Monday, July 22, 2013

David Wojnarowicz: Controversial artist mixed gay and Christian imagery

David Wojnarowicz in a detail from “Painting David” by Douglas Blanchard

David Wojnarowicz is a gay artist, writer and activist whose use of Christian imagery still causes controversy more than two decades after his death. He died of AIDS at age 37 on July 22, 1992 -- 21 years ago today.

He rose from a homeless gay teenage hustler in New York’s Times Square to become a celebrated (and reviled) artist who was featured at the prestigious Whitney Biennial exhibit. A vocal critic of the church’s silence during the AIDS crisis, Wojnarowicz mixed gay imagery with religious symbols from his Roman Catholic childhood to express the holiness and intensity of gay experience. He was a frequent target of the religious right during the culture wars of 1980s.

Now Wojnarowicz is best known for the 2010 national uproar sparked by his video “Fire in the Belly.” It uses a crucifix covered with ants to symbolize the suffering and sacredness of AIDS patients. The Smithsonian Institution removed it from exhibition in 2010 after pressure from religious and political conservatives. Protests and charges of censorship followed.

Today interest in Wojnarowicz is surging among LGBTQ scholars and artists. Last year he was the subject of two papers at the American Academy of Religion, where he was called an “outsider theologian.” New York artist Douglas Blanchard is in the midst of painting his second series based on Wojnarowicz’ tumultuous life. The 2013 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Memoir/Biography went to the book “Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz” by Cynthia Carr, who describes him as “so ugly he was beautiful.” His comic-book autobiography, “Seven Miles a Second” was reissued in February 2013.

“By examining Wojnarowicz’s work through theological eyes, we can identify him as an overlooked source of theological reflection that is defiantly and proudly gay,” says the description for “David Wojnarowicz: Outsider Theologian,” a paper presented by Justin Tanis at the 2012 meeting of the American Academy of Religion. He teaches at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California.

Tanis discussed spiritual themes in Wojnarowicz works such as the “Untitled (Genet).” The collage angered the religious right by showing gay French writer Jean Genet as a patron saint for male prostitutes, with Christ as a heroin addict in the background. The image (plus a wide selection of his other artwork) can be seen at

An hour-long video is available online with Tanis discussing “See the Holy: Spirituality in the Art of David Wojnarowicz” at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley in 2012.

See the Holy: Spirituality in the Art of David Wojnarowicz from CLGS on Vimeo.

Artist Doug Blanchard completed his first series on Wojnarowicz more than a decade ago. The paintings in his “Shadows” series portray Wojnarowicz as an AIDS martyr and Christ figure -- a modern-day man of sorrows traveling a metaphorical gay road to Calvary. “I organized them using the Hebrew Alphabet like the reading from Lamentations in the Tenebrae service for Holy Week,” Blanchard says in “The Passion of David Wojnarowicz,” a summary of the series at his blog, Counterlight’s Peculiars.

“Gimmel” by Douglas Blanchard is inspired by a famous Wojnarowicz quote: “When I put my hands on your body, on your flesh, I feel the history of that body, not just the beginning of its forming in that distant lake, but all the way beyond its ending.”

Blanchard went on to paint Jesus as a contemporary gay man in “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision.” Now he has he turned his attention back to Wojnarowicz. “I'm doing a new series now that I hope will not diminish his role in AIDS activism, but fills out the picture of his life with more about his being an artist, writer, and adventurer,” Blanchard says.

Much of the raw material for the series comes from Wojnarowicz’ own journals, published in such books as “The Waterfront Journals” and “Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration.” Blanchard agreed to share some of his Wojnarowicz art here at the Jesus in Love Blog.

The young Wojnarowicz is shown as a child hiding from his abusive father in “David’s Dad” by Douglas Blanchard.

Wojnarowicz travels in the Western desert, a landscape that reminded him of his favorite Krazy Kat cartoons, in “Krazy Kat Landscape” by Douglas Blanchard.

“Zayin” by Douglas Blanchard evokes the suffering of Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992. “If I die it is because a handful of people in power, in organized religions and political institutions, believe that I am expendable,” he wrote.

For more of Blanchard’s current Wojnarowicz series, see his posts What I’m working on, Projects, More Work In My Studio and The Lazzaretto, a New Painting from the David Wojnarowicz Series at the Counterlight’s Peculiars blog.

Wojnarowicz, who created a queer fusion of saintly and sexy iconography in his own art, has now passed into the realm of where LGBT martyrs and saints dwell. A quote from his book “Close to the Knives” helps put his death into perspective:

“Transition is always a relief. Destination means death to me. If I could figure out a way to remain forever in transition, in the disconnected and unfamiliar, I could remain in a state of perpetual freedom.”
Related links:
David Wojnarowicz: Smithsonian censors gay artist when conservatives attack (Jesus in Love)

Estate of David Wojnarowicz (PPOW Gallery)

David Wojnarowicz papers (New York University)

This post is part of the Artists series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. The series profiles artists who use lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and queer spiritual and religious imagery.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts


Trudie said...

Wow! I suddenly realize I'd missed this post! That's what I get for being sidetracked, I guess. I'm so grateful that you keep these accessible for more than a day. Thanks!

Kittredge Cherry said...

It was surprisingly hard to summarize the significance of Wojnarowicz, so I’m doubly glad that you appreciated this post that took a lot of my time and energy, Trudie. I did get some nice comments privately from both Doug Blanchard and Justin Tanis too.

Actually all these posts remain accessible “forever” if you use a search engine. You can also find past posts through the resource lists at Those are woefully out of date, but I’m working with my web designer on getting an update ready this summer.