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Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz

by Steve Weinstein
Contributor
Wednesday Sep 19, 2012
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During the weeks when I was plowing through this remarkable -- and remarkably long -- book, whenever I mentioned to people that I was reading a biography of David Wojnarowicz, I got the same response: a blank stare. Mind you, these were people who consider themselves cultured and who pride themselves on keeping up with artistic trends. One was an experimental filmmaker, another an art photographer.

If the name sounds at least vaguely familiar, it’s probably because you vaguely recall a dust-up when, bowing to political pressure, the director of the Smithsonian took down one of the deceased artist’s video installations. The situation was especially ironic, since this was the Smithsonian’s first exhibit dedicated to LGBT artists and was meant to signify that the nation’s premier preserver of all things American finally was joining the 21st century (the 20th, for that matter).

Wojnarowicz’s (rather tame) video of a primitive crucifix overrun by ants in the Yucatan would join the rest of the show when it moved to the Brooklyn Museum. By then, the furor had died down, and Wojnarowicz’s oeuvre returned to its relative obscurity. Every once in a while, a retrospective of artists who died of, protested or were influenced by the AIDS epidemic pops up; and PPOW, the Chelsea gallery that represents his estate, continues to market his work.

But for the general public -- even those who consider themselves plugged into the avant-garde art scene -- this angry young man, who survived an unbelievably brutal childhood only to succumb to AIDS, remains at best a footnote to the ’80s, a victim yes, but also a provocateur who, even in death, still manages to offend clueless right-wing zealots.

I don’t know how much Cynthia Carr’s compendious biography will remedy that, but she certainly deserves credit for trying. Thoroughly researched almost to a fault (more on that below), sympathetic but clear eyed, and flowingly written, "Fire In the Belly" gives us a nearly day-to-day account of an extraordinary personality who refused to be categorized -- in his life, in artistic media, in his sexuality, in his demanding personality.

In the case of most artists, their childhoods are interesting only insofar as it reflects on their aesthetic development. All we know about Michalengelo, say, is whom he studied with and where. In Wojnarowicz’s case, one can truly say that the child was the father to the man.

That he and his two siblings not only survived but all also thrived in adulthood is as stirring a testament to the human spirit as those stories of survival in the Nazi death camps.

Trust me, the comparison is not that far fetched. Wojnarowicz’s family life was not that dissimilar to that of a Jew in the camps. Life inside the suburban New York homes where he grew up goes way beyond "Dickensian"; Oliver Twist’s workhouse would have been a step up from the tortures inflicted on him by his alcoholic father and distant mother.

We’ve all heard horror stories about alcoholic parents. But Wojnarowicz’s dad was in a class by himself. A ship mechanic (when he could sober up enough to find work), he would literally torture his children in every way possible.

This is a guy who savagely beat the family dog -- because it didn’t sit at attention during one of his hours-long drunken monologues. David, his sister and brother were subjected to abuse that makes Mo’Nique’s character in the film "Precious" look like the Virgin Mary.

One scene that stands out in my mind is the three children wandering around in a suburban mall, their bodies barely clothed in rags, their faces obviously bruised, their faces maps of sheer terror. But neighbors, police and school officials looked the other way; in the ’50s, families were supposed to resemble sitcoms like "Leave It To Beaver," and those outside the family unit didn’t consider it their responsibility to interfere.

I also had to cringe when Carr describes how David’s teeth had become rotten torture devices. Dental care was way, way down the list for these parents!

Things got marginally better when his mother, after finally breaking away from the abusive husband of all time (this guy didn’t just wave a shotgun; he fired it), moved into New York City. In a clandestine operation, she brought the three kids into her one-bedroom apartment on the fringe of Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen.

This was not today’s Hell’s Kitchen, an upscale gayborhood, but an urban hellhole that fully lived up to its name. The move provided the young David with a concrete playground of drug dealers, hookers and the other marginalized human detritus of the urban jungle.

Living only a few blocks from Times Square, which back then was descending into the seedy morass we now know primarily from films like "Urban Cowboy" and "Taxi Driver," the lonely young man gravitated to outcasts like himself. And it was in this crucible of by-the-hour hotels, porn palaces and all-night donut shops that Wojnarowicz began to find his artistic voice.

David received his education not in decaying public schools but on the mean streets, where he soon enough discovered that youth -- even one battered and scarred -- had its charms for certain older men. Wojnarowicz drifted into the twilight world of Times Square hustlers. The most stable relationship of his youth was with a married man who paid him for sexual favors but more importantly gave him the affection he could never get at home, even if he had to be paid to receive it.

New York, which was rapidly drifting into the institutional and societal chaos that would culminate in bankruptcy and urban blight on a scale until then unknown in the optimistic landscape of post-war America, proved to be fertile territory for a sensitive young man with a whole lot of pent-up anger.

As soon as he could, he broke away from his mother’s cramped quarters and lived on the street, which provided him with his real education. Writing in journals provided him with an outlet for his unfocused rage.

Miraculously, his siblings also escaped: his brother, to a home run by a group of sympathetic Catholic priests; his sister, to Paris, which became her permanent residence and where she rose to become a top fashion model.

It was on an extended visit to the City of Lights where, Carr believes, Wojnarowicz really began to hone an artistic vision. Modeling himself on his hero Rimbaud, the 19th century sexual outlaw and impressionistic poet, Wojnarowicz allowed himself to convey his inner feelings in prose and in art works assembled from collages, tabloid newspaper headlines and visionary images.

It was in Paris that he had his first mature relationship, with a man who would remain an emotional (and not occasionally, financial) support for many years. But his idyll in France couldn’t last, and, back in New York, he struggled through various day jobs.

