Almost thirty years since David Wojnarowicz succumbed to AIDS, Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker, a movie about his life by director Chris McKim and produced by World of Wonder’s Randy Barbato & Fenton Bailey, captures his spirit because it’s made entirely of media from the artist’s archives. Wojnarowicz’s largesse of spirit couldn’t be contained to one artistic medium. He wrote, shot photography, painted, was a performance artist, played in the band 4 Teens Kill 3, and was an activist in ACT UP. If he were beginning his career today people would label him with the uninformative term “interdisciplinary multi-media artist” to try and snuff out his voice. Thankfully, his prodigious talent included scrupulous recordings capturing his profound thoughts and voicemails from people in his life. It takes David Wojnarowicz’s own words to tell his story; including an explanation of the movie’s provocative subtitle. It comes from David’s 1984 piece that has a scrap of paper he found which includes the phrase and drawing of two men having sex.
McKim keeps the story moving at a breakneck pace, capturing the influential chaos that Wojnarowicz whipped up around him, and how quickly spaces transformed by his touch. One sequence explores how the artist transformed a pier the size of a few football fields on the west side of Manhattan into a space where artists created work installations, using debris and the tools of their discipline. Before you know it, the pier is filled with art and fashion magazines show up for shoots. The transformation comes with the unintended consequence of popularizing the space which pushed out people who used the pier for sex. It became so popular that the city tore it down. It was dangerous to begin with, but the deteriorating structure couldn’t handle the amount of traffic it received. You can add the pier to the long history of gentrification in New York: artists move into free/affordable spaces, they make it interesting and liveable, then less interesting people with more money show up and ruin it.
Everything Wojnarowicz created was born of rage toward an unjust homelife as a child. His father abused him and when he moved in with his mother in Hell’s Kitchen at age 11, things weren’t much better. He started hustling on the street and spent time with seedy characters who introduced him to damaging coping mechanisms. His upbringing left him angry and it shows up in his art, including installations he made for the rich art patrons of New York, whom he disdained. The Mnuchin family (parents to Trump’s Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin) paid David to install whatever he wanted in their basement. He pocketed the money and proceeded to find the nastiest things he could include in the piece, like bugs, a tree, and cow skull––accented with rotting street garbage. If he had to work for arguably the worst people in Manhattan, David made sure they regretted it by infesting their home with insects. He had similar trouble with allowing his work to be shown at the 1985 Whitney Biennial because he hated his art being reduced to a product for purchase.
Wojnarowicz was diagnosed with HIV in 1989. His politics were revealed in his work, but the politics of the era and the politics of life and death intersected with Wojnarowicz’s fight to live. He contributed to the fight against conservative government that allowed thousands of gay men to die of AIDS. His contributions include making a jacket for a protest at the F.D.A. that reads, “If I die of AIDS––forget burial––just drop my body on the steps of the F.D.A.” It’s in all caps and imposed over the famous pink triangle adopted by gay men from the Nazis who created it to label homosexuals. David’s political art also threatened his income. The NEA withdrew funding because they thought his work was objectionable, but it was apparent they were on a political witch hunt and his grant was reinstated. He dealt with more cases like this for the rest of his short life, but he also contributed millions thanks to a partnership with a rock band. Before Wojnarowicz died on July 22, 1992 in his apartment above the Village East Cinema, U2 chose his piece “1988-89 Untitled (Falling Buffalo)” for their single “One” and gave all of the proceeds to AIDS research.
One problem with projects like these, even for an artist as difficult to summarize as Wojnarowicz, is that the small NYC art scene of the 70s and 80s was filled with the same people, and try as they might to keep each documentary focused on their protagonist, their stories overlap. Robert Mapplethorpe, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and others appear in each other’s documentaries, and it’s beginning to feel like the equivalent of superheroes showing up in post-credit sequences. It’s perhaps not fair to make the comparison, but the narrative of grouping fiercely independent and political artists feels like cultural runoff from the now-popular cinematic universes becoming the primary way we relate artist to artist. McKim avoids some of that trope by not showing Wojnarowicz’s still-living friends on camera. He interviewed writer Fran Lebowitz and photographer Nan Goldin for the project and their voices show up periodically with insight into Wojnarowicz’s work and their friendship, but they don’t distract from the story.
Keeping Wojnarowicz’s friends off screen reveals itself as a strategic. When his lover Tom Rauffenbart appears on camera for Whitney Museum of American Art’s retrospective “David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night,” we’ve heard his voice and know his story. Wojnarowicz told Rauffenbart early in their relationship his priorities were: Peter Hujar, who was more or less his mentor, his work, and then his partner. Rauffenbart comes to terms and lives with it, knowing Wojnarowicz’s relationship with Hujar was foundational to everything he did and wasn’t a threat. With Rauffenbart in a wheelchair when we see him, the retrospective is wrenching for his broken heart, and this reveal as a mourning, older man is a gut punch.
Earlier in the film, Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association attacked Wojnarowicz’s work and said the NEA was “at it again” promoting anti-Christian values. When presented with the claim, the artist said, and I paraphrase: Jesus is the man of sorrows and he’s here to cleanse us of our sins. If that meant taking on the pain of a junkie then that’s what Christ would have to do. This explains David’s art to a degree; it’s filled with unimaginable pain from people that society cast aside, unless they can make a few bucks off them. His music, words, and pictures helped shape the queer voice that manifest in the protests of ACT UP and shows up today, when in the summer of 2020, the Queer Liberation March overtook the cultral space the corporate Gay Pride March held in New York City. Wojnarowicz’s ethos that art and people aren’t products is still highly contested in political and artistic spaces. Chris McKim’s documentary is an amalgamation of everything David Wojnarowicz leaves behind to inspire rebellion beyond the grave.
Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker is now playing in Virtual Cinemas via Kino Marquee.