David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night
Jul 13–Sep 30, 2018
Beginning in the late 1970s, David Wojnarowicz (1954–1992) created a body of work that spanned photography, painting, music, film, sculpture, writing, and activism. Largely self-taught, he came to prominence in New York in the 1980s, a period marked by creative energy, financial precariousness, and profound cultural changes. Intersecting movements—graffiti, new and no wave music, conceptual photography, performance, and neo-expressionist painting—made New York a laboratory for innovation. Wojnarowicz refused a signature style, adopting a wide variety of techniques with an attitude of radical possibility. Distrustful of inherited structures—a feeling amplified by the resurgence of conservative politics—he varied his repertoire to better infiltrate the prevailing culture.
Wojnarowicz saw the outsider as his true subject. Queer and later diagnosed as HIV-positive, he became an impassioned advocate for people with AIDS when an inconceivable number of friends, lovers, and strangers were dying due to government inaction. Wojnarowicz’s work documents and illuminates a desperate period of American history: that of the AIDS crisis and culture wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s. But his rightful place is also among the raging and haunting iconoclastic voices, from Walt Whitman to William S. Burroughs, who explore American myths, their perpetuation, their repercussions, and their violence. Like theirs, his work deals directly with the timeless subjects of sex, spirituality, love, and loss. Wojnarowicz, who was thirty-seven when he died from AIDS-related complications, wrote: “To make the private into something public is an action that has terrific ramifications.”
This exhibition is co-curated by David Kiehl, Curator Emeritus, and David Breslin, DeMartini Family Curator and Director of the Collection.
Major Support for David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night is provided by the Ford Foundation; The Thompson Family Foundation, Inc.; and The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
Significant support is provided by The Keith Haring Foundation Exhibition Fund, Brooke and Daniel Neidich, the Trellis Fund, and the Whitney’s National Committee.
Generous support is provided by Philip Aarons and Shelley Fox Aarons, Susan and John Hess, Nancy and Fred Poses, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, and Fern and Lenard Tessler.
Additional support is provided by James E. Cottrell and Joseph F. Lovett, the Daniel W. Dietrich II Foundation, and Gregory R. Miller and Michael Wiener.
Also open concurrently, The Unflinching Eye: The Symbols of David Wojnarowicz is on view at NYU's Mamdouha Bobst Gallery through September 30, 2018, and Soon All This Will be Picturesque Ruins: The Installations of David Wojnarowicz is on view at P.P.O.W through August 24, 2018.
Album: No Motive
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No Motive is an album recorded by 3 Teens Kill 4, a band that included David Wojnarowicz as well as Doug Bressler, Brian Butterick, Julie Hair, and Jesse Hultberg. By 1980, punk’s DIY aesthetic had permeated the East Village scene, and an increasing number of visual artists were experimenting with post-punk music. Wojnarowicz began exploring musical projects when he became a busboy at the nightclub Danceteria. The constant exposure to music—often performed by ad-hoc bands—prompted the artist and two friends to start their own group, naming it after a New York Post headline. Wojnarowicz did not play an instrument; he instead focused on captured sounds played from a handheld tape recorder. The low fi collaging of audio fragments contributed to the band’s distinctive sound. Though 3 Teens Kill 4 would continue in different configurations until 1987, Wojnarowicz left in 1983 to focus on his visual art.
3 Teens Kill 4, No Motive. Point Blank Records 1982, l'Invitation au Suicide 1984, remastered by Dark Entries Records 2017. Doug Bressler, Brian Butterick, Julie Hair, Jesse Hultberg, David Wojnarowicz
View more upcoming tours.
Queer Art and Activism
Self-Portrait in 23 Rounds: A Chapter in David Wojnarowicz's Life, 1989–1991 (2018)
Forever in Transition: Reconsidering Art and Politics of the 1980s
Weekend Early Admission for Members
Learning Series Lecture: The Weight of the Pre-Invented World
Weekend Early Admission for Members
Reception and Talk: Remapping the Pre-Invented World
This richly illustrated book—the most definitive source on Wojnarowicz to date—is the first to comprehensively examine the artist’s life and work, pushing beyond the biographical focus that has characterized much previous scholarship. The excerpt featured here includes a selection from David Breslin’s overview essay as well as a preview of the plate section, which includes close examinations of groups of works by David Kiehl.
Memories That Smell Like Gasoline: Reading David Wojnarowicz
Emily Roysdon on David Wojnarowicz
Visual Arts and the AIDS Epidemic
David Wojnarowicz: A conversation with Sylvère Lotringer and Marion Scemama
David Wojnarowicz at the Whitney
Press Preview | Pacha, Llaqta, Wasichay and David Wojnarowicz
Hear From Artists
"In no uncertain terms, David Wojnarowicz was the first artist that made me think that I could also be an artist."
Hear from artists, curators, and scholars about selected works from the exhibition. Read the condensed and edited interview with Nan Goldin about her friendship with David Wojnarowicz and the exhibition she curated at Artists Space in 1989.
David Wojnarowicz Tote
David Wojnarowicz Button Set
Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration
3 Teens Kill 4 - No Motive LP
The Weight of the Earth: The Tape Journals of David Wojnarowicz
In the Shadow of the American Dream: The Diaries of David Wojnarowicz
A Definitive History of Five or Six Years on the Lower East Side
Brush Fires in the Social Landscape
Memories That Smell Like Gasoline
Tongues of Flame
In the News
“There is a sense that he was working against time to depict the humanity of AIDS victims, to show the meaning of his own suffering to a country that didn’t seem to care.”
—The New Yorker
“The current showcasing of Wojnarowicz’s work, however, isn’t about an artist whose work has been isolated in time, so much as it’s about an artist whose voice, artwork, and thinking have transcended time.”
“At a retrospective at the Whitney Museum, the life and work of the artist and AIDS activist are a model for making art out of political anger.”
—The New York Times
"A terrifyingly timely retrospective from one of the most articulate voices to emerge from the AIDS crisis.”
“David Wojnarowicz was there when we needed him politically 30-plus years ago. Now we need him again, and he’s back in a big, rich retrospective.”
—The New York Times
“It is an astonishingly relevant, urgently important retrospective. Miss it, and you miss transcendental levels of incredulity, indignation, vulnerability, lamentation, fighting back — ultimately, what it means to be human in a time of encroaching political darkness.”
“The retrospective, as many have noted, could not be more timely, arriving in a charged political moment not unlike the one from which Wojnarowicz emerged as a voice of searing honesty.”
“A retrospective of an artists’ artist displays the wrathful gorgeousness of queer art as AIDS approached.”
“The show discovers the qualities that make his work universal and meaningful in any age where hate, fear, and ignorance jostle with understanding and acceptance.”
—The Art Newspaper
“The retrospective allows us to finally glimpse Wojnarowicz whole; it is a must-see event for anyone who believes in the necessity of love, empathy, and moral rightness.”