhattan, where Wojnarowicz hung out, cruised, and made art, has been transformed into a plastic theme park for rich residents. The Whitney Museum of American Art is a decimating agent, or benefactor, of that change. Its presence highlights the castration of his work from its context and time, and underscores how much creative wealth New York has lost to gentrification. Regarding Wojnarowicz, the museum’s efforts are cast in a somewhat predatory light. With its pristine, minimalist atmosphere redolent of a large H&M store, and its troublesome site, the Whitney is perhaps the least appropriate space in America to present this show.

Something Possible Everywhere (1983-84) is a digital slide show of waterfront wastelands and artists working in the decaying innards of Pier 34. The images are not by Wojnarowicz, but Andreas Sterzing, a filmmaker and artist who documented the downtown scene of that era. Looking at those pictures is to sense a twinge of fraud in the Whitney’s ownership, and expansionist endeavor. Discoursing an artist beyond his most known positions is fine, but sometimes there is little point. Why is that never enough?

This slippage exposes the Whitney’s awkwardness in commandeering a conversation that has been shoehorned into barely half of its third floor. The angled walls and synthetic transitions between groups of work are symptomatic of a disappointingly condensed curatorial design. It imposes upon the work’s raw and unfettered intentions, feeling institutionally blanched. Moving from the Rimbaud photographs into a room of found material and poster works, exemplifies these cheap adjustments. Painting the walls dark, placing the works salon style, and adding a soundtrack from the artist’s band—3 Teens Kill 4—doesn’t evoke an environmental echo of a long-gone East Village. 

There is no installation work here. This aspect of Wojnarowicz’s practice has been tendered out to PPOW Gallery, in a simultaneous exhibition, “Soon All This Will be Picturesque Ruins.” The devaluing aspect of seeing these gritty works excised from the rest of his oeuvre, and pitched elsewhere, seems more to do with sharing critical—or financial?—largesse between the museum and the gallery that manages his estate. It was a clumsy choice, and both venues suffer for it. 

The Whitney is damned. It has not given enough space to the artist, yet no amount of space would have sufficed. Only the viscera of his spoken words rises above the tempered malaise that the museum has engineered. A room with no objects, only his voice, is the most effective. When he rages that the “blood-filled egg is starting to crack” under the pressures of his world, and his voice breaks on that very last word, one is taken up in the hurricane of his immediacy and anguish. The cinematic awe of his speech is terribly underused. Did this exhibition need so much, or so little else? Pictures may speak a thousand words, and actions might speak louder, but not in Wojnarowicz’s case.

He was principally an orator, storyteller and poet. If his visual output were to be considered autonomously from his texts—it cannot—it would be diminished by that separation. It relies on them. His objects and photographs are among the most accomplished pieces; the harrowing warning of Untitled (One Day This Kid) 1990-91; the plaster heads and livid eyes, of his Metamorphosis series (1984); or his tender images of Peter Hujar. 

Soon All This Will Be Picturesque Ruins. P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York
July 12-Aug 24. Detail of Untitled (Burning Boy Installation) 1984

His collages, installations, and mixed media works can be arresting, but the paintings are often cluttered with a cavalcade of motifs and iconography, pin-balling across a galaxy of issues, in a sophomoric, clunky manner. The Newspaper as National Voodoo: A Brief History of They U.S.A. (1986) is a better title than it is an artwork; while I Use Maps Because I Don’t Know How to Paint (1984) might be telling. They don’t reflect his terrifying rhetoric. He was not a great artist. Rather, he was a very important figure, because he parlayed his brutal experiences through creative expression for the defense of his communities. His art, in and of itself, didn’t need to be marvelous. It was the underlying spirit that mattered. 

In the catalog, the curators attempt to delegitimize criticism of his technical abilities saying, “Perhaps the work is rejected because some aspects of it, particularly in the early paintings, are awkward in execution despite the prodigious compositional skills they evidence. Perhaps the sign of the unstudied—the untaught, the self-taught—is not appreciated or understood.” Or perhaps he just wasn’t a very good painter. An assertion isn’t so, just because the Whitney says it is.

When the museum’s director declares that; “given the current political moment” the “fruition of this endeavor could not be more timely or relevant.” And the curators insist on; “the timeliness—and timelessness—of the art of David Wojnarowicz” they become reanimating morticians to the artist’s corpse. This is to rest on Wojnarowicz’s abundant laurels while offering absolution to today’s constituents. 

Wojnarowicz’s greatest zeal was reserved for his political enemies; Senator Jesse Helms, Cardinal John O’Conner, Mayor Edward Koch, and others, who he eviscerated for their homophobia, or destructive HIV/AIDS related statements and policies. Wojnarowicz remains relevant not because he should continue the charge posthumously, but because although names have changed, he reminds us that his ideological enemies retain immense influence today.

They include the Catholic League’s, William Donohue, a divorced, pedophile apologist, and gay-marriage opponent; Franklin Graham—the xeroxed hatchling of his evangelist, reptilian parent, Billy Graham—who recently stated on Facebook that, “God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of homosexuality.” This was in response to President Carter’s belief in probable, celestial approval of gay-marriage (he didn’t destroy them. He relocated them to Fire Island) Jerry Falwell Jr, whose demoniac father, Jerry Falwell, claimed—on powdered ghoul, Pat “prop me up” Robertson’s, televised pulpit—that gays (among other groups) were responsible for 9/11; and Tony Perkins, nazi sympathizer, and president of the Family Research Council, a, hate-group whose overriding obsession is the promotion of violence toward, and the annihilation of gay culture.

