The Whitney Museum of American Art is a unique animal in the world of museums in New York City. The institution boasts the cutting edge of contemporary art, and is known as the vanguard in the United States. Around five years ago, the museum decamped from its Museum Mile location on the Upper East Side to a newer building nestled in Greenwich Village just below the Chelsea Galleries. The museum’s summer exhibition of of David Wojnarowicz, titled, “History Keeps Me Awake at Night,” is set to close on September 30, 2018. It’s an excellent show, and you should go see it. This exhibition is part of a trio, with NYU’s Mamdouha Bobst gallery and PPOW also showing works.
Wojnarowicz was born in 1954 and died at the age of 37 in 1992. Wojnarowicz’s art was very much multivalent and chimeric in forms. This exhibition strikes the art critic, again and again, with its breadth of mixed media. In any given gallery of the Whitney’s retrospective, the artist experimented with graffiti and pop art, photography, sculpture, and video. In 1981 he even joined a punk rock band. His achievements in surrealism alone would make an epiphany – and nevertheless confound and delight as liminal beings, because surrealism juxtaposes incongruencies. Against this versatility, the touchstone of Wojnarowicz’s art and his cause of death was the AIDS epidemic. The works, all of them, are expressions of horror and trauma about being on the receiving end of the disease, and, hurtfully, society’s disgust and vilification. The curator’s notes for this exhibition are quick to point out that even though the disease was known in the early 1980’s, it wasn’t until some five years later the Federal government recognized the epidemic.
It may very well be that the best accomplished executions of Wojnarowicz’s duality – his versatility versus his central advocacy – are his large surrealist paintings. Surrealism as a school started in France in the late 1800’s and found inspiration with psychoanalysis in Sigmund Freud. Whereas a school such as Abstract Expressionism, (like a big canvas of blue) might be linked to Impressionism because of both schools’ technical achievements, Surrealism focused on the emotionality of the subconscious.
Take for example Wojnarowicz’s use of the ruins as a symbol in “The Death of American Spirituality,” from 1987. Rene Magritte (1896-1967) and Salvador Dali (1904-1989) are so ubiquitous as to appear in popular culture just about every other year. Wojnarowicz absolutely copied Magritte and yet his aims were much more focused on his goals for the viewer of the paintings. When Magritte painted ruins, he meant viewers can explore mysteries in their own minds. For Wojnarowicz, the viewer might be taken aback to think she might end up on the receiving end of a contagious epidemic or villainous propaganda. The viewer herself might end up being the dreaded “Other.”
And this transference happens elsewhere in the galleries, too. One of the artist’s earlier series feature a paper cutout mask of poet Arthur Rimbaud. In these works, Wojnarowicz poses in the mask around New York City, sometimes more or less explicitly as a vagabond. Rimbaud’s most famous quote, “I is an Other,” has to do with how metaphor takes place centrally in language. Here, Wojnarowicz took Rimbaud’s saying as an experiment to put himself empathetically in the place of others.
These works have bite to them. Wojnarowicz’s life in a very literal way was political as an artist and as a victim of the AIDS epidemic, and the mysteries of his works of art have a violent ambiguity that persuades the viewer either of her culpability for the epidemic, or, should the viewer want to make peace with the works, the indictment of a foolish ruling class that ignores its evildoing. Wojnarowicz may have influenced Parquet Courts from the looks of the band’s 2012 album “Light Up Gold,” and yet there can be little doubt as to why the Whitney chose such an indignant and seething punk rebel for this summer of 2018 exhibition. The resistance needs some good songs for the fight.