Brush Fires in the Social Landscape

ALMOST TWENTY YEARS after his death, David Wojnarowicz returned to public view. His renaissance began in 2010, with the uproar that followed the Smithsonian’s banning of his film Fire in My Belly, and continued in 2012, with the publication of Cynthia Carr’s remarkable biography. Now, Aperture’s twentieth-anniversary, expanded edition of Brush Fires shines a welcome light back on Wojnarowicz’s work itself, providing a compelling history of his photographic practice. An artist, writer, and AIDS activist, Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) was also a dazzlingly inventive photographer. In fact, photography was his first medium. As a teenage hustler living on the streets of Manhattan in the early 1970s, he used a stolen camera to document an existence and milieu he understood even then were being silenced and marginalized.

Brush Fires was originally published in 1994, two years after Wojnarowicz died of AIDS, bringing works like “Rimbaud in New York” to a larger audience. This volume, which has been substantially redesigned, includes more of Wojnarowicz’s own writing as well as new essays by artists, critics, and friends, including Carr, Lynne Tillman, and Karen Finley, and work by artists he inspired such as Emily Roysdon and Zoe Strauss. Revisiting Wojnarowicz’s varied photographic output is a reminder that, though formally untrained, he was a radically gifted experimenter, migrating through media and techniques that combine photographic images with paint and collages and that testify to a vision at once mythic and politically engaged.

One of Wojnarowicz’s most remarkable pieces here is the “Sex Series (for Marion Scemama),” a miracle of technical prowess and visual intensity. Wojnarowicz began it in 1988, a year after the photographer Peter Hujar, his close friend and former lover, died of AIDS. These photomontages combine stock photographs with circular insets salvaged from Hujar’s porn collection, which he’d thrown away after his diagnosis.

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled, 1988–89, gelatin silver print, 20 × 24". From “Sex Series (for Marion Scemama),” 1988–89. The estate of David Wojnarowicz, courtesy P.P.O.W Gallery, New York

Much of Wojnarowicz’s work is about sex in an age of death. During the AIDS crisis, sexual activity, particularly that of gay men, was demonized. Resisting the dogma and censorship of the Right’s conservatism and the Left’s moralism alike, the “Sex Series” vibrates with anxious and desirous energy, a mood amplified by the eerie reversal of the printing process, in which light and dark have been inverted to create a near negative. In one untitled work from the series (above), a moonlike inset floats above the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. Inside it, one man is rimming another, a tongue protruding into the glowing aperture between spread thighs. It’s a telescopic incursion of the private into the public, a way of placing the unwanted and dismissed back in the frame. In her introduction, editor Melissa Harris says she was “overwhelmed and undone” on first encountering Wojnarowicz’s work. The word undone attests to his capacity for making an emotional connection with viewers, but also to the magical way in which his art seems even now to rewrite the world by restoring that which has been written out of history.