David Wojnarowicz was an artist who worked in a huge range of media, from graffiti to oil paint, collage to video. Born in New Jersey, he had a difficult childhood, moving between an abusive father and struggling mother. He moved to New York as soon as he could, becoming a rent boy to earn money and producing art as a creative outlet. He soon met his close friend, lover and mentor, Peter Hujar, an established photographer who encouraged him to pursue his art.
Throughout the 1980s, Wojnarowicz created art about identity and sexuality when HIV/AIDS began to ravage the New York art scene. In reponse to the outbreak, his art became more angry and impassioned. In his work and his activism, he angrily criticised the government and public institutions that were failing people with AIDS. President Ronald Reagan refused to publicly speak about the issue while Senator Jesse Helms claimed AIDS was a punishment from God. Wojnarowicz courted controversy, making headlines as part of the Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing show in 1989 and taking the American Family Association to court over their misappropriation of his imagery.
In 1991, he published a collection of essays and writings, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration. He drew on his childhood, memories of cruising abandoned New York piers, the death of Peter Hujar, his experiences living with AIDS (he was diagnosed a few years previously). The style, fluidity, and sheer beauty of his prose is difficult to describe, so it’s easier to just quote him. The following passage is from the essay Losing the Form in Darkness, describing an anonymous encounter on an abandoned pier:
In loving him, I saw a cigarette between the fingers of a hand, smoke blowing backwards into the room, and sputtering planes diving low through the clouds. In loving him, I saw men encouraging each other to lay down their arms. In loving him, I saw small-town laborers creating excavations that other men spend their lives trying to fill. In loving him, I saw moving films of stone buildings; I saw a hand in prison dragging snow in from the sill. In loving him, I saw great houses being erected that would soon slide into the waiting and stirring seas. I saw him freeing me from the silences of the interior life.
This month, publisher Canonsgate have republished Close to the Knives, with a new introduction by writer Olivia Laing. Laing has previously written extensively about Wojnarowicz in her bestseller The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. Inspired by the research she carried out for this book, she approached the publishing house about rereleasing this text: “I was determined that Knives should be republished in the UK, and after the immensely positive response to my book The Lonely City, which features Wojnarowicz heavily, Canongate happily agreed,” she explained.
She continued: “He was very much a Renaissance man: not just a writer and painter, but also a photographer, filmmaker and musician with the band 3 Teens Kill 4, as well as an AIDS activist with the direct action group ACT UP. It would take a lifetime to really do justice to his work, but I think Knives is a very important element of it: a thrilling, scalding, furious book, that should excite and engage a lot of people.”
Wojnarowicz has never been forgotten, but still hasn’t received the recognition he deserves. His most famous work is probably one of his least political, most mundane: a photo of buffalo falling off a cliff, which U2 used for the cover of their single One. Wojnarowicz has been the subject of several exhibitions, generally in America, and an award-winning 2012 biography by Cynthia Carr, named Fire in the Belly.
Next year sees a major retrospective of his work at the Whitney. Close to the Knives is a transatlantic extension of this, as well as several supplementary events. “I’ve organised a series of celebratory events in London this March,” Laing adds. “Among them a discussion at the London Review Bookshop and a night of readings at the Horse Hospital by lots of queer performers, including the drag queen David Hoyle and writer Ali Smith. We’re really hoping to introduce him to a new generation.”
“His work is a profoundly radical and lucid antidote to the cruelties of the current political climate. It’s absolutely geared to resisting the actions of the white homophobic Christian Right, who have seized power once again. I can’t think of another artist more relevant to the Trump era.”