Wojnarowicz was born on September 14, 1954 in Red Bank, New Jersey, the youngest of three siblings. His childhood was marked by both neglect and abuse, particularly on the part of his father, who was an alcoholic who would commit suicide in 1976 when Wojnarowicz was twenty-two.
When their parents divorced in 1956, Wojnarowicz’s mother Delores received custody of Wojnarowicz and his siblings, however, their father abducted them to Michigan for a year and maintained custody of them until they moved in with their mother in New York City, some time between 1963-1965. Poorly supervised and accustomed to spending long afternoons in the suburban woods by himself, Wojnarowicz wandered the city, drawn to its seediest parts. Sometime around the age of twelve, he had his first experience with an older man offering him money for sex, although he probably didn’t start hustling regularly until he was fifteen (this date is difficult to determine, as Wojnarowicz frequently altered his biography as he told it, both consciously and unconsciously).
Starting at fourteen, Wojnarowicz attended the prestigious High School of Music and Art in Manhattan, although he never graduated. Soon after he turned seventeen, Wojnarowicz left his mother’s apartment and began living on the streets, which he did for the next two years. Eventually, he moved into a halfway house and finished his high school diploma in 1973 at the age of nineteen. He got a job at the original Pottery Barn and began writing poetry and creating ‘zines, his earliest “adult” forays into art making.
For the next few years, Wojnarowicz lived in New York City and traveled frequently, often by hopping trains or hitchhiking. He stayed briefly in San Francisco, as well as in France (with his sister Pat), before eventually returning to New York, where he worked as a busboy at the famous club Danceteria (where Keith Haring also worked). He formed a band called (3 Teens Kill 4), in which he played children's toys and tape recordings of found sounds. He also documented life in the gritty Lower East Side, where he was particularly interested in marginal characters who seemed to live outside of the “preinvented world,” which was his term for all of the societal structures (like language and law) that we are born into and which exert control over us. He collected the stories of these "outlaws" in his first published book, 1982’s Sounds in the Distance.
As the eighties wore on, Wojnarowicz became known in the East Village art scene for creating controversial and audacious installations and paintings, often using found objects, religious iconography, and explicit sexual imagery. Along with other experimental gay artists, he claimed the abandoned Ward Line Pier on Manhattan’s West Side as a sexual and artistic playground. He traveled frequently to the Southwest and to Mexico, where he identified with the same kind of outcasts he had met in the Lower East Side. In 1985, his work was included in the influential Whitney Biennial (the so-called “Graffiti Show”), which brought his name to a wider audience.
During this time, Wojnarowicz came under the wing of photographer Peter Hujar, who would be his mentor and close friend until Hujar’s death from AIDS complications in 1987. Hujar’s death, and Wojnarowicz’s own seroconversion in 1986, transformed AIDS from an occasional subject of his work to a near constant theme, and he is best remembered today for his AIDS-related work.
As a political artist working on controversial topics, Wojnarowicz received frequent criticism and his work was often attacked as obscene. In 1989, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) revoked funding for a show organized by Nan Goldin, because of an essay entitled “Post Cards from America: X-Rays from Hell,” which Wojnarowicz had written for the exhibition catalog. In 1990, the conservative American Family Association illegally copied and distributed images from Wojnarowicz’s work as part of a fundraiser / attack on the NEA. Although Wojnarowicz successfully sued them for copyright infringement, he was awarded only $1 in damages.
In the early 1990s, Wojnarowicz completed two more books – the autobiographical Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration in 1991, and the art book Memories that Smell Like Gasoline in 1992. Although he suffered greatly from both AIDS and poverty, he continued to produce work until his death from AIDS complications in 1992.
Although he was only 37 when he died, Wojnarowicz left behind a large and complex body of work that defies easy categorization. Some of his most recognizable and critically well-received works include the Photostat One Day This Kid..., the photograph Untitled (Buffalos) (which was used for the cover of U2's 1989 single release of their song "One" as a fundraiser for AIDS organizations), the painting Science Lesson (which was included in the 1985 Whitney Biennial), the performance installation In the Shadow of Forward Motion. the film A Fire in My Belly, and the "Four Elements" series of paintings.
Carr, Cythnia. Fire in the Belly, 2012
"David Michael Wojnarowicz."The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Volume 3: 1991-1993. Charles Scribner's Sons, 2001. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2009. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC
"David Wojnarowicz." Contemporary Artists, 5th ed. St. James Press, 2001. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2009. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC
Kimmelman, Michael. "David Wojnarowicz, 37, Artist in Many Media.(Cultural Desk)(Obituary)." The New York Times (July 24, 1992): NA. New York Times and New York Post (2000-present). Gale. New York Public Library. 22 May 2009. http://find.galegroup.com/itx/start.do?prodId=SPN.SP00.
Biographical Note provided by The Fales Library & Special Collections