Firing Desire: Communal Possibilities in the Life and Work of David Wojnarowicz
When I first read David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives in 1992 (or maybe 1993), it was like I had found my rage in print, a sense of maybe a little bit of hope in a world of loss. I was 19 (or maybe 20). I had recently moved to San Francisco, and was finally finding queers like myself: broken and betrayed, vicious and vibrant, filled with the possibility of no tomorrow. I had fled the elite East Coast university I’d spent my whole life working towards, in search of radical queer visions of lust and love, direct action and accountability, models for taking care of one another in a culture that wanted us dead. I was escaping a childhood of upwardly mobile suffocation for the possibilities of the imagination.
I had always reached for books to save me, had devoured them, had fled into their pages to illuminate the world around me, to illuminate me: but I hadn’t looked for myself in those pages, it had never entered my mind to think that would be possible. So when I read Close to the Knives I felt a shock of recognition both grounding and immediate. I knew that David Wojnarowicz had died soon after the publication of the book; in the early-‘90s, it seemed like whenever I discovered a new queer male artist he was either dying or on the verge. It felt like everyone was dying -- of AIDS or drug addiction or suicide, and this wasn’t shocking because I had only known death, internally or externally it felt like the same thing. Except that the internal death you could refuse, and that's what Close to the Knives meant to me.
I had already joined ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, where I found the tools for unlocking a critical analysis connecting the dots between systems of oppression united in their hatred of everything that might save me. Close to the Knives was part of this analysis, but it was also something more visceral: a gasp of connection in a landscape of brutality both literal and mythical, personal and communal. David Wojnarowicz gave me hope in my own history that I was only beginning to learn: when he wrote about the possibilities of connection in the sudden gestures of intimacy among strangers -- in bathrooms and parks and alleys and decomposing buildings, in known and unknown rooms -- I began to reimagine my own teenage history of daily sex in public bathrooms with men decades older, as a story not only of trying not to feel, trying to disappear, trying to beat my father.
In Close to the Knives, David’s father is the annihilation of the past that threatens to overwhelm the present: I can't remember if I discovered David Wojnarowicz soon before or soon after I remembered I was sexually abused, when everything stopped and then started to make sense, I just know that Close to the Knives was part of this starting-to-make-sense. For years I carried Close to the Knives everywhere I went. I would give copies to new friends as a litmus test: after they'd read the book, I searched in their eyes for confusion or familiarity, distance or possibility.
David was already dead when I discovered his words to hold me: I needed that embrace. David was part of a generation that publicly cast off shame in favor of naming and claiming sexual splendor outside the confines of propriety -- a generation that then witnessed its bold visions of lust and love surrounded by the mass deaths tacitly welcomed by the enforced silence of official structures of power. I was part of a different generation -- the first time I heard about actual gay people, they were closeted stars dying in headlines in the National Enquirer. I worried I could get AIDS from tasting my own come.
I have never believed in icons, but David Wojnarowicz became for me something like a model of resistance. I treasured his symbols, and they became my own -- though during his life he was known more for his visual art than his writing, I discovered it later. His stencil of a burning house represented everything I was getting away from. The image of two men making out, with a map of North America covering their bodies, emerging from a bundle of sticks, bathroom graffiti below reading “Fuck You Faggot Fucker” -- that was my history: past present future at once. The Sex Series of small round black-and-white photos in negative so the whites illuminate a desire for fucking and sucking and rimming juxtaposed against forest and ships and bridges, that series felt like the freedom and annihilation of my dreams. The Stegosaurus with Wojnarowicz spelled out on its spikes became a personal treasure. It was like we were friends, David and I, even though we could never be friends.
I looked to Wojnarowicz as an example for how to politicize rage. I knew that early in his career he'd dumped bloody cow bones outside the Leo Castelli Gallery in Soho to protest the voraciousness of the art market, and I thought this was hilarious if a little gory. I did not know, as Cynthia Carr explains in her new biography, Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz, that the cow bones were shrink-wrapped, and the stairwell where they were left was mostly outside of public view, making the project more of an installation than an impediment, although the fact that hardly anyone saw it may have hastened the legend.
