David Wojnarowicz: The Last Rimbaud
There’s no question about it: David Wojnarowicz had a hard life. It was a kind of loss leader for his art, which reads like a surreal case history documenting it. Wojnarowicz’s artistic career seriously began with Arthur Rimbaud in New York (1978-1979), a series of twenty-four black-and-white gelatin silver prints in which a friend, wearing a mask of Rimbaud, was photographed in a variety of New York settings, all more or less sordid and "underground." Wojnarowicz’s identification with Rimbaud is clear, and there is a startling resemblance between their lives, and even their art.
Wojnarowicz was born in 1954, exactly a century after Rimbaud, and died in 1992, living one year longer than Rimbaud, who died in 1891. Both were the products of broken homes and abusive parents; both ran away from provincial homes to the big city; both traveled widely; both were gay. Both needed a loving relationship with an idealized father figure and artistic mentor to stimulate and support their own art—Paul Verlaine in the case of Rimbaud, the photographer Peter Hujar in Wojnarowicz’s case—and both were violent personal- ties—Rimbaud eventually shot Verlaine, and death and destruction run rampant in Wojnarowicz’s imagery, most famously in Untitled (Falling Buffalo), 1988- 1989. (In one film, bodies are mutilated and torn apart.) Both had a certain arrogance, evident in Wojnarowicz’s videotaped "performances" as a gay activist. Rimbaud was rejected by the Parisian literati as an arrogant, boorish drunk. At one time or another both lived beyond the social pale, Wojnarowicz as a child prostitute, Rimbaud as a gunrunner. The criminal or outlaw experience gave them pleasure—their art in fact is a kind of homage to the pleasure principle, celebrated as illicit—as Wojnarowicz’s writings, intense and eloquent as Rimbaud’s, indicate. They felt they could get away with being exceptions to the rules everyone else must follow and they paid a human price for it, whatever the artistic compensations. Both died horrible deaths, Rimbaud after having his cancerous right leg amputated—he apparently suffered from syphilis—and Wojnarowicz from AIDS-related illness.
Perhaps most crucially, Wojnarowicz’s imagery pursues the same hallucinatory effect as Rimbaud’s poetry—both attempt to break the mold of artistic stereotypes by suggesting a complete derangement of the senses, as Rimbaud called it—and, like Rimbaud, he tried to transform his suffering into seerdom. That they both failed is revealed in lives that were a prolonged "season in hell." For both, art became a way of life when no other avenue worked, or seemed possible, because each chose to be an outsider, or had become one by virtue of an unhappy experience of life. However hard they tried to escape from their lives and feelings by transmuting them into art—to turn the sordid raw material of their life into sublime art—they could not do so completely: their images attained a certain vigorous purity but continued to vent suffering and dissatisfaction. Their art did not save them; it permitted them to cope, temporarily. Rimbaud abandoned art when it could no longer help him, and in a sense Wojnarowicz abandoned art by using it to make political statements that blamed the world for his troubles and stopped his development. Indeed, he may have turned to politics because he had nothing more to say about his life. The ruins of their lives washed up on the shores of art, to our benefit, but not clearly to theirs.
But the resemblance eventually breaks down: Rimbaud was an avant-garde innovator, Wojnarowicz an avant-garde decadent. Both were brilliant, but Wojnarowicz ended—brought to an ambiguous populist conclusion—what Rimbaud began: the idea of the artist as an experimental visionary. Wojnarowicz brought down to earth what for Rimbaud was a mystical way of ascending to psychic heaven. Wojnarowicz standardizes and stereotypes Rimbaud’s unusual techniques and puts Rimbaud’s surreal expressionist aesthetics to anti-aesthetic use. He, in effect, makes exoteric, naturalizes, what was once an esoteric art with an esoteric purpose. In short, he conventionalizes what was once unconventional, and does so with a casual ease that betrays its difficulty. Surrealism is vernacularized in the juxtaposition—however momentarily startling the incongruity—of monkey, money, and tornadoes in Fear of Evolution (1988-1989), and expressionism is vernacularized in the untitled series of sculptured heads made in 1984. In both, collage—Wojnarowicz’s major technique—is routine, however lively, mechanical, however novel its content.
