The Fires of Groundbreaking Queer Artist David Wojnarowicz

David Wojnarowicz with Tom Warren “Self Portrait of David Wojnarowicz,” 1983-84
David Wojnarowicz with Tom Warren “Self Portrait of David Wojnarowicz,” 1983-84
Image: Courtesy of the artist, the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W. (provided by Cinetic Marketing & PR

Lest you assume you’d be signing up for a stuffy art history lesson or, even worse, a “wholesome” family-viewing experience by turning on a documentary about militantly queer multimedia artist David Wojnarowicz, a new documentary about his life and work lays it all out there in its title: Wojnarowicz: Fuck You Faggot Fucker.

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“The spirit of the title speaks so much to David’s work, the idea that you’d take this slur... and turn it into beautiful art—finding a way to use it against the people who use it against you,” explained the doc’s director Chris McKim to Jezebel by phone this week. “Of course there’s the spirit of reappropriating but it’s also audacious and in your face. It’s not my inclination to hold back or self-censor, but David being who he is, it was even more important to make sure that enough his intent was there.”

As art critic Carlo McCormick puts it in the doc, Wojnarowicz’s sensibility was: “I’m not gay as in I love you, I’m queer as in fuck off.” The doc’s subtitle comes from one of Wojnarowicz’s pieces, a collage featuring pictures of him and artist John Hall naked at New York’s historic Christodora House and a drawing on a map of two boys kissing. The artwork had, in turn, gotten its name from a homophobic scrawling paper scrap Wojnarowicz found. Not quite a pièce de résistance, Fuck You Faggot Fucker is but one of hundreds of remarkable creations (including sculpture, installations, writing, music, street art, and film) that Wojnarowicz completed before dying of AIDS in 1992. Critic and Wojnarowicz biographer Cynthia Carr wrote in Interview in 2012 that Wojnarowicz was “one of the prickliest, most mercurial, hard-to-pin-down experimenters of American art.”

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“Rather than single out a piece and say, ‘This is his most important work,’ it really is that idea that in the end it was the collective body of work and it was the way he used his life in his work to make a change in the world while being true to what he wanted to do,” explained McKim. “That to me is incredibly inspiring.”

McKim, who was the showrunner of RuPaul’s Drag Race during its first four seasons, produced Wojnarowicz: Fuck You Faggot Fucker alongside Drag Race production team World of Wonder. Wojnarowicz’s estate, which is managed by the artist’s final gallery PPOW and Tom Rauffenbart, Wojnarowicz’s partner who died in 2019, provided a trove of material: more than 20 hours of Super 8 film (some of which hadn’t been developed), about 10,000 photographs, and around 200 hours of audio, which included journal footage and answering machine messages. Via the latter, we hear the voice of Wojnarowicz’s close friend and collaborator, famed New York photographer Peter Hujar, whose AIDS-related death in 1987 Wojnarowicz documented closely in his work. NYU additionally has a large online archive of Wojnarowicz’s work.

“David guided the way and we sort of went on this serendipitous journey,” said McKim, who based the structure of his film primarily on Wojnarowicz’s audio journals. “He was involved in the process. I was afraid I’d do something that would piss him off and he would come haunt me. That was hanging over my head as well.”

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McKim also interviewed a host of Wojnarowicz’s friends and collaborators, including Fran Lebowitz and artist Marion Scemama, but opted to keep his talking heads unseen, which allows the film a frenetic visual pace—its collage-as-bombardment style is very much in the spirit of Wojnarowicz’s work—and a timeless feel. “It was an opportunity for him to seem alive, in a way,” said McKim on his aesthetic decision. “I really wanted to focus on David, and by not seeing folks, the time that had passed wasn’t such a constant reminder.”

Fuck You Faggot Fucker tells Wojnarowicz’s life story, starting with his harrowing childhood. In his home state of New Jersey, he survived horrific abuse from his father, and later in his youth moved to New York City with his mother. He became an underage sex worker on the streets of New York, where he said he nearly died (he was off the streets by age 17 or 18). After briefly moving to Paris, he returned to New York and became involved in the East Village art scene, which had a brief hot moment in the mid-‘80s, during which Wojnarowicz finally began turning a profit after living much of his life in poverty and working for years in obscurity.

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One of the most satisfying anecdotes from the time of Wojnarowicz’s brief prosperity involves an installation Wojnarowicz created for banker/art dealer Robert Mnuchin and Adriana Mnuchin in their Manhattan townhouse. It featured cow skulls covered in maps, Wojnarowicz’s famous Burning Child sculpture, and heaps of trash. With the trash came bugs and the potential to infest the lavish home of the wealthy collectors that Wojnarowicz resented. As with many ahead-of-their-time visionaries, Wojnarowicz’s decades-old work remains relevant but the tension between his artistic integrity and the rich people who could afford his work feels very much a relic of a time long passed in an era when it seems that almost every creator has resigned themselves to selling out. (Incidentally, or maybe not at all, Robert Mnuchin’s son is Steven Mnuchin, Donald Trump’s United States Secretary of the Treasury.)

Like other provocative queer artists of his time, Wojnarowicz became a political target. The National Endowment for the Arts rescinded $15,000 to fund his AIDS-focused “Tongues of Flame” exhibition after Wojnarowicz wrote an essay in which he illustrated the power of imagination by saying he could legally envision dousing Jesse Helms with gasoline, and called homophobic, anti-condom Cardinal John O’Connor “this fat cannibal from that house of walking swastikas.” To explain the decision, NEA chairman John Frohnmayer said, “We find… that a large portion of the content is political rather than artistic in nature.” It was always a laughable observation, but seems so particularly 30 years later, in a time when society is not just on board with the political nature of art—it practically demands that art be politically meaningful.

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“When I contracted this virus, it didn’t take me long to realize I contracted a diseased society as well,” we hear Wojnarowicz say in the film. All these years later, society’s recovery is ambiguous at best. In 2010, Wojnarowicz’s film A Fire in My Belly, which features ants crawling on a crucifix, was pulled from an exhibit Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery after an outcry primarily spearheaded by the Catholic League. On the upside, the Whitney hosted a Wojnarowicz retrospective exhibition in 2018 in which an unsung artist at last received his due.

“He was always searching,” said McKim. “That for me was what was so great about the experience. Everything was so relatable”

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Wojnarowicz: Fuck You Faggot Fucker is available for online viewing via DOC NYC.

Some Pig. Terrific. Radiant. Humble.

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DISCUSSION

I know you don’t read the comments, but thank you for this article, Rich.