Institutionalization Keeps Me Awake At Night: David Wojnarowicz, The Whitney and the Violence of the Canon

David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992), Something from Sleep III (For Tom Rauffenbart), 1989. Acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 48 1/2 × 39 × 1 5/8in. (123.2 × 99.1 × 4.1 cm). Collection of Tom Rauffenbart. Image courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) and P.P.O.W, New York

One of the last works on view in the winding, labyrinth-like galleries of the Whitney Museum’s long awaited David Wojnarowicz retrospective History Keeps Me Awake At Night features a hand, presumably the artist’s own, holding a tiny, adorable frog. Just one example of Wojnarowicz’s lifelong affinity for creepy-crawly things–bugs, frogs, snakes, etc., this tender and childlike care for this small creature is juxtaposed with a block of text that reads:

“What is this little guy’s job in the world. If this little guy dies, does the world know? Does the world feel this? Does something get displaced? If this little guy dies does the world get lighter? Does the planet rotate a little faster? If this little guy dies, without his body to shift the currents of air, does the air flow perceptibly faster? What shifts if this little guy dies? Do people speak language a little bit differently? If this little guy dies does some little kid somewhere wake up with a bad dream? Does an almost imperceptible link in the chain snap? Will civilization stumble?”

David Wojnarowicz, What Is This Little Guy’s Job In The World, 1990, gelatin silver print (© David Wojnarowicz 1990 / Courtesy Of The Estate Of David Wojnarowicz And P.P.O.W., New York)

This piece, entitled What Is This Little Guy’s Job In The World? is not as well-known as his other text-overlaid works on view in the same room like Untitled (When I Put My Hands On Your Body) or Untitled (One Day This Kid)…with that haunting picture of a boy doomed to inhabit our phobic society. And yet, What Is This Little Guy’s Job In The World?, with the attention placed on the role of a minuscule animal in the gears of civilization, which Wojnarowicz critiqued throughout his career, being acutely aware of how society is built against the vulnerable, the Other and the queer, holds perhaps more relevance to the exhibition itself. While surrounded by his creative output in History Keeps Me Awake At Night, curated by David Kiehl and David Breslin, I came to acutely feel not Wojnarowicz’s presence, but his absence.

Like the frog, something did get displaced and an almost imperceptible link in the chain snapped when Wojnarowicz and others died from complications from AIDS. Not only did we lose people–potential lovers, mentors, friends, chosen family–but we also lost other possibilities. In his seminal “Mourning and Militancy,” Crimp explores the disappearance of sites of sexual possibility: “Alongside the dismal toll of death, what many of us have lost is a culture of sexual possibility: back rooms, tea rooms, bookstores, movie houses, and baths; the trucks, the pier, the ramble, the dunes.”

But in the decades since, the losses have just continued to pile up, especially in New York City as the gritty melting pot became an increasingly sanitized playground for the rich partially related to, as Sarah Schulman depicts in her book The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, the intersection of AIDS and gentrificationNowhere is the change in the city more visible than in the neighborhood in which the Whitney is located, from the cleaned-up Hudson River piers where Wojnarowicz and other men would cruise to the Meatpacking District where its mixture of blood, animal fat and sex clubs became high-end retail chains to that awful AIDS memorial near the spot where St. Vincent’s Hospital has turned into condos.

Installation view of David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, July 13-September 30, 2018). Photograph by Ron Amstutz

It’s not only the Whitney’s neighborhood that has become a status-hungry playground, but the Whitney itself plays into the increasing privatization of the city. With its $25 admission fee and multi-million dollar star architect-designed building, the Whitney seems far away from the intensely collaborative, D-I-Y, transgressive and experimental world of Wojnarowicz’s Downtown. As Cynthia Carr writes in Fire In The Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz, “David was a major figure in what is now a lost world.”

And the loss of this world, and many of those that inhabited it, is integrally linked to the, using Wojnarowicz’s words, “vague nausea” I felt when considering the decisions made in History Keeps Me Awake At Night’s curation, just one of several shows this summer on Wojnarowicz including The Unflinching Eye: The Symbols of David Wojnarowicz at NYU’s Bobst Library and PPOW Gallery’s Soon All This Will Be Picturesque Ruins: The Installations of David WojnarowiczWith the absence of Wojnarowicz’s booming voice, I found it hard to walk through the show without contemplating how he would have felt about his own retrospective, which seemed designed to uphold the canon rather than question or destabilize it, particularly given his own well-documented distrust of the art world and its moneyed interests.

David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992). Americans Can’t Deal with Death, 1990. Two gelatin silver prints, acrylic, string, and screenprint on composition board 60 × 48 in. (152.4 × 121.9 cm). Collection of Eric Ceputis and David W. Williams. Image courtesy the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W, New York

I’ll admit, I struggled with articulating an appropriate response to History Keeps Me Awake At Night (and in the spirit of full disclosure, I was a research assistant on the show’s catalogue for a short period in 2015)With the continued strength and power of Wojnarowicz’s work, the show could never be bad per se. History Keeps Me Awake At Night did provide some unexpected moments of transcendence, even for a Wojnarowicz obsessive like me, such as the inclusion of Something From Sleep III (For Tom Rauffenbart) that with his flower paintings like Americans Can’t Deal With Death, shows that Wojnarowicz could depict beauty just as well as the ugliness of our society.