I relished Wojnarowicz’s description of rage in Close to the Knives as a “blood-filled egg” and his characterization of New York's notoriously anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-sex Cardinal John O'Connor as a “cannibal from that house of walking swastikas.” Carr highlights one of the best examples of Wojnarowicz’s rage-in-action. Photographer Peter Hujar, Wojnarowicz’s mentor of sorts, goes into Bruno's, an East Village coffee shop right by his apartment, one day in 1987 at a point when he's visibly stricken with AIDS, and Bruno makes him put his money in a paper bag, saying, "You know why."
Wojnarowicz writes, in Close to the Knives:
At first I wanted to go into Bruno's at rush hour and pour ten gallons of cow’s blood onto the grill and simply say, "You know why." But that was something I might have done ten years ago. Instead I went in during a crowded lunch hour and screamed at Bruno demanding an explanation and every time a waitress or Bruno asked me to lower my voice I got louder and angrier until Bruno was cowering in back of the kitchen and every knife and fork in the place stopped moving."
Do you see how this rage can be so loving? And yet, it's ironic to learn, after reading Fire in the Belly, that Wojnarowicz misdirected his rage more often than not at his closest friends, inviting fellow artists on road trips and then leaving them thousands of miles from home or banishing collaborators from his life for imagined infractions. His storied anger at the art world for its exclusionary policies now strikes me not just as a politicized stance but also the disgruntled posturing of an insider. He used a tire iron to smash holes in the walls of a gallery after accusing the owners of damaging one of his pieces, which now seems as much a macho act of aggression as a political act.
Biographers often have an uncommon knack for describing even the most fascinating individuals and incidents with the dullest possible prose, boring the reader with the most uninteresting childhood details and rushing the parts that matter. Carr doesn't make such mistakes. At almost 600 pages, her book is monumental, yet somehow it feels concise. She uses short, clear sentences throughout, successfully invoking complicated events and their implications with a staccato grace. While she doesn't depart from the conventional linear structure of the biography, she inhabits it with a vitality so often lacking.
Consider the beginning of the first chapter:
One day in September 1954, Ed Wojnarowicz lost his salary gambling. All of it. This led to a quarrel with his wife, Dolores, and he went out to get plastered. When he came home drunk, he seized Dolores by the throat, choking her, muttering that he'd kill her. He grabbed a gun, threatening to shoot her, the children, and then himself. Dolores locked herself in the bedroom with the kids and heard Ed fire three shots. Silence. She crept downstairs to find him slumped over the kitchen table. Dead? When she approached, he jumped up laughing, waving the gun at her face. The divorce petition describing this incident does not specify whether it occurred just before or just after the birth of the couple's third child, David, on September 14.
With this journalistic description, Carr establishes the tenor of David's early years. Violence was everywhere, whether from the blows of a sadistic drunk father, or as the result of a mother who placed the three kids in an abusive boarding home in New Jersey while she searched for work as a model in New York City. The kids were kidnapped by the father (David, the youngest, was 4): the father brutally beat them routinely and at one point killed their pet rabbit and fed it to them for dinner. Eventually they ended up with the mother in a one-bedroom apartment in New York (David was 11) -- one by one they were made unwelcome, until David was the only one left; he spent as much time roaming the streets as he did in the apartment. Carr details David's life as a teenage hustler in Times Square, kicked out by his mother at age 17, although he claims to forget why.
"That seems so unlikely," Carr writes, with deadpan insight. She speculates that David wanted to protect his mother, in spite of everything she put him through. Wojnarowicz ends up more or less homeless for the next few years, 1971 to 1973, at one point living in the Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse although he wasn't yet out as gay. Carr analyzes the ways in which Wojnarowicz, for whom the phrase "a difficult childhood" would be a severe understatement, nonetheless strove to make it sound like he was on his own even earlier, turning tricks at age nine instead of as an early teen, or on the streets when actually still living with his mother. She wonders if the emotional push-and-pull of the no-less-brutal truth was harder for him to talk about. I wonder too whether, in casting himself as the ultimate outsider in the legacy of Jean Genet and William S. Burroughs, it was easier for Wojnarowicz not to talk about mundane or depressing details like the way his estranged mother obsessively tried to meet a rich man who would take care of her, while ignoring the needs of her kids. Or even to talk about his sister, who moved to Paris in 1974 to begin a successful modeling career that landed her on the cover of French fashion magazine L’Officiel and in an ad during the Super Bowl. David declares in one of his journals: "I want to create a myth that I can one day become." At this, Wojnarowicz was undoubtedly successful, but thankfully Carr reveals the contradictions and complications of his life, an important task of any successful biographer.
