By Elliot J. Reichert
Last year, the Whitney Museum of American Art indefinitely postponed a retrospective of the queer American artist David Wojnarowicz, a key figure of the New York avant-garde of the 1970s and eighties and a member of the ART+Positive affinity group that was a major voice in AIDS activism at the height of the HIV-AIDS crisis. The story of Wojnarowicz, who passed away in 1992 from complications related to the disease, is one of passion and rage, rejection and, at long last, restitution. When the Whitney delayed the Wojnarowicz exhibition, America’s history of suppressing queer artists seemed destined to repeat itself. Instead, Chicago physician and art collector Daniel Berger galvanized a circle of friends to organize a Wojnarowicz show at Iceberg Projects, his backyard exhibition space. The story of this exhibition, which opens in late June, is the story of two men united by a struggle against homophobia, hatred and oppression; two men whose lives were intertwined despite never having met. It is the story of an archive that Berger acquired in 2015 and exhibited that same year, and a catalogue borne of that exhibition. This story, like history itself, tends to repeat itself, which is all the more reason it must continue to be told, lest we forget the sacrifices of those who struggled and died before us, without which our world would not exist as we know it.
Like many others of my generation, I first heard of Wojnarowicz in 2010, when the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery opened the first comprehensive exhibition of queer American portraiture called “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” a show that was bound to spark controversy. Seeking a scapegoat to condemn the show, Speaker of the House John Boehner and the Catholic League expressed outrage at a film work by Wojnarowicz titled “A Fire In My Belly,” which included a few seconds footage of ants crawling over a crucifix. The Smithsonian, a federal institution, buckled under the outside pressure and removed the work without consulting the exhibition curators, a move that ignited fierce backlash from segments of the left.
I was in my early twenties when I saw “Hide/Seek” on a trip to Washington, D.C. I remember that an activist group had managed to park a trailer outside of the NPG that screened “A Fire In My Belly” on a loop inside. At the time, I knew nothing about Wojnarowicz and very little about the AIDS crisis. Nonetheless, I saw the work’s removal for what it was—censorship and homophobia at the highest levels of my government. Unsurprisingly, the Smithsonian’s decision to remove Wojnarowicz’s launched a nationwide protest campaign that prompted dozens of American galleries, museums and other cultural institutions to screen “A Fire In My Belly”—including several screenings in Chicago. Wojnarowicz’s cause célèbre rapidly circulated to those who remembered the horrors and sadness of the AIDS crisis and among those, like myself, who were too young to feel the visceral pain and anger evoked by the memory of this chapter of American history.
The memories triggered were not only of suffering and loss but also of bigotry and suppression. The “Hide/Seek” controversy echoed the bitter public debate over the 1989 Helms Amendment and conservative efforts to suppress government support of the arts—cutting the cashflow to the National Endowment for the Arts and imposing strict limits on the kinds of artistic content deemed acceptable for government funding. These repressive actions erupted in response to an exhibition of photographs by the queer artist Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano’s infamous “Piss Christ” image of 1987, both of which received some NEA support. In the summer of 1989, ART+Positive organized a march on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to oppose the Helms Amendment, drawing a crowd of over a thousand protesters demonstrating against censorship and threats to public arts funding. David Wojnarowicz was among those organizers who fought for the rights of queer artists under the banner of anti-censorship, so it was especially cruel that his work was the target of the very same bigotry he had battled twenty years before.
Daniel Berger, a queer physician who specializes in AIDS research and treatment, opened his practice in Chicago in 1989 at a time when HIV-infected young men were being told by their doctors to “get their affairs in order” after receiving a positive diagnosis. This was nearly a decade into the crisis yet treatment was limited to a single antiretroviral drug prescribed when persons living with AIDS (PWAs) were near their deathbeds. Artists were a major presence in the queer community and were used to fighting for recognition in the arts arena, so it was natural that queer artists were among the first to organize public advocacy to address discrimination against PWAs. AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), an affinity group begun in New York City, was replete with artists, many HIV-positive.
The same year that Berger founded his medical practice, ART+Positive, established by Hunter Reynolds, Aldo Hernandez, Bill Dobbs and others, grew out of this nascent AIDS organizing with a mission focused specifically to “fight homophobia and censorship in the arts.” ART+Positive was directly responsible for the 1989 Met protest as well as a series of activist interventions in public and cultural spaces, notably the exhibition “An Army of Lovers: Combatting AIDS, Homophobia & Censorship” organized by Aldo Hernandez at the PS122 gallery. Wojnarowicz’s “Untitled (When I put my hands on your body…),” an installation of a poetic text on acetate overlaid on a world map with a pair of dog tags hanging nearby, was among the works. Photographer Zoe Leonard contributed her own work as well as a triptych of pink-framed photographs she took at the behest of Ray Navarro, who was blind and nearly unable to speak when he dictated the instructions for the work to Leonard. The day of the opening, Navarro died of AIDS.