However, I don’t feel like I need to argue for Wojnarowicz and his work’s ongoing significance, which I’ve tackled over and over and over again elsewhere. If you’re reading this, you likely already understand this anyway. For me, I’m more concerned how a complicated, multidisciplinary and anti-institutional artist like Wojnarowicz, who spent his lifetime critiquing the structures of the preinvented world, became historicized and shoved into a narrative that is palpable for an institution like the Whitney with big donors, big money and questionable ethical values (if you bristle at this one, let me remind you of Dana Schutz’s garbage painting Open Casket and the Whitney’s refusal to admit wrongdoing in its curatorial decisions).

David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992), Arthur Rimbaud in New York, 1978–79, (printed 1990). Gelatin silver print, 8 × 10 in. (20.3 × 25.4 cm). Collection of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992); courtesy P.P.O.W, New York. Image courtesy the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W, New York

On the surface, History Keeps Me Awake At Night ticks off all the boxes–the Rimbaud series, burning houses, kissing men, Genet, gears, clocks, ants, Peter Hujar, etc. But looking closer, things are missing. Sometimes what is missing is a sense of life. Take, for example, the room featuring an audio recording of Wojnarowicz reading at the Drawing Center in 1992. Rather than placing work on the walls that could relate to his written work like the collage Untitled (Hujar Dead), which features some of the same text (“I’m carrying this rage like a blood filled egg…”), making links between the disparate fields of Wojnarowicz’s prodigious creativity, the Whitney chose to place the audio in a completely empty white room–the quintessential white cube, forcing viewers to stare off like zombies into the middle distance with thousand-yard stares while attempting to imagine an art space filled with people listening to Wojnarowicz. Sitting on a white bench, viewers can really only contemplate the construction on the Hudson and the further disappearance of Wojnarowicz’s New York.

Other times the curators displayed works in a manner that lessened some of Wojnarowicz’s confrontational impulses or erotic interests. Much of the wall text shies away from sex. For instance, Wojnarowicz’s interest in the piers is explained as as “He cruised for sex there, and also wrote and made art on site.” It wasn’t just sex guys! It’s okay! Phew!

Now, the show isn’t without its critics already. ACT UP staged a successful protest at the museum to counter the historical framing of HIV/AIDS in both Wojnarowicz’s retrospective and the even worse offender An Incomplete History of Protest. Frieze’s Evan Moffitt has also asked, “Why Has The Whitney Tried to Sanitize David Wojnarowicz?” citing, in particular, the awkward, empty audio room. However, there are some other points that I haven’t seen posed that are equally worrisome in their erasure of the scope of Wojnarowicz’s life and work, as well his East Village community and artists with whom he collaborated. In this, the show’s organization points to the violence of institutionalization, shoving the multitude of an artist’s creative drives into the canon rather than expanding the normative art historical narrative to fit an artist like Wojnarowicz.

Installation view of David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, July 13-September 30, 2018). Photograph by Ron Amstutz

For instance, the lack of archival material in the exhibition feels like a stunning oversight, particularly with the expansive David Wojnarowicz Papers held at Fales Library & Special Collections not too far away at NYU. In History Keeps Me Awake At Night, the archival material is restricted to a few journals related to the Arthur Rimbaud in New York series and a trip to the piers, the eponymous Rimbaud mask displayed upright like a specter and a handful of materials related to Wojnarowicz’s battle with the NEA over his essay in the Witnesses Against Our Vanishing catalogue and Donald Wildmon’s strangely perverse edit of Wojnarowicz’s material featuring sex.

With knowledge culled from years of rifling through Wojnarowicz’s papers at Fales, I’m aware of just how rich their collection is and it makes Kiehl and Breslin’s curatorial decision all the more baffling. Why wouldn’t, in a room with Wojnarowicz’s stenciled work, viewers want to see the actual stencils that he used, still covered with paint? Why wouldn’t viewers need to read his heart-wrenching journal entry (much of which turned into passages in his essay “Living Close To The Knives”) about Peter Hujar’s death and the resulting photographs he took immediately after his passing, while looking at the images themselves to understand their weight and meaning? And where is Wojnarowicz’s Magic Box, filled with odd knick-knacks and inspirations, which relate to the symbols featured in many of his works?

