All the images were all very simple images, but I just wanted to record things that I didn’t see people recording and painting at that time. You know, I wanted to record my own history—or a different history—and that’s what painting originally was for me. All the paintings are diaries that I saw as proof of my own existence.
David Wojnarowicz recorded more than paintings. From film to audiotape to the history he passed through, Wojnarowicz sought to imbue every one of his experiences and expressions with political urgency. It got him in hot water with the powers that be, but it also made his work impossible to ignore. And that went for everybody: Those just getting by on Skid Row, the high-end art collectors from the Upper West Side, or a Republican Representative from California.
All are recounted in the new documentary from Chris McKim, Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker, now playing Boulder’s Dairy Art Center’s virtual theater. Though McKim cribs his subtitle from one of Wojnarowicz’s more famous works (pictured above), the intense slur also gets to the heart of Wojnarowicz’s work and struggle: Being queer in America—a phrase that had less to do with love and acceptance and more to do with aggressive, in-your-face declarations.
Traversing Wojnarowicz’s life from a broken home in New Jersey to his death from AIDS at the age of 37 in 1992, Wojnarowicz focuses mainly on the artist’s NYC years. Wojnarowicz recounted these encounters on audiotape, which McKim uses as narration over archival footage. McKim employs a similar tactic with his contemporary interviews—notably Fran Lebowitz and Gracie Mansion—to provide context: All are heard; none but one are seen.
What emerges from these early years is the tension between New York City, New York City artists, and New York City players. Back then, people and parts of the city were expendable. And those who lived there did so in a military state. To express this, Wojnarowicz used whatever was handy: Supermarket advertisements, street poles, blank walls, driftwood—you name it, Wojnarowicz wasn’t above tagging and transforming it. And what started as graffiti stencils became works the rich and famous had to collect.
Which only increased the tension between Wojnarowicz and the world. Unfortunately, Wojnarowicz doesn’t accomplish the same. The doc is an informative introduction to the man’s life and work, but with its emphasis on archival footage—manipulated to add film sprocket holes—and talking heads narration, little of Wojnarowicz feels as punk, or as confrontational, as the art depicted on screen. Some of Wojnarowicz’s best works were subversive images depicting the diseased society all around him. Why then is the movie about him so pleasant?
Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker (2020)
Directed by Chris McKim
Produced by Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato, Chris McKim
Kino Lorber, Not rated, Running time 118 minutes, Opens March 19, 2021.
Header photo: David Wojnarowicz, Fuck You Faggot Fucker, 1984 © Estate of David Wojnarowicz. Courtesy of the Estate and P.P.O.W