“I met David in 1982, late one night at the Artforum office,” Cynthia Carr writes midway through "Fire in the Belly," her magisterial new biography of David Wojnarowicz. “He was not supposed to be there.” A friend, from whom he was hoping to borrow money, had let him in. But he was also out of place in a cultural sense: a young street artist trespassing in the halls of elite culture. “He was a force,” she recalls. They became acquaintances.
This was just before Wojnarowicz became a leading figure in the burgeoning East Village 1980s art scene and, soon after, a pioneering AIDS activist. He had been living in New York for at least 15 years, ever since his alcoholic father had moved him and his siblings from their home in suburban New Jersey to their mother’s apartment in Manhattan. The parents had divorced years earlier, after a long stretch of domestic violence and abuse that sometimes involved the children.
Life would not be much easier with their mother. At various points, she kicked them out. Wojnarowicz began sleeping with men for money in Times Square and was occasionally homeless. But at all the crucial points when he could have slipped over the edge, he apparently pulled himself back. He would find that next place to stay or escape the clutches of a potentially murderous john. Someone would hand him just the right book. He became a poet.
Like most great artists, Wojnarowicz was a master of self-invention, and Carr reports that friends warned her she “would have to deal with what they called ‘the mythology.’” She studied his correspondence and interviewed extensively, and very rarely caught him in a lie; one untruth she did unearth was when he wrote to his long-distance lover, Jean Pierre Delage, whom he met on a trip to Paris, that he had turned down a trip with a hookup to Los Angeles. (Not quite the case.)
Stories about one-night stands with “fellas” (as he termed his hookups) that he met in the late 1970s while making art along the Hudson River piers, a safe haven for gay men to cruise, rub up against richly detailed and violent dreams he recorded in his numerous, intensely emotional journals. He began to photograph friends wearing a mask of the poet Arthur Rimbaud in places throughout the city for what may be his most widely known project. As Carr tells the story of one pier trip in September 1979, she mentions a concurrent event: “[t]wo young gay male New Yorkers went to their doctors complaining of odd purplish lesions on their bodies.”
What emerges is a compelling picture of a time in New York that has now completely vanished, when an existence devoted to art, on the margins, was still possible, and not necessarily something to be romanticized. Wojnarowicz pulled 12-hour, through-the-night shifts at the downtown nightclub, Danceteria, alongside other young artists like Zoe Leonard and Keith Haring, in a milieu that provided the connections and pressure to push him into success.
He fell in with Peter Hujar, the esteemed portrait photographer, about two decades his senior, who became a short-term lover and one of the artist’s closest friends. “He was like the parent I never had,” Wojnarowicz said. Hujar would die of AIDS five years before him.
As HIV and AIDS enter the picture in the early 1980s, the scrappy East Village art scene is just beginning to rise. A young gallery employee with the improbable name of Gracie Mansion holds a show in her bathroom—the Loo Division, she calls it—and it’s a hit. She would show Wojnarowicz throughout the 1980s as did other galleries in the booming neighborhood, and he quickly became a dominant figure. By 1985, only a few years after taking up painting, he’s in the Whitney Biennial, but just as speedily the scene is crashing down as a result of rising rents and rampant drug use. The picture of East Village culture that Carr offers—she covered it for years as a reporter for the Village Voice— is alone worth the price of the book.
Despite her friendship with Wojnarowicz in the last months of his life, Carr is willing to paint the artist in clear-eyed prose, balancing unflattering stories of drug use and success-induced paranoia with those of his trenchant and harrowing AIDS activism and defense of freedom of expression. (The intricate details of his battle with right-wing critics will, one hopes, provide fodder for today’s protestors.) When Artforum finally devoted an issue to the East Village scene in 1999, Wojnarowicz was on the cover, Carr notes. But the artist’s story is ultimately about more than triumphs: It asks what makes an artist create. How does one overcome massive personal pain and make art? Early in the book, Carr speaks with one of Wojnarowicz’s first roommates and confidants in the city. “My big question was, do we have to destroy ourselves to be creative,” the woman tells the author. “I felt like he was kind of hell-bent on it. He wanted that. He wanted the dark part.”
This article appears in the summer issue of Modern Painters magazine.