In his heart-wrenching essay “Symbiosis in Activism: Art, AIDS, Personal Recollections,” published in the ART+Positive exhibition catalogue released last year, Berger weaves his personal experiences as a queer AIDS physician with the battles fought by the artists and activists whose work he would come to admire and eventually collect. In particular, Berger was drawn to the way that Wojnarowicz narrated his experiences. Berger writes, “Rather than noting that a community came together only because of this terrible disease and the political crisis it ensured, Wojnarowicz’s writing places the crisis in timeless sexual attractions and emotional connections. His work speaks of the depth of the bonds I have experienced in my own community, the emotional experience of trying so hard to hold onto but losing so many needlessly.”
In the same essay, Berger speaks openly of his fight to advance treatment against the apathy and outright hatred harbored against PWAs, comparing his experimental medical practice with the advocacy and artistic interventions undertaken by ACT UP and ART+Positive. While Wojnarowicz and others fought for public acceptance of queer identities in a climate of fear and loathing, Berger lobbied for expanded treatments, gaining access to unapproved investigational antiretroviral drugs and producing one of the first treatment regimes of combined antiretrovirals, now commonly known as “the cocktail.” He corresponded with underground “buyers clubs,” including Ron Woodruff’s now famous Dallas-based operation that distributed novel medications, developing an experimental treatment network not unlike the affinity groups emerging in the artist-activist communities at the same time. Berger writes of the “queer ethics” shared by the members of activist affinity groups, who promiscuously formed responsive networks of support and advocacy around a plethora of causes, such as racism, sexism, discrimination in the medical or artistic communities, or any other matter of urgency. In the catalogue, activist and scholar Debra Levine writes of an affinity group formed specifically to support Ray Navarro as his health declined, a group that resulted in the work exhibited on the day of his death. Levine names this way of care “prosthetic praxis,” a term loaded with the connotations of medical care that permeated the queer environment of the era.
In 2015, when Berger acquired the Art+Positive archives with the help of Hunter Reynolds, Navarro’s triptych was among the many objects and documents he and John Neff found among the boxes of press releases, photographs, letters, statements, protest signs and other ephemera. Five months after he took possession of them, Berger and Neff mounted an exhibition at Iceberg Projects, Berger’s backyard gallery, that displayed artworks from the “An Army of Lovers” exhibition and a rotating selection of ART+Positive archival materials. They called the show “Militant Eroticism: The ART+Positive Archives” after the name of a promotional calendar the organization had made in 1990. Wojnarowicz’s dog tags were in the archives, and Aldo Hernandez helped Berger assemble the rest of the “Untitled (When I put my hands on your body…)” piece from his own collection shortly before the show. When “Militant Eroticism: The ART+Positive Archives” opened in July 2015, it was the first exhibition of this work by Wojnarowicz since “An Army of Lovers” nearly twenty-five years before.
This summer, Iceberg Projects will mount the Wojnarowicz exhibition “Flesh of my Flesh” weeks before the long-delayed Whitney exhibition will also open. It will be a kind of homecoming for Wojnarowicz, whose first retrospective was staged at the Illinois State University’s College of Fine Art, curated by Barry Blinderman. The spirit of the Chicago show, organized in response to perceived censorship at the institutional level, is very much sympathetic with the strategies and aims that birthed ART+Positive. It focuses on the artist’s symbolic language and the metaphors of flesh as a conduit for eroticism, intimacy and death—subjects that are as timely as they are ceaselessly controversial. Berger, who continues to treat queer and HIV-positive patients in his daily practice, admits that his examination of human bodies might have had something to do with this particularly corporeal approach to the work of Wojnarowicz, though his affinity with both Wojnarowicz’s work and the lives of his patients exceeds the medical and extends to the realm of love and solidarity.
We will likely never know why the Whitney delayed exhibiting Wojnarowicz—perhaps they were still shaken by the negative response to their exhibition of Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket” painting at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, or they were sensitive to the criticism lobbied against the touring “Art, AIDS, America” exhibition that the shows reinforced the dominant white male narrative of the AIDS crisis—a critique that, in Chicago, spurred the curation of a companion exhibition at the DePaul Art Museum, titled “One Day This Kid Will Get Larger” after a Wojnarowicz work included in that show. Importantly, both of these negative reactions to exhibitions came from the left, not the right, an indicator of the incredible headway AIDS activism has made into mainstream society, but also of the deep divisions within a fragile political coalition facing renewed hostility in a moment of profound political dissensus—a subject Berger and co-curator Omar Kholeif took up in a group exhibition shortly after the 2016 presidential election, which also included material from the ART+Positive archives. Whatever the reason for the Whitney’s unexplained postponement of their Wojnarowicz exhibition, it triggered among Berger and his peers those same deeply rooted furies that had mobilized protests in 1989 and in 2010. “Flesh of My Flesh” was born from precisely the responsive, affinity-led action that had propelled Wojnarowicz into the public eye in the first place. If it is worrisome that history has repeated itself in suppressing the legacy of David Wojnarowicz, it is inspiring that, each time, an army of lovers have arisen to fight for him and his work.
“Militant Eroticism: The ART+Positive Archives” is available from Sternberg Press. “David Wojnarowicz: Flesh of My Flesh” opens June 23 and shows through August 4 at Iceberg Projects, 7714 North Sheridan.