David Wojnarowicz

In the spirit of Banned Books Month, City Lights is remembering more than censored literature. Today we’re running a special feature on writer, filmmaker, painter, performance artist, photographer, and activist David Wojnarowicz.

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David Wojnarowicz was born in Red Bank, New Jersey in 1954. The product of an extremely difficult childhood brought on by an abusive family life and an emerging sense of his own homosexuality, Wojnarowicz dropped out of high school and was living on the streets by the age of sixteen. He turned to hustling in Times Square. After hitchhiking many times across the U.S. and living for several months in San Francisco and Paris, he settled in New York’s East Village in 1978.

Many of Wojnarowicz’ works incorporate outsider experiences drawn from his personal history and from stories he heard from the people he met in bus stations and truck stops while hitchhiking. By the late 1970s he had, in his own words, “started developing ideas of making and preserving an authentic version of history in the form of images/writings/objects that would contest state-supported forms of ‘history.’” In such diverse works as Sounds in the Distance (1982), a collection of monologues from “people who lived and worked in the streets” and The Weight of the Earth, Part I & II (1988), an arrangement of black-and-white photographs taken during his travels and life in New York, Wojnarowicz continually returned to the personal voices of individuals stigmatized by society.

A member of the first wave of East Village artists, Wojnarowicz began showing his work during the early 1980s in such now-legendary spaces as Civilian Warfare, Club 57, Gracie Mansion, Fashion Moda, and the Limbo Lounge. He gained prominence through his inclusion in the 1985 Whitney Biennial, and was soon showing in numerous museum and gallery exhibitions throughout the United States, Europe and Latin America.

In the late 1980s, after he was diagnosed with AIDS, Wojnarowicz’ art took on a sharply political edge, and soon he was entangled in highly public debates about medical research and funding, morality and censorship in the arts, and the legal rights of artists. Wojnarowicz challenged the nature of pubic arts funding at the National Endowment for the Arts, and initiated litigation against the American Family Association of Tupelo, Mississippi, an anti-pornography political action group that Wojnarowicz accused of misrepresenting his art and damaging his reputation. He won the lawsuit.

Wojnarowicz died of AIDS-related illness in New York City in 1992, at the age of 37. He is the author of five books. His artwork is in numerous private and public collections including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

This biography is excerpted from Queer Arts Resource.

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Village Voice journalist Cynthia Carr has written the only comprehensive biography on Wojnarowicz to date. The title Fire in the Belly is in part a reference to one of Wojnarowicz most widely criticized and censored works, a short film A Fire in My Belly. In 2010, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. was successfully pressured by Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League and several members of Congress to remove the piece from the exhibit “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” for a brief scene depicting ants crawling on a crucifix.

The activist response to the censorship was huge, and resulted in the screening of the film nationwide in public spaces and renowned museums, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The censorship also spurred a slew of edits of the film being made available on the internet and being spread virally. Below we’ve included one longer edit of the unfinished film.

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