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One of the most iconic images of David Wojnarowicz—the poet, artist and downtown legend whose retrospective at the Whitney Museum mounts this summer—is from the back. At a 1988 protest at the FDA building by AIDS activist group ACTUP, he sported a denim jacket that he adorned with a searing slogan overlaid on a pink triangle: “IF I DIE OF AIDS, FORGET BURIAL. JUST DROP MY BODY ON THE STEPS OF CONGRESS.”

Tragically, Wojnarowicz would die of AIDS just a few years later, in 1992, at the age of 37. In a career that spanned about 15 years, he created a prolific and experimental body of work in writing, photography, screenprinting, painting, music and more. Born in New Jersey, the artist fled an abusive home in his teens. He hitchhiked the US, spending a few years in San Francisco and Europe, before settling in New York in the late 1970s. The queer artist quickly found a galvanizing community in the Lower East Side, where he became the friend and collaborator of artists like Peter Hujar (his former lover and mentor), Nan Goldin and Richard Kern. As the ’80s dawned and the AIDS crisis took the lives of many of his friends, Wojnarowicz embraced a directness and activist turn in his work that would become his most enduring legacy.

David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night, on show at the Whitney through Sep 30, is the first museum survey dedicated to his work in almost 20 years. Organized by Whitney’s curator emeritus David Kiehl and curator and collection director David Breslin, the show will feature more than 100 works. Kiehl explains that the show was more than a decade in the making. When asked why now is the right time to show this work, Kiehl is succinct: “Look at who is in the White House.”

Positioning himself at once as an insider and outsider, Wojnarowicz never shied from confronting structures of power within and beyond the art world. For a 1989 exhibition about the AIDS crisis curated by Nan Goldin, Wojnarowicz wrote an essay attacking the homophobic attitudes of the nation’s lawmakers. These same figures were implicated in the era’s Culture Wars that sought to defund avant-garde art. Kiehl says, “As much as he was an artist, he was a writer. And he spared no one in his language. It’s strong, it’s direct.”

It is also worth noting, the Pier 34 show, which Wojnarowicz organized with artist Mike Bidlo in 1983, was one of the decade’s most memorable DIY shows. Occupying the West Side piers, near where the Whitney stands today, the show asked artists to experiment on site. At the time, the piers were known as a gay cruising ground and hook-up spot. “When you talk about the piers, you think of the Pier 34 show, which David instigated with Bidlo,” says Kiehl. “And at the same time, you think ‘sex sex sex,’ and that’s just not the whole story,” he adds. “David went to the piers for multiple reasons. It was a source of free materials because he was poor. It was also a place for solitude. In a funny way, it was the furthest he could get out from the city while still being in the city.”

At the same time, Wojnarowicz was deeply interested in what he called “the pre-invented world.” “Civilization’s degradation of the natural world, the natural order, meant a lot to him,” Kiehl explains. Artist and close friend Kiki Smith agrees: “David and I both shared the pleasure of the natural world. I think that that worked as a confirmation for us.”

Both the artist and curator hope that Wojnarowicz’s political engagement and sense of aesthetic experimentation will reach young creatives today. “I hope that they will take away an appreciation of his work, as well as a stronger sense of possibility for their own lives,” says Smith. Kiehl feels like those lessons have already begun to sink in via osmosis. “I look at [young artists’ work] and I think, they’re quoting David Wojnarowicz without knowing David Wojnarowicz.” He adds, “The work looks so contemporary today. It has a timeless quality that makes it feel as fresh today as it did at the time.”

Words Wendy Vogel

Photograph courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art; Untitled (Genet after Brassai), 1979

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