When the Downtown Manhattan nightlife scene exploded in the early ’80s, Wojnarowicz found work at one of Danceteria, now primarily known as the club where another street urchin named Madonna honed her own unique style. He became a member of a punk-rock band, not because he had any particular musical talent but because, well, just because.

He also began making the experimental films that have, since his death, become his best-known (or at least most notorious) works. He shuffled among various apartments in the still-ungentrified East Village, hung out with other artists and showed his works at the storefront galleries that would cohere into a movement.

Today, when the arid galleries of West Chelsea define New York’s contemporary art scene, scenes of a gallery owner with a serious heroin habit and artists who lit a bonfire every day in the middle of the gallery space seem as distant as the Neanderthal Chauvet cave paintings. But for a brief, brilliant moment, there was the spark of something truly new.

It was only a matter of time until galleries like Exit Art and Gracie Mansion became fodder for hipster media. Drawn by fawning descriptions in art journals and inevitably the New York Times, Uptown arbiters of style discovered the scene. They, in turn, attracted deep-pocketed connoisseurs. Soon enough, limousines competed for space on lettered avenues with drug dealers and their customers.

And here we come to the central question, one that Carr doesn’t address: Why is it that street artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring managed to break through to the larger world? Why is that those names are so familiar to the cognoscenti while Wojnarorwicz remains relatively unknown?

His personality didn’t help. Wojnarowicz, it seems, could handle anything but success. Unlike Basuiat, he never managed to break the ice with Andy Warhol. Unlike Haring, he didn’t play the media. Instead, he fled fame with trips to Mexico and the American West. Haring remained at best dismissive of Wojnarowicz, the subject of his fury. Then again, just about everybody at one time or another was subjected to Wojnarowicz’s unfocused rages, which certainly didn’t help him cement a reputation in the cooler-than-thou contemporary art world.

But there’s something else: Whereas those artists moved from the street into the gallery, Wojnarowicz -- and his art -- remained firmly grounded in the ephemera of the moment. The most formative experience in Wojnarowicz’s development as a visual artist was the days and weeks spent drawing sexually suggestive murals in the decaying piers along Manhattan’s Lower West Side.

In these rotting structures where men congregated nightly for scenes that would make any of today’s porn directors blush, Wojnarowicz found his true métier (and, yes, got his rocks off). But the piers didn’t last, and neither did his murals.

As the ’80s progressed, so did the mysterious disease that, first slowly, then more and more rapidly, was decimating the Downtown art and club scenes. In the early 1980s, New York was the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic, and Carr does justice to the horror of the times.

Her interweaving of the non-response by the government (both President Ronald Reagan and New York Mayor Ed Koch), the hapless measures by hospitals, the lack of medical knowledge, and the panic among gay men provides a vivid backdrop for what the reader knows will come.

Like so many in that dark time, Wojnarowicz went through the stages of AIDS: diagnosis; travails with various useless drug regimens; triage among his inner circle; decay into physical and mental breakdown; and the final release of death.

As an arts reporter for the Village Voice from 1983 to 2003, Carr was not only a witness to the East Village art scene; she was a participant. She knew Wojnarowicz and many of his friends. Her sympathy and critical acumen are present on every page.

Perhaps because she wrote for an alternative weekly, her prose is mercifully free of the pseudo-Marxist-academic jargon that fills the pages of art journals in between the gallery-show ads. When she does quote from Art Forum or Art World, she explicates the meaning, while her own descriptions are clear and clean.

And yet ... I have to wonder if Wojnarowicz merits such a hefty tome. The book’s subtitle, "The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz," gives Carr the excuse of putting this troubled life into the context of a turbulent era. But I’d posit that she suffers from a malady common to writers in the age of the personal computer.

Put simply, there is too much attention to detail. Every back-and-forth of every petty feud; every detail of every road trip; the contents of the players’ apartments; and not only their simple meals but the preparation -- all are recounted here. Worst for me were her descriptions of Wojnarowicz’s dreams. Let’s face it: Someone’s dreams are only interesting to that person and his analyst.

It’s not that I don’t admire Wojnarowicz’s protean talent. But I came away from this long (nearly 600 pages) biography unconvinced that his work is of the ages. Most of the passages from his journals and even his published writings are, to use Truman Capote’s phrase, not writing but typing.

It’s all too easy to believe her when she tells us that he dashed off four pages on a typewriter for a catalogue without changing a word. His visual works (best seen in the full-color glossy center pages; the black-and-white pictures in the text are grainy and too small) are undeniably disturbing and fascinating.

Are they art? I’ll admit I don’t’ have the background to make that decision. But while I find them fascinating, I’m not convinced that they soar above the collages that used to populate the East Village and Lower East Side before high rents and high rises painted over the graffiti. Because he worked in so many different media and was so impulsive, his works lack the clarity, the focus of Basquiat or Haring.

Still, this is a fascinating account of a tortured soul who managed to break though his inner demons and give testimony his overwhelming emotions.
What a difference from the arid professionalism of today’s artists! Venture into the East Village and you’ll find a manicured neighborhood of chic boutiques, some of the city’s highest-reviewed restaurants, well-dressed people living luxury high rises and renovated brownstones.

What you won’t find are art galleries or many artists. They’re long gone, the victims of drug abuse, AIDS or just burnout. Those few who managed to survive and adapt now show in Chelsea and have moved on. In their place are ghosts of a time when angry young people let out a collective primal scream on stage, on recordings, on the page and on canvas.

It’s all but a memory now. Thank you, Ms. Carr, for giving us such a valuable keepsake.

by Cynthia Carr

hardcover with flyleaf, $35, published by Bloomsbury

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early ’80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).

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