Where Are All the Angry Young Men?

7.16.2012

By John Reed

Cynthia Carr's book, 'Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz' looks at one young artist's constructive rage. It should be the cultural biography of the year.

In the late '70s, Wojnarowicz moved from one New York City neighborhood to another, Hell’s Kitchen to the East Village to Dumbo, fashioning himself a writer in the tradition of the beats (William Burroughs), evading work, and embarking on a series of photos, men in Rimbaud masks (sometimes sexual images, sometimes not), that would mark his metamorphosis; he was an artist willing to take on wildly disparate subjects, and to do it with paint, with photographs, with film, with performance, with sculpture. 

Which leads to the other reason the first decade of the 21st century turned away from Wojnarowicz.  There wasn’t enough stuff to sell. Keith Haring’s estate, to a lesser degree, faced the same problem.  Curations of Haring’s bigger scale works, on drop cloths and tarps, try to push the collectible object, but Haring is lost in the presentation.  Haring would talk to you in the street, and marker a dog onto the cover of your new CD.  That was the social revolution Haring was after. Infinite reproducibility. Which is, in a great irony, his saving grace in a market economy.  Advertising.  November, ‘86, Haring’s major unveiling at the Whitney: Absolut Haring, an advertising campaign for the vodka.  Andy Warhol had recommended Jean-Michel Basquiat for the gig, Basquiat couldn’t make up his mind, and Warhol tossed it to Haring. In retrospect, we think of Haring and Basquiat as East Village personas.  In fact, Basquiat and Haring, while they showed in the East Village, were standard bearers for Soho—Soho being Uptown’s answer to a very dangerous threat to its hegemony, the East Village.

Writes Carr: “David complained that, during his first show, someone at the Milliken Gallery had said to him: ‘Why can’t you be like Keith Haring—full of fun?’  David’s work was full of sex and violence—politics expressed at the level of the body.  He painted distress.  Soldiers and bombers.  Falling buildings and junkies.  His images had the tension of some niceness opened up to its ruined heart.  ... David would expose the Real Deal under the artifacts—wars and rumors of wars, industrial wastelands, mythological beasts, and the evolutionary spectrum from dinosaur to humanity’s rough beast.”

As the East Village community took shape—and it was a community, unlike the loose affiliation of enemies that constituted the 57th Street art scene—Wojnarowicz found a venue to show his work, and a support system to fabricate it.  At that time, the challenges of process were significant, but the East Village’s casual barter atmosphere allowed Wojnarowicz to get what he needed—art supplies to photographic prints.  Carr’s account would have benefitted from some additional context—at least to say collaboration was an active political statement, and creative model (last year, Alan Moore looked at New York collaboration, 1960s to '80s, in Art Gangs: Protest and Counterculture in New York City, released by Autonomedia).  The East Village art experiment was consciously dismantling categories, redefining the artist, the critic, the art dealer.  Concurrent to the East Village arts scene, an East Village literary scene was flourishing (check out Up Is Up But So Is Down: New York’s Downtown LIterary Scene, 1974-1992, from New York University Press) and it’s only an anachronistic mindset that allows a clear distinction.  But if Carr doesn’t make the argument, she provides the evidence; her portrait of Wojnarowicz and his circles is sensitive, unimpeachable, peerless, and in all likelihood the biography of the year.  Fire in the Belly is an extraordinarily human account, and Carr achieves the rare and unique biographical ideal: time travel.

"Wojnarowicz Wall Drawing at Pier 34," 1983;  color photograph by unidentified photographer

Perhaps the East Village was not Eden: drugs, crime, decay, and still, there was the egoism of artistry, the claims of origins and carping in the ranks. But the era was one of artistic freedom.  Freedom, in the financial sense: artists were setting up studios for close to nothing, and for literally nothing in the thriving arts hive of the then abandoned Pier 34.  Freedom, as well, in the collaborative sense—images were developed in a larger creative consciousness.  Following Robin Winter’s 1979 “The Dog Show,” artists, including Haring and Wojnarowicz, looked to dogs as part of their visual language. 

Animals, in particular, were a recurring theme: 1979’s “Animals in the City,” at ABC No Rio, returned for an encore engagement in 1980.  Christy Rupp, the curator of “Animals in the City,” contributed something of an overall aesthetic, which can be felt in Wojnarowicz’s “cockabunnies” (cockroaches with rabbit ears and tails glued to them) and his iconographic puking cow. Haring’s pigs recall the pig fixation of Debbie Davis (who Haring included in his Club 57 Twenty-five Artists show of 1980), and his aliens harken to the the aliens of Rich Colicchio, founder of the East Village gallery, 51X.  Christof Kohlhofer’s “25 Billion Dollars,” which showed in the epochal 1980 Times Square show, is of a piece with Wojnarowicz’s use of U.S. currency in the late '80s.  The associations are seemingly endless, and invoke an artist’s Canaan, and what might have been, had it not been for the mysterious “gay cancer” that first hit the news in New York in 1981.

For all its promise, the storm of excitement that swept over East Village art left little behind but rubble and the few successes who washed up in Soho.  David was one of the successes, but his relationship to the more conservative Soho environment, which wanted paintings (and not particularly toothy ones), was tenuous, and he was emblematic of the East Village, which had become busied and hypocritical, and the target of a negative publicity campaign mounted by Soho. In the midst of what would later be called the AIDS crisis, the East Village wasn’t capable of self defense. Wojnarowicz witnessed the death of many of his closest friends, among them his mentor, photographer Peter Hujar, who is best-known for his portrait, "Candy Darling on Her Deathbed," and emerged from his own diagnosis enraged, productive—his work defied the presumption that art is apolitical, that beauty is bald of activist consciousness.

(Pictured: Christof Kohlhofer's “25 Billion Dollars,” 1980, wallpaper fragment from the Times Square Show)

Tags: Art & Books
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