by Andy Cataldo
Note – This posts contains some racy content that might be a little much (or downright unsuitable) for some readers.
Having come to New York within the last decade I know very little about the East Village arts scene of the 1980s. Most of what I have read about the city in those days focuses primarily on the crime rate and the AIDS epidemic. In her book “Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz,” biographer Cynthia Carr documents the life of Wojnarowicz, an artist and activist. Carr puts art at the forefront to paint a picture of pre-hipster, pre-gentrified downtown Manhattan. The story she tells is a biography not just of Wojnarowicz’s life but of a period that should not be forgotten by gays, artists or anyone who came to the city looking to make an impact on the world regardless of industry.
Cynthia spoke at the Center on December 11 as part of the Second Tuesday lecture series, the organization’s longest running cultural program. She knew the artist through her involvement in the art world in the 1980s as a contributor to the Village Voice and Art Forum. Cynthia spoke about Wojnarowicz’s life and work, kicking off by addressing the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery’s 2010 decision to censor an 11-second clip of Wojnarowicz’s silent film, “A Fire in My Belly.” She then talked about the artist’s early life describing an abusive father and negligent mother, his experience hustling in Times Square as a teenager, a period of living on the street, frequenting the sex piers in the 70s, periods of living in Paris, his rage and the relationship with his mentor, photographer Peter Hujar.
She told us about Wojnarowicz’s central struggle over how much of himself to reveal to others and in his work, as well as his tendency to create pieces that he knew would never survive to be collected. Carr writes, “He liked painting directly on the world. It was a gesture of defiance – this work done on some decrepit pier or busy intersection or gallery door, this work destined to be destroyed.”
The highlight of Carr’s lecture was the slide presentation of the artist’s work that she selected and described in detail in terms of the influences that went into each piece. Some of my favorites were Wojnarowicz’s photo series of French poet Arthur Rimbaud in New York, featuring various acquaintances wearing a mask made from a print of the writer’s face posing on the subway, in Coney Island, at the sex piers, jerking off and even in Paris pretending to shoot heroin in front of the Eiffel Tower. Rimbaud was one of Wojnarowicz’s muses. Coincidentally they both died at the age of 37 – Rimbaud of cancer, Wojnarowicz of AIDS.
Carr showcases the rage through pieces including “Fuck You Faggot Fucker,” displaying an image of two men kissing painted on a flier the artist found reading those words. And ultimately she speaks of the activism that finds its way into Wojnarowicz’s work toward the end of his life, including a painting done over the paper diagnosing Hujar with AIDS and a series of photographs of Hujar’s body taken in the hospital just moments after his death. She ended the presentation with an audio recording of David, known by his friends for his impactful deep voice, reading something he wrote that was silk-screened over a photograph of skeletons that he had shot in a Native American burial ground:
When I put my hands on your body on your flesh I feel the history of that body. Not just the beginning of its forming in that distant lake but all the way beyond its ending. I feel the warmth and texture and simultaneously I see the flesh unwrap from the layers of fat and disappear. I see the fat disappear from the muscle. I see the muscle disappearing from around the organs and detaching itself from the bones. I see the organs gradually fade into transparency leaving a gleaming skeleton gleaming like ivory that slowly resolves until it becomes dust. I am consumed in the sense of your weight the way your flesh occupies momentary space the fullness of it beneath my palms. I am amazed at how perfectly your body fits to the curves of my hands. If I could attach our blood vessels so we could become each other I would. If I could attach our blood vessels in order to anchor you to the earth to this present time I would. If I could open up your body and slip inside your skin and look out your eyes and forever have my lips fused with yours I would. It makes me weep to feel the history of your flesh beneath my hands in a time of so much loss. It makes me weep to feel the movement of your flesh beneath my palms as you twist and turn over to one side to create a series of gestures to reach up around my neck to draw me nearer. All these memories will be lost in time like tears in the rain.
Check out “Fire in the Belly” for Carr’s full account of the life and work of David Wojnarowicz. http://www.amazon.com/Fire-Belly-Times-David-Wojnarowicz/dp/1596915331