The visionary impulse was intact in Wojnarowicz, but his experiments—and he was relentlessly experimental, as his restless movement between painting, sculpture, printmaking, music, film, video, and numerous collaborations indicate—are not as ingenious and radical as those of Rimbaud. They are more clever than subtle, more blatant than intimate. Wojnarowicz lacks the emotional breadth, complexity, and depth of Rimbaud, tending instead to harp on one emotional note—usually rage, as he acknowledges. This is partly because of his populism—evident in his use of collective imagery, comic-strip style, and such social materials as supermarket posters as points of departure—and partly because he wants to make a political point, to put his firsthand experience to social use, which requires that one write one’s ideas large and simplify them. Mass consumption always involves reduction to a common denominator, and Wojnarowicz was torn between the wish to make high art and to influence the indifferent masses. Moreover, if his political imagery did not incorporate his personal narrative, which involved self-mythologizing, his activism would have lost its cutting edge and poignancy.
Having said all this, Wojnarowicz remains a major figure and symbol, largely because of the existential fundamentalism evident particularly in his death-inspired photographs. I am not thinking of the famous masochistic image of him with his lips sewn shut that appeared in the video Silence=Death (1990), nor of the frequently sadistic character of his imagery, in which hostility often climaxes in murder. Rather, I am celebrating his sophisticated, nuanced use of black and white, suggesting the closeness and even mutuality of death and life, in his Ant Series and Sex Series (1988-1989) and Dust Track I and II (1990). Black and white intertwine the way life and death do; Wojnarowicz’s demonstration of this is his true visionary achievement. Prosaic images become sheer poetry—the stuff of life is at last transformed into art that transcends it—art that is death defying even as its entire atmosphere is funereal. As has been said, there is nothing like death to concentrate the mind. And there is nothing like death to bring an art to ripeness.
Hujar died from AIDS in 1988, and Wojnarowicz, discovering that he was HIV positive, realized that he also would also probably die soon. In his last works he faces his death: social critique and homosexual explicitness are embedded in brooding on death. No doubt his social engagement—inseparable from his self-acceptance—was an attempt to be adult, but he was never more adult than when he dealt with death. It was then that he finally came to terms with his lot in life. There is a subliminal solemnity and intensely mournful quality to Wojnarowicz’s last works that is more heroic than their in-your-face aggression. In them he struggled to integrate his death and life instincts to achieve and maintain a sense of ego. He succeeds: we admire the strength of ego that allows him to face his own death and life. He was not, in the end, the vulnerable frog with whom he identified in some images.
Both Rimbaud and Wojnarowicz died midway through life, at the age when Dante became depressed enough to begin his voyage to heaven—to take salvation seriously. In contrast, they never left hell, but they were able to endure it with dignity. Perhaps there was even something more to Wojnarowicz’s art—something that made it even more authentically existential than Rimbaud’s. If, as Milton said, "the Mind...can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven," then Wojnarowicz, while not able to make the adolescent hell of his mind into the consummate artistic heaven Rimbaud did, he nonetheless used art to arrive in purgatory. Perhaps he was able to do so because he continued to make art to the bitter end of his life—it was a kind of lifeline to which he desperately held—while Rimbaud abandoned art early in life, suggesting it was an adolescent trifle. To reach purgatory is certainly a step beyond hell and the next best thing to heaven, and brought Wojnarowicz closer to salvation than Rimbaud. The lesson of Wojnarowicz is that if one persists in pushing the Sisyphean wheel of art uphill—it always falls back, and one has to start pushing again—one may not only get further in life, but in the afterlife.
Donald Kuspit is a professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY at Stonybrook, and A.D. White professor-at-large at Cornell University.