David Wojnarowicz: A Heightened State of Activism

Peter Hujar, David Wojnarowicz: Manhattan-Night (III), silver print, 1985. Sold in our inaugural LGBTQ+ Art, Material Culture & History sale on June 20, 2019 for $106,250. A record for the artist.

David Wojnarowicz was a multifaceted artist known for works that put the AIDS epidemic at the forefront of New York contemporary art, such as his iconic images from the documentary film Silence = Death and the monumental installation Lazaretto. Wojnarowicz was no stranger to the specter of death before his own AIDS diagnosis in the late 1980s. He had lived in New York’s East Village since 1978 and saw how AIDS ravaged his community and forced tragedy and trauma into their lives. In 1987, only 10 months after being diagnosed, Peter Hujar, Wojnarowicz’s partner and mentor, died of AIDS-related complications. This devastating loss to Wojnarowicz’s circle and the art world at large spurred the artist into a heightened state of activism.  

Our August 13, 2020 LGBTQ+ Art, Material Culture & History sale featured a superb run of rare works by the artists.

David Wojnarowicz Early Works

Before becoming a political activist, Wojnarowicz’s work embodied the spirit of the unapologetic social outsider. As a teenager, Wojnarowicz lived on the streets of New York and spent time in Times Square alongside hustlers. He hitchhiked across the country multiple times and his ideas were as diverse and authentic as the people he had met along the way. His early work, like his Stoned Sketchbook, shows his penchant for highlighting the humor in society’s ironies.

He identified with Arthur Rimbaud, a nineteenth-century poet whose works exemplified individualism and the search for freedom from society. Wojnarowicz’s powerful Rimbaud series identifies the parallels between Rimbaud’s life and the contemporary queer underground in New York City.  

During the early 1980s, Wojnarowicz exhibited alongside other young East Village artists, such as Nan Goldin, Kiki Smith, and Keith Haring. His art was a conglomeration of empathy, humor, sensationalism, and a sense of community. Much of his early work incorporated found objects like scraps of paper, labels, and advertising posters. His materials coincided with his commitment to portray alternative politics, sexualities, and lifestyles which were discarded by the mainstream. It was not until he was selected for the 1985 Whitney Biennial that he gained international recognition, showing his works throughout the United States, Europe and Latin America.  

David Wojnarowicz & the AIDS Crisis

Once Peter Hujar was diagnosed with AIDS, Wojnarowicz drew attention to the suffering felt by so many others by photographing Hujar in varying states of decline. This tender, moving series put a spotlight on the agony of AIDS and the loss of an important young contemporary. Wojnarowicz’s work became more politicized after Hujar’s diagnosis and death. The same boldness and candor that captured the attention of the international art world gave a new voice to the ongoing AIDS crisis. However, Wojnarowicz’s most ambitious installation was intended to be uncredited.  


In the summer of 1990, Wojnarowicz and artist Paul Marcus were drawing caricatures on a paper tablecloth at a local café. These caricatures of political figures morphed into a “ship of fools” inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s same-titled oil painting. The two artists knew that they wanted Senator Jesse Helms included on the ship and after a few meetings at a local East Village coffee shop, the idea of an entire installation materialized.  

Reflecting the gravity of the disease, the installation Wojnarowicz and Marcus envisioned would be unforgettable and monumental. Susan Pyzow, Marcus’s wife, joined in the collaboration and titled the exhibition Lazaretto for how society callously quarantined AIDS victims without concern or sympathy. Friends observed that Wojnarowicz especially worked feverishly to bring the installation to fruition as his body weakened by the day. Unbeknownst to Marcus and Pyzow, Wojnarowicz had been diagnosed with AIDS. As the exhibition opening neared, Marcus took on much of the responsibility for construction.  

With firsthand knowledge of the horrors of AIDS, Wojnarowicz and Marcus began to collect accounts from community members fighting the disease. These stories of injustice, pain, and loss of dignity were plastered on the walls of a constructed claustrophobic maze within the installation. Not only did the maze include these messages of despair and trauma, but it also consisted of black plastic walls that simulated body bags. Viewers would be forced to meet the harrowing experiences of the victims head-on as they navigated through it. A sickroom littered with pill bottles, garbage, and the refuse of a former life was constructed at the end of the maze. A skeleton of a young Black Latinx woman lay in a cot while daytime programs played on a television, reflecting how society, unmoved, ignored the decimation. At the center of the installation was the “ship of fools” ferrying grotesques of President George H.W. Bush, Cardinal O’Connor, and Senator Jesse Helms, all dressed in Ku Klux Klan hoods made of bills, across a blood-red sea of desperately reaching human hands and blocks spelling out victims’ names. The figures were caught in incriminating acts: Bush caught the severed hands with a fishing net while grinning and Cardinal O’Connor toasted the carnage with a glass of blood. Perhaps the most horrifying figure was Helms, who was devouring a Black infant, a comment on how minorities are especially ignored and marginalized when seeking HIV/AIDS treatment. A skeletal Christ-like figure with a crown of hypodermic needles was roped to the ship’s mast. Surrounding the ship were hundreds of plaster cast arms with numbers on the forearms representing the ghosts of the deceased reaching out to the viewers. Drawing this reference from the Holocaust, the AIDS pandemic was compared to a genocide of the LGBTQ+ community and other at-risk groups which purposefully lacked a response from the most powerful institutions. 

In cruel irony, Louie Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” blared in the background, and a jabbering Howdy Doody puppet danced in a case among dollar bills. The ship all at once represented the politics, discrimination, homophobia, and profit behind inaction, the immorality that lurks behind a moral façade, and the profound suffering as the end result. Outside of the elaborate exhibition were free supplies of condoms, needle kits, and informative pamphlets.  The artists offered parts of the exhibition for sale with proceeds and donations benefiting AIDS organizations. The boat from the installation was never sold and was destroyed after the exhibition’s tour.  

The artists presented Lazaretto anonymously. Though Wojnarowicz’s name would bring attention, it was felt that even more would be garnered by remaining nameless. The exhibition opened at P.P.O.W. on September 6 and ran through September 29, 1990. It was beyond impactful and was extremely well received by the public; admission lines wrapped around the block. The installation traveled nationally before ending its tour at the Art at the Armory: Occupied Territory show at the Chicago Avenue National Guard Armory organized by the Museum of Modern Art in Chicago, during which time Wojnarowicz tragically passed away from AIDS-related complications on July 22, 1992, but not without a legacy. On voicing his beliefs, Wojnarowicz had once stated, “I think what I really fear about death is the silencing of my voice. I feel this incredible pressure to leave something of myself behind.” Eventually, the Lazaretto artists’ names were revealed but the public outcry for a human response to the crisis and the activism spurred by the exhibition were already set in motion.

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