Installation view of The Unflinching Eye: The Symbols of David Wojnarowicz at NYU (photo by author)

And lest you think that any institution is incapable of curating a well-researched, well-rounded and well-organized show on Wojnarowicz, done with care and attention, I’ll hold up NYU’s The Unflinching Eye as an example of how an exhibition on the artist should be done, educating viewers on his writing, his ongoing interests, constant journal writing and more. Coordinated by Nicholas Martin with curatorial contributions from Hugh Ryan, Marvin Taylor and Marcelo Yáñez The Unflinching Eye acts as a necessary supplement to History Keeps Me Awake At Night by showing the exact archival pieces overlooked by the institution. And in so doing, it exposes the other’s weakness. For example, a bank of vitrines details Hujar and Wojnarowicz’s relationship, from the original source photograph that inspired Untitled (Peter Hujar Dreaming) and Untitled (Green Head) to joyful contact sheets depicting Hujar and Wojnarowicz on a trip to a letter written by Wojnarowicz complaining about the bad treatment Hujar received while in a hospital. It also features a heartbreaking yet seminal archival piece that I feel is almost unforgivable that it is not in the Whitney’s exhibition–Hujar’s AIDS diagnosis letter on which Wojnarowicz drew the image of two men kissing from his painting Fuck You Faggot Fucker. After this vitrine, The Unflinching Eye, then, showcases the photographs of Hujar dead, lending a more emotional understanding to these images rather than juxtaposing them (strangely) with the Sex Series at the Whitney.

David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992), Untitled (Green Head), 1982. Acrylic on composition board, 48 × 96 in. (121.9 × 243.8 cm). Collection of Hal Bromm and Doneley Meris. Image courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W, New York

Without this archival material at the Whitney, it feels as if the institution was mostly interested in propping up traditional visual art–art that is understandable to the canon (not to mention to the market), than presenting a full view of the artist. Perhaps an even more egregious oversight, though, is the lack of attention paid to Wojnarowicz’s collaborators. Rather than contextualizing Wojnarowicz as an artist within a vibrant creative community, the show paints Wojnarowicz as singularly important (art history’s favorite trope, particularly for white male artists). For example, in the room full of Arthur Rimbaud in New York photographs, the masked figures go referenced as anonymous friends, rather than mentioning their names. Brian Butterick, for instance, otherwise known as drag queen Hattie Hathaway, posed for the series, as well as played with Wojnarowicz in the band 3 Teens Kill 4 (with Doug Bressler, Julie Hair, and Jesse Hultberg) whose album plays in a nearby gallery. But this fact goes unrecognized, even though it could have been a means to place Wojnarowicz in a scene of fellow artists and creatives. In the same room with 3 Teens’s music, a slideshow featuring Andreas Sterzing‘s pier images is similarly shown without acknowledgement that these photographs are from the Ward Line Pier project, an art installation held in the derelict Pier 34 organized by Mike Bidlo and Wojnarowicz, with works by artists such as Luis Frangella and Judy Glantzman.

In other cases, the Whitney decided to not even show some of Wojnarowicz’s collaborations, namely with filmmakers like Richard Kern and Tommy Turner, or even his writing on Montana Hewson in the essay “The Suicide of a Guy who Once Built an Elaborate Shrine Over a Mouse Hole” in Close To The Knives. And sure, the gore and death-obsessed Cinema of Transgression isn’t for everyone–certainly not the tourists wandering off the High Line, but it did occupy Wojnarowicz’s creative mind for quite some time. As Wojnarowicz wrote in Close To The Knives, “For a period of time I entered a circle of people who were attracted to forms and expressions of violence and bloodletting because these things contained some unarguable truth when viewed or experienced against a backdrop of America.”

Wojnarowicz’s Paris/Normandy journal from 1979 in The Unflinching Eye: The Symbols of David Wojnarowicz (photo by author)

Whether intentional or not, ignoring Wojnarowicz’s community plays into the hackneyed narrative of the Great White Male artist. When so much effort in 2018 is spent breaking this restrictive aspect of the art historical canon down, it seems out of touch to try to shape Wojnarowicz to fit into this conservative notion of what makes an artist art historically relevant. This raises numerous questions for museums and for viewers: Who is the Whitney curating for? Is an institution’s responsibility to the faithful representation of an artist and the artist’s community and the education of the general public or is it upholding the status quo? And for us, as viewers, what are we to expect from these institutions? Can we expect anything from a simplified, sanitized view? Should we just be happy that artists like Wojnarowicz are getting recognition at all? Or should we hold institutions to higher standards?

Truth be told, Wojnarowicz’s work should never be able to fit comfortably within the institution. And that’s not only okay, it’s a fantastic opportunity to tear away some of the tired as hell conservatism of the canon and institutions like the Whitney. Institutions are, ultimately, part of, what Wojnarowicz would critique as, “The Other World.” As he writes in Close To The Knives“The Other World is where I sometimes lose my footing. In its calendar turnings, in its preinvented existence. The barrage of twists and turns where I sometimes get weary, trying to keep up with it, minute by minute adapt: the world of the stoplight, the no-smoking signs, the rental world, the split-rail fencing shielding hundreds of miles of barren wilderness from the human step. A place where by virtue of having been born centuries late one is denied access to earth or space, choice or movement. The bought-up world; the owned world. The world of coded sounds: the world of language, the world of lies. The packaged world; the world of speed in metallic motion. The Other World where I’ve always felt like an alien.” But, as he continues, inadvertently articulating how curating his work should be approached, “there’s the World where one adapts and stretches the boundaries of the Other World through keys of the imagination.”

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