Carr analyzes how Wojnarowicz simplified his story and “took real events and moved them back in time to make them more terrible," but she doesn't reveal that she herself initially appeared fooled. In a story for the Village Voice in 1990 (reprinted in Carr’s 1993 book On Edge: Performance at the End of the 20th Century), Carr relates Wojnarowicz’s tales of turning tricks at nine as fact -- it’s unclear why she doesn't disclose this earlier mistake in Fire in the Belly, since it amplifies the point she's making about Wojnarowicz’s exaggerations.
Fire in the Belly is an impressive work that clearly took years to make. Carr includes material from direct interviews or personal conversations with many of the people in the book, as well as detailed excerpts from Wojnarowicz’s journals, letters and many of the other items now held in the archives at the Fales Library at New York University (as well as those still in private hands). She frequently cites David’s published work, as well as the posthumously-published In the Shadow of the American Dream: The Diaries of David Wojnarowicz, edited by Amy Scholder, and David Wojnarowicz: A Definitive History of Five or Six Years on the Lower East Side, interviews mostly by Sylvčre Lotringere, edited by Giancarlo Ambrosino. Carr tracks down David’s siblings, although David’s mother does not respond to interview requests. Perhaps because of Carr’s interviews with surviving relatives, she starts the book by explaining that Wojnarowicz is pronounced “Voyna-ROW-vich,” even though in the Village Voice portrait completed while David was still alive she suggests the more commonly used “Wanna-row-vich.” Carr doesn't explain why her view of the correct pronunciation has changed, which seems strange since it’s likely that David himself requested the earlier pronunciation.
Carr’s personal references most often serve to illuminate, even small anecdotes like the first time she met Wojnarowicz “in 1982, late one night at the Artforum office. He was not supposed to be there. Keith Davis, the magazine’s designer, let him in and brought him to the back room where the two of us were working, alone and on deadline. David had come by to borrow money from Keith.” With this brief story, Carr breaks free of one of the most deadening strictures of the conventional biography: she enters herself not just into the narrative, but into the life of the person she is investigating. While this first meeting happens by chance, and only results in a casual acquaintanceship, Carr’s simple act of disclosure allows for the most intimate parts of the book.
Fire in the Belly centers around the life of Wojnarowicz, but it also serves as an unofficial history of 1970s and 1980s West Village gay life (and the West Side piers in particular), the emergence of AIDS, the East Village art scene of the 1980s (most extensively), and the censorship wars of the late-‘80s and early-‘90s. Of David's adventures on the piers, Carr states, "he connected anonymous sex with possibility," a beautiful summation of one of the things I've always been drawn to in Wojnarowicz’s work. Of Wojnarowicz’s art-making, Carr declares, “he liked painting directly on the world," again a poetic understatement for someone who spent so much time stenciling downtown New York streets and creating elaborate work on the decaying and crumbling piers. Carr lived in the East Village starting in the late-‘70s, and immediately became enamored of its art and performance scene, which started as a critique of elitism, only to quickly be engulfed by the fiendish branding and posh consumerism of the art world.
I'll never forget the young dealer who took me to her filthy, unheated apartment a few doors away from her gallery, served me instant Bustelo in a dirty cup, and then announced, "This is how we live on the Lower East Side." She’d lived there for six months, after growing up on the Upper East Side. Poverty was apparently a cool new lifestyle, but it wouldn't be for long. As this dealer proudly declared, "We're raising the property values."
Carr critiques and explores the “blatant commercialism of the scene” most evident in a 1984 Art in America essay by Carlo McCormick and Walter Robinson titled “Slouching Towards Avenue D,” which describes the East Village as a "marketing concept" and part of "the Reagan Zeitgeist." Tour buses and limos soon crowded the neighborhood to get a glimpse at burnt-out buildings and crime. Craig Owens, in that same 1984 issue of Art in America, describes the East Village scene as a "simulacrum" of bohemia; and yet, Carr reveals, "it felt real to me.”
