‘Wojnarowicz’ Review: A Vivid Look at a Furious Artist-Activist of the Reagan Era

Channeling the aesthetic and urgency of a driven multimedia creator, “Wojnarowicz” chronicles the too-short life of a determinedly “outsider” artist who was among the most furiously outspoken victims of the AIDS epidemic. Chris McKim’s documentary is largely composed of materials from the late subject’s archives, woven into a collage whole that is equal parts biography, vintage agitprop and objet d’art, plus surviving associates’ audio reminiscences.

While the confrontative nature suggested by the film’s full title (which, even on the movie poster, appears as “Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker” — a graffitied slur the ever-confrontative artist found and, typically, incorporated into an accusatory canvas) is amply represented, there’s also considerable beauty and invention on display here, as often there was even in David Wojnarowicz’s most enraged work. Kino Lorber is currently distributing the feature to virtual cinemas via its Kino Marquee program, with home-formats release planned for May 18.

McKim starts in 1989, when his protagonist had already been diagnosed as HIV-positive, writing, “I realized I’d contracted a diseased society as well.” One symptom of that was lingering Reagan-era indifference toward the epidemic, and conservative hostility toward any public funding of programs that supported or voiced an alleged “homosexual agenda.” Wojnarowicz was being targeted (not for the last time) by such forces as part of an exhibit the National Endowment for the Arts was briefly pressured into withdrawing grant monies, announcing, “We find that a large portion of the content is political rather than artistic in nature.” But he found that charge superfluous, having always made art of an autobiographical nature. And, as he’s seen telling one news outlet, “You can’t separate politics from AIDS.”

The film then backtracks to briefly limn a chaotic, often abusive upbringing, in which his mother ultimately fled a father who was “horrific when he was drunk.” David began fleeing her home in turn as early as age 11, hustling on the streets of New York. Discovering quintessential transgressive writers Arthur Rimbaud and Jean Genet helped get him off those streets and back into school, where he began honing diverse artistic interests. We hear audio cassettes from the constant self-documenter going back to 1976, amidst some early-20s travel.

Returning to the city for good by that decade’s end, he became a prolific contributor to its underground art activity during a period of simultaneous great innovation and escalating urban decay. He’d publish impassioned writings and perform spoken-word pieces; spearhead guerrilla art-making in abandoned, soon-to-be-demolished pier buildings; was a member of the very downtown New Wave band 3 Teens Kill 4, pioneering in its use of samples; made Super-8 films with collaborators like Richard Kern and Karen Finley. Meanwhile, he generated a voluminous amount of visual art that encompassed drawing, painting, stencils, found objects, installations and more.

Much of the latter work in particular remains striking, though art critics then and now seem to have mixed feelings about its formal value. (Certainly that ouevre has aged better, however, than those by several more-hyped 1980s “art stars.”) Perhaps they’re overwhelmed by the frequent in-your-face political messaging. Wojnarowicz seldom shrank from direct expression of his fury as AIDS began decimating (primarily) the gay community, eliciting criminal indifference and sometimes outright scorn from city, state and national leaders. But the breathtaking range and richness of his output in various media is a wellspring from which the documentary enjoys full benefit.

Always skeptical toward the mainstream art milieux of high-end galleries, museums, rich patrons and collectors, he nonetheless found himself swept up in a short-lived vogue for the “East Village scene,” to his financial benefit. But by then he was growing less concerned with career than with activism, soon using his art in service of ACT-UP demonstrations and other forms of protest. He was devastated by the 1987 demise of photographer Peter Hujar, his closest friend and mentor; in those years, an AIDS diagnosis was a virtual death sentence. His own physical and mental health declined until he, too, passed away in 1992 at age 37, though he’d remained artistically active nearly to the end.

Almost entirely comprised of archival matter, McKim’s film does introduce new footage at the end, when Wojnarowicz’s surviving partner Tom Rauffenbart is seen attending a recent Whitney retrospective. Throughout there’s also latter-day reminiscences soundtracked from friends (including Fran Lebowitz), collaborators (such as Kern and Nan Goldin), gallery owners, curators and the occasional expert like Cynthia Carr, whose excellent 2012 “Fire in the Belly” is likely to remain the definitive print biography. One might wish for a little more evaluative appreciation of the subject’s art, as once again the high drama of his life story and its sociopolitical framework grabs central attention — though, of course, he did a great deal to ensure that himself.

“Wojnarowicz” is impressive as a tapestry woven near-whole from preexisting materials, amplifying its subject’s own voice in every creative form it took. Editor Dave Stanke merits kudos alongside McKim for their evocative, first-rate assembly.

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