When Cynthia Carr, then an arts columnist for the Village Voice, congratulated David Wojnarowicz on his inclusion in the 1985 Whitney Biennial, he told her he hated the art world. “And then,” Carr writes in her definitive biography Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz, “I believe the exact sentence went: ‘If I were straight, I’d move to a small town right now and get a job in a gas station.’” Luckily for that art world, Wojnarowicz was not straight. And it was his outsider status—a gay artist with AIDS during the 1980s culture wars—that fed iconoclastic, aggressive art that is still so polarizing today (his short film Fire in My Belly sparked a censorship scandal in 2010, eighteen years after his death). Marginalization is also the cohesive glue that holds together Carr’s comprehensive account of Wojnarowicz’s life. It’s a harrowing story, spanning his abusive childhood, hustling in Times Square, immersion in the exploding East Village art scene, and eventual death from complications of AIDS in 1992.
Likely as a result of these traumas, Wojnarowicz was notoriously cagey about which parts of himself he would reveal; when Carr set out to write his biography, she was warned that “the mythology” in which Wojnarowicz cloaked himself might make it difficult. He would lie to reporters, or his memory would fail him and he would incorrectly remember dates or details of his abuse—being kidnapped by his alcoholic father or ending up on the streets at age seventeen, for starters. With this roadblock, Carr’s work is as investigative as it is literary. She combs through school records, letters, and multiple overlapping interviews in an attempt to impose some accuracy on the Wojnarowicz myth. Admittedly, the attempt is sometimes futile.
Wojnarowicz’s art is just as difficult to pin down. He was an artistic chameleon, dabbling in drawing, painting, sculpture, street and installation art, photography, film, music, and writing as expressive outlets. In a well-known 1979 photography series Arthur Rimbaud in New York, Wojnarowicz posed friends in various locations he frequented around the city—the subway, Coney Island, the Hudson River piers where he went to pick up men—wearing a mask of Rimbaud, a gay French poet with whom he closely identified. But Carr is quick to note that for Wojnarowicz, art was not always entirely personal. His work, and her prose, is at its most compelling when it connects his struggles to the larger social milieu. In 1981, four years before Wojnarowicz showed at the Whitney, he dumped bloody cow bones outside the heavy-hitter Leo Castelli Gallery, after an art critic belittled his political stenciling. Few saw it, but the ad hoc piece became a legend. He considered it the first of his “action installations,” in which he trampled the art world he thought exclusionary.
Rejection by the high art establishment was not the salient target of Wojnarowicz’s antagonism, though. Carr stitches tales from his life together with news of the concurrently emerging AIDS epidemic, itself an enigma in its early years, and the impending presence of which haunts the book like a specter. For seven months in 1982, after having been previously labeled simply “gay cancer,” AIDS was called GRID: Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. Little was understood of the disease beyond its stigma. Wojnarowicz used art to bash this stigma and the government silence surrounding AIDS, while harnessing the personal grief of having witnessed the deaths of countless friends. The number includes Peter Hujar, a portrait photographer twenty years Wojnarowicz’s senior whom he knew first as a lover and then as a mentor. Wojnarowicz photographed Hujar a moment after his last breath, creating a definitive and utterly haunting image of the AIDS crisis.
Wojnarowicz became a mythical figurehead for AIDS and culture war activism—when he died, he was given the first political funeral for an AIDS death, with an enormous banner reading DAVID WOJNAROWICZ, 1954 – 1992, DIED OF AIDS DUE TO GOVERNMENT NEGLECT as epitaph. No account of his life would be complete without an investigation of his politics. But the distinctive achievement of Carr’s biography is that she captures the mixture of the personal and the political that marked Wojnarowicz’s best work. The two met briefly in 1982 but became close friends only in the months leading up to his death, and Wojnarowicz seemed to open up to her in a way he often did not. The book is exhaustive, at 576-pages on thirty-seven years of life, but Carr’s writing is marked by a loving treatment of Wojnarowicz’s idiosyncratic character. What emerges from the pages is a picture of the man as well as the myth.