Carr begins speaking about the first signs of AIDS relatively early on in the book, brief news bulletins that interrupt a heady story about David that encompasses his struggles for survival and adventures in sex, love, and art. In 1979, Carr tells us, Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions are first reported among gay men. On July 3, 1981, an article in the New York Times speaks of "gay cancer." In March 1983, Larry Kramer's famous essay "1112 and Counting" warns of a crisis. And then, in 1987, after a Larry Kramer speech where he declares the death toll due to AIDS has risen to 32,000 (and counting), comes the founding of ACT UP, which unleashes a fury of radical queer direct action activism that David becomes a part of.
In some ways this book serves as an elegy for a culture of artists in downtown New York ravaged by AIDS. In one of the most wrenching moments in the book, Carr describes running into her friend Keith Davis (through whom she initially met David) on the street, noticing a lesion on Keith’s face but not saying anything as they engage in small talk:
“So how are you?" I finally blurted.
"Oh, I have AIDS." He pointed to his nose. "This is Kaposi's."
I grabbed his hand and arm. "Oh, Keith.”
He shrugged off my reaction, completely cheerful. His doctor had him on a new experimental drug, and he’d gained 13 pounds. "I'm gonna beat it," he said.
Carr conveys so much in this simple description: "I grabbed his hand and arm." In Close to the Knives, Wojnarowicz describes Keith’s death: "I have hold of one leg and his sister one hand Philip another hand or part of his arm and we’re sobbing and I'm totally amazed at how quietly he dies how beautiful everything is with us holding him down on the bed on the floor fourteen stories above the earth." It's as if Carr and Wojnarowicz are invoking a community of gestures in their attempts to hold on to the dying. She describes "the new world of disharmony we were about to inhabit as we lost so many people who were not supposed to be dead."
Note Carr’s “we.” This is not just a story about an explosive artist who led a tumultuous life, or even an explosive artist and his equally dynamic and equally complicated friends. It's a story about "us." As the book progresses, we get more and more bulletins about the deaths of David's contemporaries, starting with the death of photographer Peter Hujar, David’s mentor and father figure and continuing with a tidal wave that culminates in one-line announcements of the deaths of writer Cookie Mueller, artist Keith Haring, and gallery owner Dean Savard.
Shortly after David's own AIDS diagnosis in 1988, he created his largest solo gallery show, “In the Shadow of Forward Motion.” In the notes for the catalog, he wrote in part, "Hell is a place on earth. Heaven is a place in your head," which would end up in Close to the Knives. These two simple sentences encapsulate what makes David's work so lucid -- it’s body and mind, reality and dreaming, softness and tirade all at once. Perhaps it's strange that the title of Carr’s biography refers not to one of David's more developed works but to an unfinished film, especially when Carr reveals her opinion that David’s films are “the weakest part of his oeuvre.” (I firmly agree.)
It’s Wojnarowicz’s film A Fire in My Belly that most recently granted him posthumous notoriety when it was removed from a 2010 exhibition about gay identity in art at the National Portrait Gallery called “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” The show drew the ire of Catholic League president Bill Donohue, who called the film "hate speech" because in one segment it depicts fire ants crawling over a crucifix. By referencing Fire in My Belly in the title of her biography, perhaps Carr (or the publisher) wanted to build on the publicity generated by recent news headlines. While the particular work it references strikes me as little more than a disturbing sequence of images, its title nevertheless strongly evokes David's sensibilities. Perhaps it makes sense to choose the title of an unfinished work to describe the life of someone who died far too soon, at age 37.
In Fire in the Belly, Carr details the censorship battles of the late-‘80s and early-‘90s that Wojnarowicz and many other artists became embroiled in. Her descriptions of the events are nuanced and engaging, but she sometimes fixates on the same distinctions as the demagogues demanding the end of the National Endowment for the Arts. Wojnarowicz became a direct target of the Christian right due to his catalog essay for “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing,” curated by photographer Nan Goldin, a historic show of artists’ responses to the AIDS crisis that opened at the end of 1989. David's essay, "Postcards from America: X-Rays from Hell," is one of the most direct examples of the impact of his ability to politicize anger. Here he declares: "WHEN I WAS TOLD THAT I'D CONTRACTED THIS VIRUS IT DIDN'T TAKE ME LONG TO REALIZE THAT I'D CONTRACTED A DISEASED SOCIETY AS WELL." This is also the piece where he describes Cardinal O'Connor as a “fat cannibal from that house of walking swastikas."
