The great gay artist David Wojnarowicz was driven by a brilliant fury: against an apathetic U.S. government that ignored the deaths of tens of thousands from AIDS, against a homophobic American establishment that regularly silenced the voices of queer people during the twentieth century, and against the larger machine of American society that rolled over the marginalized and the different with brutal indifference.
Although he died at the age of 37 in 1992, Wojnarowicz’s voice and visionary art still resonate powerfully across the decades. In 2010, A Fire in My Belly, a Wojnarowicz video made in the late 1980s that featured images of ants crawling over a crucifix, was pulled from an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery following cries of outrage from House Republicans and the Catholic League. In 2018, a major retrospective of his work at the Whitney Museum in New York City, David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night, won critical plaudits, confirming his position as one of the most important artists of his generation.
Now, a new documentary directed by Chris McKim marvelously evokes the chaos of the artist’s life and the surreal, visionary power of his art. The film will be presented as part of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s virtual cinema series starting April 2. The film’s incendiary title, Wojnarowicz: Fuck You Faggot Fucker, comes from a 1984 work by the artist in which he took a homophobic slur and transformed it into a sensual, homoerotic image of two men kissing.
Particularly striking is Wojnarowicz’s vivid evocation of two seminal eras of American artistic life: the incredible flowering of the East Village creative scene in Manhattan during the early 1980s that produced artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat; and the terror, rage, and grief of the AIDS crisis that crushed gay life in New York during that same era.
Director McKim, an Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker and TV producer who served as showrunner for RuPaul’s Drag Race for four seasons, has availed himself of an incredible cache of artifacts from the artist’s life: Wojnarowicz’s video and audio journals, answering-machine messages, and interviews with his brother, his sister, and numerous friends—including noted lesbian writer and humorist Fran Leibowitz, who looks remarkably sexy in archival photos from the 1980s.
The film showcases Wojnarowicz’s incredible creative range: visual artist, published writer of piercing eloquence, musician in a punk-rock band, and fiercely committed ACT UP activist. With a harrowing intensity, it chronicles the key stages of his life: his brutal childhood at the hands of an alcoholic, physically abusive father; his escape to the streets of Manhattan in the 1970s and the survival-sex he engaged in as a teenager; his sudden fame as an artist after positive media coverage by the New York Times; his brief romance with the esteemed American photographer Peter Hugar (and the life-sustaining friendship that developed in its aftermath); the rage and anguish of his own AIDS diagnosis; and his fierce burst of activism with ACT UP before his death. (In the early 1990s, he was frequently seen at ACT UP demonstrations wearing a jacket emblazoned with the message “If I die of AIDS, forget burial—just drop my body on the steps of the FDA.”)
“To make the private into something public is an action that has terrific ramifications,” Wojnarowicz once remarked. Chris McKim’s act of making the private pain and exquisite creativity of Wojnarowicz’s life public has provided us with an enduring portrait of a great iconoclastic 20th-century gay artist.
What: MFAH Virtual Cinema Series presents Wojnarowicz: Fuck You Faggot Fucker
When: Debuts April 2
This article appears in the April 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.