Film review: ‘Wojnarowicz’ offers a glimpse of the artist as protester

Documentary details how rage played a role in creativity


David Wojnarowicz was one of New York’s most outspoken artists in the late 1980s, and he had his reasons. He was diagnosed with AIDS at a time when few resources were available for treatment. And he knew he was going to die, like so many of his friends.

So he used his underground art to comment on a disease that was ravaging gay New York. His visual art including all sorts of media, from simple drawings to paintings and stencils and found objects.

He was a regular at abandoned pier buildings in New York, where outcasts gathered not only to create art but also to have sex. And he was unapologetic about his life. In fact, he was in your face, which accounts for the subtitle of this documentary: “F**ck You F*aggot F**cker.”

Director Chris McKim uses material that Wojnarowicz left behind after his death in in 1992, when the artist was only 37. And Wojnarowicz left behind lots of material, most notably his art, but also writings and audio and video recordings.

Although a distinct outsider for most of his life Wojnarowicz benefited from being part of the East Village art scene and ended up with an exhibit at the Whitney. The documentary, in fact, ends with a Whitney retrospective featuring the artist’s partner, Tom Rauffenbart.

If you lived through the early AIDS era, you know that the epidemic was met with fear-mongering. Could you get AIDS simply be standing next to an infected person? If you came into contact with their saliva, would you get the disease? And most of all, AIDS was met with relative indifference by the Reagan administration. These factors, of course, enraged Wojnarowicz, and the stark nature of his art embodied that rage.

Typical of the times — and still typical today — was the controversy over whether his art should be subsidized with federal funds through grants and exhibits by the National Endowment of the Arts.

While focusing mainly on the art and archival materials, McKim also interviews Wojnarowicz’s friends and fellow artists, most notably the New York writer and wit Fran Lebowitz.

The film also explores his relationship with the photographer Peter Hujar, who died in 1987 from AIDS. And it connects that relationship to Wojnarowicz’s growing activism, which led him to use his art to support ACT-UP.

There’s still considerable debate over the merits of Wojnarowicz’s art. It has remained relevant, however, in its historical context.

The documentary is streaming at the Austin Film Society’s website, Kino Marquee, which is distributing the film, plans a wider release on May 18.

Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

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