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David Wojnarowicz, a key figure of the 1980s art movement that flowered in the pavement cracks of New York’s pre-gentrified East Village, died of AIDS in 1992 at age 37. But Chris McKim’s defiantly alive collage documentary, Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker, is so charged with the words and images of the multimedia artist it could almost be considered self-portraiture, often recalling Jonathan Caouette’s remarkable docu-narrative hybrid Tarnation. Assembled from the photographs, paintings and audio and video journals that Wojnarowicz recorded for most of his life, this impassioned personal testament should continue the work of the Whitney Museum’s celebrated 2018 retrospective in amplifying a radical voice that remains urgent and relevant.
Produced by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s World of Wonder stable, whose documentary division has been a major source of queer culture commentary, the film will have its world premiere at DOC NYC’s 2020 virtual edition, running Nov. 11-19. (It was originally scheduled to debut at the Tribeca Film Festival in April.)
By the mid ’70s, the contemporary art world in New York had consolidated around SoHo, but the downtown scene of the Lower East Side and East Village gave rise to more anti-establishment forces. These grew more political during the Reagan administration, with work that reacted against the new authoritarianism, social stratification, poverty and AIDS. Among the artists who evolved out of the graffiti wave, Wojnarowicz has not received the attention of others like Keith Haring or Jean-Michel Basquiat. But his work is as fascinating as the troubled life to which it’s indivisibly bound, all of it distilled with rage, pain and vitality in McKim’s immersive film.
The director had access to an extraordinary archive of materials — not just Wojnarowicz’s journals, artworks, published monologues, super 8 films and undeveloped photographs, but even a trove of answering machine messages and recorded conversations, suggesting the instinct of an obsessive Proustian memoirist even from a young age. This continued as his artistic voice evolved: “All the paintings are diaries that I always saw as proof of my own existence,” he says at one point.
Snippets of home movies and photographs, as well as comments from his siblings, sketch his difficult upbringing in New Jersey with an abusive father. His mother moved them to Hell’s Kitchen in New York City when David was 11, but he frequently ran away, living in a halfway house and surviving as a gay street hustler during his teenage years.
The strength of McKim’s film, from the outset, is the extent to which he channels Wojnarowicz’s own perspective on these experiences. He effectively removes the distance between observer and subject, often emulating the mixed-media techniques the artist used, with helpful visual linkage here from animator Grant Nellessen and graphics and animation designer Good Radar. Edited by David Stanke with kinetic energy and a probing eye for detail, the package is appropriately scrappy and rough-edged, never slick.
The doc is framed by footage of Wojnarowicz in 1989, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, when his own HIV positive status and the death of his former lover and longtime mentor Peter Hujar had amped up the activist current in his work. He talks about being a gay man with AIDS and no health insurance, legislated into silence in a period when queer art is under attack. He experienced that conservative heat first-hand, when Jesse Helms and others protested the public funding of his work, as they had with Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano.
Signature stencil works by Wojnarowicz first appeared in New York public spaces — the burning house, the cow head, the fighter planes and soldiers. And at a time when gallerists were adopting a DIY attitude to exhibition venues, Wojnarowicz was at the forefront as he drew fellow artists to populate a vast abandoned warehouse on the Hudson River, nestled in among the piers he knew intimately as a gay cruising ground.
The find of boxes of psych evaluation documentation and drawings from Bellevue Hospital was typical of the use of found objects by artists like Wojnarowicz. But perhaps the most significant example in his work is the scribbled piece of homophobic graffiti that gives McKim’s film its subtitle and also provided the title for a photo-painting collage that David sold for a then-whopping $3,000 in 1984. One of the many curators, art critics, gallerists and friends interviewed in the film defines the emerging sensibility in his art as “not gay as in ‘I love you’ but gay as in ‘I’m queer, fuck off.'”
The film traces the emerging conflict of political consciousness between Wojnarowicz’s success and his rejection of the elite capitalist gallery system. One amusing anecdote reveals how he accepted a high-paying commission for Adriana and Robert Mnuchin (the latter the father of Trump Treasury appointee Steven Mnuchin) and then horrified them by creating a basement installation out of bug-infested trash.
The roots of his art are explicitly traced back to the violence and trauma of his childhood in a 1985 short film Wojnarowicz made with writer-director Richard Kern called You Killed Me First. David played a version of his father opposite performance artist Karen Finley as his mother in a takedown of petit-bourgeois family respectability. Another of Wojnarowicz’s key collaborations in the ’80s was with the band 3 Teens Kill 4, whose grungy, low-tech art-rock, often using found samples of recorded material, provides the soundtrack for McKim’s film.
While an ultimatum from Hujar put a stop to Wojnarowicz’s heroin use, the decline in his health in the latter part of the ’80s and early ’90s brings blistering poignancy to the documentary, making this another unique contribution to the rich canon of nonfiction films on the AIDS crisis.
The fire in David’s belly was lit with Hujar’s death in 1987 at 53, just 11 months after he tested positive for HIV. Footage of Wojnarowicz and his boyfriend Tom Rauffenbart at ACT UP protests during the years when the Reagan administration and the FDA were dragging their heels on AIDS funding still packs an emotional wallop. One memorable image reproduced widely shows them lying in the street, stretched out in front of painted tombstones, an example of the inextricable intertwining of art and politics in Wojnarowicz’s later life.
David’s writing also became more politically charged and angry during this time. Its full power is unleashed in his introductory remarks at the opening of “Tongues of Flame,” a 1990 exhibition at Illinois State University which became controversial due to complaints from family-values conservatives who dubbed it “An orgy of depravity.” His words and images often point back to the formative influences of outlaw artists Genet and especially Rimbaud, whose photographed face David wore as a mask in early performance art.
Among the most illuminating interviewees is Wojnarowicz’s friend Fran Lebowitz, who speaks passionately about his value as an artist far outlasting that of the critics and gallerists who blew hot and cold on him. Incisive social context also comes from culture critic Carlo McCormick, one of the foremost chroniclers of the downtown scene, who reminds us how threatening much of the world found New York back then: “We were a bunch of junkies and cocksuckers as far as the rest of America was concerned.”
McKim closes with touching footage of Rauffenbart and other intimates previewing the Whitney show, titled “History Keeps Me Awake at Night.” The Rimbaud mask, suspended in a glass display case, makes it seem as though Wojnarowicz is very much still present.
Venue: DOC NYC
Production company: World of Wonder, WOW Docs
Director: Chris McKim
Producers: Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato, Chris McKim
Director of photography: Jake Clennell
Music: 3 Teens Kill 4
Editor: David Stanke
Sales: Cinetic Media
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