David Wojnarowicz, Falwell, Who? 2018

These men are evil, domestic terrorists and accomplices to the mass-murder of queer people. They revel in disdain of otherness, incitement of homophobia, violence, and cultural regression. By their media propaganda, they infect generations of gay children with self-loathing and lifelong deficits of worth. They are biblical perverts who hide behind an ancient volume of lies; degenerates, frauds and thieves more dangerous to America than any perceived foreign threat. They obscure their wickedness and moral bankruptcy behind discriminatory, educational institutions and ministries. There isn’t a special place in Hell for them; they will have unlimited access to all of it.

One may have banished these cancerous, dynastic goblins and their followers from liberal, urban communities, or edited them from ever-decreasing social media echo chambers. They may seem peripheral, or out of step with social progression. But while the LGBTQ movement celebrates its victories, or bickers over who should have a stripe on the rainbow flag, across this country they and their supporters attack basic freedoms at every level of state and society, as their forebears did in Wojnarowicz’s day. 

There has been an orgy of critical celebration for the Wojnarowicz exhibition (or the artist himself). Foremost, was Holland Cotter’s bizarre prostration in the New York Times. He sees the artist not as a flesh and bone man—everything his selfness was—but a supernatural entity. He is an “irate guardian angel,” “alien combatant,” “Lazarus-like,” “angelic,” and Walter Benjamin’s “Angel of History.” Cotter writes, “With its allover collage of rifle targets, national flags and United States currency the 1986 painting that gives the show its title could easily be re-dated to 2018.” He just did. In fact he could send the work to any part of the last century, by that superficial measure. For Cotter, Wojnarowicz was “there when we needed him politically 30-plus years ago. Now we need him again.” We do not need him again. He is not Batman. He is still relevant. But that is different. Lacking objectivity, or deviation from the Whitney’s script, The New York Times has veered away from art criticism, and has instead mythologized Wojnarowicz out of reach, in a flurry of tawdry indulgence.

This giddiness underscores how distant artists, curators and critics are from the consequences of their opponents’ actions, and the dearth of creative leaders who are taking them on. There has been some dissent. Last week ACT-UP intervened at the Whitney, angered at the lack of focus on the continuing scourge of AIDS. Highlighting this complacency is vital and correct, but the target was not. Protesting their own ancestry, or treating the Whitney Museum as an adversary was ill-conceived. The show and its implications are flawed but the institution is an ally. With this action, the towering force that has been ACT-UP seems to be acting out, and has made itself appear smaller in the process. There are far more virulent opponents who require the groups’s attention. 

For creative visitors, it isn’t enough to reflect or mourn one’s way through the exhibition feeling grateful for what he did. There are new generations of fascists. They are the progeny of Wojnarowicz’s detractors. New visionaries in the artist’s vein must emerge, who take risks beyond the selfishness of their own career building. With “History Keeps me Awake at Night” the Whitney finds itself off kilter. Perhaps it is the future that should be keeping us from sleep. The greater honor to Wojnarowicz’s legacy is not a glorifying retrospective, but to ask who will perpetuate it?

Darren Jones

3 thoughts on “Why The Whitney Museum’s Summer of Wojnarowicz is a Winter of Discontent

  1. Thank you for some of the best exploration and contextualisation of this exhibition that I have read. David’s work always was an intervention; and as you recognise, some of it was incredible, some of it was not great, some of it was both. The decimation of the Villages, the continuing atrocities against queer people, especially trans and poc, and the use of patents to charge ridiculous prices for medication that could prevent the continuation of the HIV epidemic: these are what David’s work today might speak to. Or the sale of his painting for almost a million dollars and brand labelled tshirts with his work on them for one hundred. This is the world that David’s work lives in and speaks to, as well as to the fascists who continue to build their churches and pulpits and altars on the suffering of all queers.

  2. The progeny of Wojnarowicz’s detractors are fascists? That is beyond hyperbole, it is just plain nuts, the kind of nuts that themselves attempt to manipulate the reader, the kind of nuts that do, I admit, find fertile soil in today’s herd thinking about art and what it does.

    It is entirely possible to have a noble idea and express it in art that sucks. Wojnarowicz is such an artist. Recognizing this has nothing to do with fascism.

    1. John – Thanks for reading and for your comment. Having taken great care over the words I chose, I have nothing further to add to the argument. Only a suggestion. Just take a look at what these men (and others I mentioned, and many more politicians in positions of televised power) have said about gay people and those with HIV/AIDS.

      From denying them the most basic, equal rights to live work and contribute to society, to blaming them for 9/11 (hyperbole maybe?) and you will see that they have mounted and sustained a dynastic assault on the very humanness of gay people, and on the most intrinsic aspects of who they are to even exist fully in society. They have positioned queerness as less than, in language and manner that is the hallmark fascism. Just do a little research on what they’ve said, and the decades of cumulative affects and consequences of what they have said.

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