The pioneering American artist left behind a legacy of art as a form of gay rights activism; today, with regressive reproductive laws and the Monkeypox vaccine crisis affecting the queer community, his work proves its timelessness.
The artist, musician, author and poet David Wojnarowicz set a precedent in turning art into a tool—a weapon even—for tireless action at a time when government neglect towards the AIDS pandemic had a devastating toll. Coinciding with the 30th anniversary of his death, aged 37, due to AIDS-related complications, a new foundation dedicated to Wojnarowicz’s legacy has been launched, along with the interactive platform onedaythiskid.com.
Since launching two weeks ago, the page has invited participants to embed their childhood photographs in lieu of the Wojnarowicz’s into his most recognised work, Untitled (One Day This Kid…) (1990). The photo-text collage, which is held by the Whitney Museum of American Art, shows a young Wojnarowicz framed by his own writing about the passage from childhood into a gay adulthood, tormented by systematic homophobia and neglect. Today, nearly 300 submissions from the public are streamed on the website to commemorate the artist’s unapologetic militant legacy and the bitter timelessness of the causes he fought against.
The fruition of the participatory project, which has 10 different language options, such as French, Arabic, German and Turkish, is intertwined with that of the David Wojnarowicz Foundation’s. The co-founder of the artist’s longtime gallery PPOW, Wendy Olsoff, recently sat with Wojnarowicz’s other close confidants who had all participated in two AIDS quilts dedicated to their friend and his partner Tom Rauffenbart two years ago.
“This time we were frustrated by a new era of homophobia and women’s bodies being in jeopardy,” Olsoff told The Art Newspaper. The group included the foundation’s chair and board director Anita Vitale; the artist Jean Foos; Cynthia Carr, the author of the Wojnarowicz biography Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz; and the iconic East Village art dealer Gracie Mansion. With the three-decade anniversary of their friend’s death and the foundation’s launch both approaching, the women crafted the idea of a platform in which anyone today could express their rage but also hope surrounded by Wojnarowicz’s words.
“He spoke to all people—that kid is everyone today,” Olsoff says. A coder friend of the gallerist’s son handled the website’s backend, and the artist’s wish to create versions of the work in different languages was realised with inclusion of languages from geographies with poor queer rights.
The Vice docu-series, The Short List with Suroosh Alvi, also pays homage to Wojnarowicz with free streaming of filmmaker Chris McKim’s 2020 documentary F**k You F*ggot F**ker, on VICE.com and YouTube. The piercing documentary, which uses the artist’s self-recorded tape journals, chronicles a whirlwind of a life defined by the refusal to let the public govern the private. McKim decided to make the film in July 2015 when yet another new chapter in politics was being signaled with Trump’s run for presidency. “When I learned more about David’s work, everything he had done spoke to what was happening back then,” he says.
After his conversations with Olsoff and Vitale, as well as New York University’s Fales Library, which holds the artist’s archive, McKim was able to secure funding from the production company World of Wonder. Between then and now, the Whitney’s ambitious Wojnarowicz retrospective History Keeps Me Awake At Night opened in 2018, followed by another world-changing pandemic. And, yet again, body politics are heavily intervened by government mandates. “One of the lessons I’ve learned from David’s work is that it doesn’t matter who is in power—because it is not about the individuals but about power structures,” McKim says about the poignancy of the artist’s legacy.
At the end of today (22 July), the same group of women will walk to the west side piers where Wojnarowicz cruised and created his groundbreaking late 1970s’ photography series Arthur Rimbaud in New York. They will scatter a mixed batch of the artist’s and Rauffenbart’s ashes into the Hudson River. Vitale previously carried some of their ashes to Madrid and Luxembourg, where the Whitney show made stops in 2019.
The foundation has a series of forthcoming projects, including a book with Primary Information due to be released in the spring of 2023 about the artist’s correspondence with his French lover Jean Pierre Delage, which was subject to a poetically-curated show at PPOW earlier this year. Further plans include finalising a board of directors and creating funds to support LGBTQ+ artists, writers and organisations through grants. “I promised Tom that I would take care of David’s legacy,” Vitale said. “And, the foundation is the fulfillment of that promise.”