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Wojnarowicz rarely painted on canvas and his work in painting stretches the boundary of the definition. This was in part due to his practice of experimenting with what was readily available, but also due to specific aesthetic decisions that emphasized variability and juxtaposition over a single resolved image. For instance, Wojnarowicz typically used wood supports like Masonite, which could be precisely cut to produce windows for photographic or collaged inserts. He also used gelatin silver prints as support for a painting in order to reverse the typical figure-ground relationship, using an image as a base upon which to apply further layers. Wojnarowicz also used non-paint media in his paintings, incorporating pre-printed found material, string, Xeroxed images, photographs, drawings, and collage into his works. For paint, he typically used acrylic, enamel, and spray paint.

Though Wojnarowicz became widely known for his paintings—the inclusion of two of his paintings in the 1985 Whitney Biennial was followed by a sold-out painting show at Gracie Mansion Gallery in 1986—he thought of painting as just one of many image-making techniques available to him. “"I have no attachment to style. The paintings that I do are just images that occur to me. I get them from the media, from conversations, and from distant memories."[1] In painting, he could realize the images out of his own head, developing, deploying, and re-deploying a vocabulary of symbols that formed a repertoire of recurring imagery. Wojnarowicz further explains, “I had always believed that the content of paintings was some sort of denial of history—images preserved by and for a particular class of people. So it was in them that I reached for images of chaos—images that weren’t used in paintings.” [2]

Statement by Jean Foos

Jean Foos is an artist who frequently collaborated with Wojnarowicz. According to Foos:

When Dirk introduced me to David in 1979, I saw David as a writer first. I was just a year out of grad school and making big abstract paintings. I took it very seriously! David’s interest in image making seemed more like illustration or extension of his literary and musical ideas and not “fine art” to me (what did I know?). He made colored pencil drawings and color Xeroxed collages. At that time Dirk worked in a type shop and had access to typesetting, a stat camera and copiers. They both had a strong interest in experimenting and using the media—they challenged each other and shared many interests—Dirk can give more detail on that. I do recall David bringing by Egyptian and Mexican newspapers and magazines with grotesque and gory photos. In those days American papers were pretty conservative in what pictures were published, so the foreign papers had better raw material.

We didn’t really talk about color or composition, but more shared enthusiasms and resources and encouragement. He and Brian and I all shopped for frames one day on West 8th street because we were entering our work in the Small Works show at Washington Square East Galleries (rejected). He visited my studio at Union Square a few times—for open studios—and once to write out a recommendation to try to get me into the Clocktower studios. I never visited his painting studios. For his Flower paintings, I took his typed manuscripts and had them typeset to fit the shape of each painting so the text could be silkscreened on top. I have those original manuscripts.

One technical thing we talked about once was a way to make objects glow or pop by putting a halo around them; and it was something I did in my paintings and I’m sure you can find examples in David’s work.

Archival Material from Wojnarowicz Papers, Fales Library

This list of paint colors from the Wojnarowicz Papers shows the specific colors Wojnarowicz was working with circa 1990.

  1. Steven Hager, “From Street to Salon,” New York Beat, 16 May 1984, 17
  2. Cynthia Carr, Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (New York, Bloomsbury, 2012): 5-6