Review: 'Wojnarowicz' takes a collage-like approach to an artist who raged in the age of AIDS

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Robert Abele
·4 min read
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Untitled (Falling Buffalo), 1988-89, by David Wojnarowicz, from the documentary "Wojnarowicz."
Untitled (Falling Buffalo), 1988-89, by David Wojnarowicz, from the documentary "Wojnarowicz." (Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W./Kino Lorber)



The late queer artist and activist David Wojnarowicz, a roiling messenger who packed a lot of fire and feeling into his time on earth, could even get his adversaries to respond with art. In 1990, when conservative religious scold Donald Wildmon sent to politicians and media outlets a pamphlet featuring snippets of Wojnarowicz’s more provocative imagery from an NEA-funded show addressing the AIDS crisis, the crude, selective sampling was a supreme irony: Did Wildmon realize he was answering a master of collage with his own hate-driven mutation of the form?

Probably not, but a meaningful victory for free expression was exacted from this proxy fight: Wojnarowicz’s successful authorship lawsuit against the obscenity crusader’s misrepresentation of the spirituality, sex, politics and intelligence that distinguished his multi-disciplined work in the downtown New York art scene of the 1980s. Even today, almost 30 years after the HIV-diagnosed artist’s death in 1992 at 37, Chris McKim’s lively movie about Wojnarowicz boasts a typographic collage in its alarming title, which references a 1984 painting: “Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker.”

When you learn that the words were first some scrawled homophobia Wojnarowicz found on a discarded scrap, before it became the name of an evocatively sensual collage piece, and now a biodoc subtitle cheekily asterisked, you get a sense of how a brilliant mind from a troubled childhood could turn hate into art into legacy, the stuff of a still controversial, powerful queer identity.

Born into an abusive New Jersey household from which he escaped into a teenage freedom of sorts hustling in New York in the early ‘70s, Wojnarowicz quickly took to a burgeoning East Village art scene’s scrappy invention and edge. From the stenciled street art days and photographs under beloved mentor/friend Peter Hujar to his punk music performances with 3 Teens Kill 4, to the books, paintings, and installations that cemented his place, Wojnarowicz’s work trafficked in worthy, daily rage at an America (especially under Ronald Reagan) that was consumptive and cruel, even as his text and iconography often revealed an abiding sensitivity and love of beauty.

“We rise to greet the state, to confront the state,” are some of the first of many words from Wojnarowicz that we hear in the film, thanks to the trove of accessed home cassette tapes McKim deploys as a running audio-journal narrative alongside voiceover interviews with the likes of Fran Lebowitz, Gracie Mansion, partner Tom Rauffenbart, Wojnarowicz’s brother Steven, and others close to him.

It’s perhaps not surprising that McKim is also inspired to adopt his subject’s all-styles style, affecting a busy, patchwork mode of manipulated visuals, artwork, footage, and bites of sound routinely feeding each other. So frenzied an archival approach doesn’t always allow us the ideal chance to sit with Wojnarowicz’s better known work, or ruminate on a voiced idea, or let a biographical detail sink in, but the rattling, pulsating effect — this isn’t a gallery show, or a lecture, after all — has a crafty way of honoring a wildly creative individual driven to make the hidden visible and undeniable, as a matter of survival.

Untitled (Face in Dirt), 1990, by David Wojnarowicz, from the documentary "Wojnarowicz."
Untitled (Face in Dirt), 1990, by David Wojnarowicz, from the documentary "Wojnarowicz." (Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W./Kino Lorber)

As with most art biodocs, the human contours of Wojnarowicz’s life are more affecting than the career trajectory bits (although his indifference to fostering any kind of art career is itself illuminating). The story of his installation for wealthy collectors the Mnuchins (Steven’s parents) is prankishly funny, and his repurposing an abandoned pier inspiring. His intensified radicalization as the AIDS crisis codified gay hatred is a lesson in righteous battling against time, while the devastation to him of its claiming Hujar — Wojnarowicz’s first dedicated supporter/teacher, whose voice we hear throughout on those tapes — is made achingly clear.

Restless and bracing, “Wojnarowicz” gives a notorious life its due. Even at its clunkiest, it leaves you breathless at the heights of personal expression he achieved. You can’t shake Wojnarowicz’s raw, striking visuals, or unhear his fiery monologues on outsiderdom, or detach yourself from the culture, society, and power structures his work indicts.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.