The censors predictably branded the show "obscene," and Carr responds that “None of this was pornographic, none of it obscene." But the real issue, as Wojnarowicz makes clear in his catalog essay, is who decides: one person's elegant imagination is another person’s pornography. To argue about whether a work is or is not obscene already capitulates to the demagogues’ terms.
Carr makes a similar argument when introducing the controversy around A Fire in the Belly 20 years later, where the film was described as "an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season." Carr replies that David "never saw his work as provocation," and that, even though he frequently criticized the viciousness of the Catholic Church, the image of ants crawling over the crucifix in this case was meant to invoke "humanity rushing along heedless of what lies under its tiny feet." Perhaps, but rather than arguing only about intent, shouldn't we be defending the right to make anti-religious speech?
Carr’s critique of A Fire in My Belly along artistic lines is more nuanced. She emphasizes the way that in Wojnarowicz’s most successful artwork he always peels layers back to reveal the detritus (and possibility) underneath. "But he never found a way to do that with film," Carr maintains, and perhaps that's why he viewed his films as works-in-progress. While Carr insists on honing to the intended message of this unfinished work, she is unhesitant in weighing in on the meaning of David’s Untitled (Falling Buffalo) photo featured on the cover of Close to the Knives (and later a U2 album cover). Again, David describes this piece in his notes as something more generally about structures of power and oppression. But, Carr states, "to me, this image is about the AIDS crisis, about those who ended up going off a cliff because they did not know that they were headed for one." This interpretation greatly enriches the work. Similarly, it's hard to imagine watching A Fire in My Belly without thinking about the violence of the Catholic Church or the horrors of the AIDS crisis.
Throughout Carr’s biography, when mentioning her relationship with David she emphasizes that they were only acquaintances, but at the end she surprises us by showing how they become close in the final days of his life: she hears about his declining health (and banishing of many close friends), and volunteers to bring him groceries or to do laundry. "I don't know why he let me into his life at this point," Carr reveals, but her first-person stories of visiting him in the hospital are stunning in their compassion and nuance: perhaps he needed another witness. Describing a hospital visit with David on Christmas Eve, Carr writes "The ward reeked of Elizabeth Taylor's Passion for Men, which had been distributed to everyone as a gift, and it felt impossible to have a regular conversation amid the chaos and noise: TVs blasting, people shouting, carolers bumming everybody out."
Later Carr describes a conversation where David, suffering from AIDS-related dementia, asks if she ever runs into Luis Frangella, an artist friend who had died of AIDS a year-and-a-half before:
He told me that Luis was sick. If I went to Argentina, could I take him some money? "Of course," I told him. David seemed relieved.
"I love you and think of you all the time," I said.
"Vice versa," he replied. "Is it horrible to say vice versa? Tom gets upset with me when I say that."
I told him it was fine for me, but maybe in Tom's case he could tell him he loved him.
Tom was Wojnarowicz’s last boyfriend, whom Carr describes as one of the two great romantic loves of his life. This conversation is illuminating not just for what it reveals about David, but for what it tells us about Carr: her concern for this person whom she knew mostly through his work. Because of how she knew him through his work. Her concern for Tom, whom she has only recently met. It's this sense of care that makes the book not just a tender biography of one brazen individual but an intimate text displaying the possibilities of connection in the face of adversity. Though I only knew David through his work, he helped me to imagine how desire and critical engagement could encourage self-determination, community-building, and a relentless demand for accountability. The cultures he spoke for have been annihilated not just by AIDS but by the relentlessness of gentrification and the callousness of gay powerbrokers in furthering cultural erasure in the service of a sanitized, straight-friendly version of gay identity. The landscape is glossier and more brutal; I worry that the communal possibilities David Wojnarowicz helped me to imagine grow further and further away.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (mattildabernsteinsycamore.com) is most recently the editor of Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform