Monday, December 13, 2010

CODA: Remembering David Wojnarowicz

Back in the late 70s, post college, when the economy was in the tank in many ways, as it is now, I worked for the Bookmasters chain. I started as a clerk and eventually became the Evening Manager of the lower Penn Station Store. "Bookies," as we called it, wasn't huge, with the breadth of say, Barnes and Noble or Borders, or the scope of many independent bookstores, such as BookCourt in the Heights or Park Slope's Community Bookstore. But it was a fairly large chain, that did a good amount of business in its locations in midtown (upper and lower stores at Penn Station), Lincoln Center (which served as the location for Brian DePalma's "Greetings" featuring a very young Robert DeNiro) and Grand Concourse in the Bronx.

Anyway, it was at Bookmasters that I met David Wojnarowicz, a fellow employee in those retail wars. David was tall, imposing, deep voiced (more basso profundo than baritone, as I remember him), and funny (in equal measures witty and sarcastic, but friendly in his humor). We were more co-workers and casual acquaintances than close friends. Most people at the store had artistic agendas that the retail work supported, I knew Daivd first as an aspiring writer. My interest was in journalism. I remember a bunch of us from the store, and David's crowd, out and about one night, going to a party at someone's place (maybe it was David's, I don't remember) on Court Street near State Street.  I remember the partygoers from the store meeting on the West 4th Station after work to take the train back to Brooklyn when someone told us that John Belushi had died from an overdose. After Bookmasters closed, David's talent and celebrity/notoriety expanded by leaps and bounds, as he  moved further into the visual arts. We were in touch periodically through the 1980s, often by correspondence (I have some wonderful, illustrated letters that David sent to me from his time in Paris). I remember, when he was in France, he sent me a few francs and asked me to send him some periodicals that he couldn't obtain there. I remember having brunch at the Cornelia Street Cafe with him and a woman I was dating at the time (who later, after we broke up, may or may not have hit on David -- good luck with that).
I also remember, during the Reagan era, I attended an anti-nukes rally in Manhattan that I was reporting on for NOW-NY and some other publications, and bumping into David and being introduced to Peter Hujar near Union Square. Another time, in NYC, David called and suggested I keep an eye on the "Soho Weekly News" which published a large spread of David's "Arthur Rimbaud/David Wojnarowicz" photos. I also remember seeing him perform in the band "Three Teens Kill Four," and in a performance piece with Brian Butterick, "Leaning with that Grey Beast of Desire."  We lost touch along the way as I moved into journalism, public affairs, marketing, and eventually the public sector, anything that would give me the opportunity to write, express a little creativity on the job, earn a buck and still have the time to explore a little freedom to write and create for myself. By then, David had clearly moved into the stratosphere of the LES art world.

As a person, David was interesting, funny, very deep; yet, seemingly, a regular guy. Obviously, he wasn't: As an artist, he was ferocious, a force of nature, daring in his explorations and revelations. Fearless, as an artist and as an activist.

As Holland Cotter reported in the front page article on the censorship/removal of David's film from the exhibition at the National Portraits Gallery:

"In response to questions during his courtroom testimony against the American Family Association, Wojnarowicz explained that he made the piece after returning to New York from a stay in France, where he had been reading Genet. Back in New York, he was struck by the rampant and rising use of hard drugs among people he knew and the self-destruction that resulted. He said that in his own upbringing as a Roman Catholic he’d been taught that Jesus took on the sufferings of all people in the world.



“I wanted to make a symbol that would show that he would take on the suffering of the vast amounts of addiction that I saw on the streets,” Wojnarowicz testified. “And I did this because I saw very little treatment available for people who had this illness.”


I don’t believe Wojnarowicz was being disingenuous. He was speaking under oath and, in any case, he was nothing if not passionate about his belief in the moral purpose of art, as passionate as his religious accusers have been in questioning his morality. It’s an interesting thing about passion, how coming from ostensibly opposite beliefs and directions, it can sometimes end up meeting in the same place." Full article here 

As an artist and a man, as with so many other young people from that era and after, gone too soon.

--Brooklyn Beat

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Current Reading

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