Painting--Paint and Mixed Media on Canvas, Wood, and Masonite

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Untitled (Man with Rifle), 1983. Acrylic on canvas, 95 x 95 inches. Private collection. Courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and PPOW, New York

Wojnarowicz did not have formal training in painting, although his high school art teacher, Betty Ann Hogan, taught a studio class where he learned how to stretch canvas and mix paints.[1] According to Wojnarowicz, he began producing paintings in 1982 by invitation: “Then some guy…asked me to exhibit in an art gallery. I said ok and bought a couple of Masonite boards. That was really the first bonafide painting I ever did.” [2] That guy was Ed Baynard, and he had invited Wojnarowicz to contribute to a group show at Alexander F. Milliken Gallery in Soho. At that time, Wojnarowicz was primarily known for his graffiti and stencil work, and Baynard was taken by the burning house image he’d seen stenciled around the East Village. Wojnarowicz was also already painting at the abandoned warehouses along the West Side Piers. For his contribution to Milliken, Wojnarowicz produced Untitled (Green Head), a diptych based off of a photograph of Peter Hujar’s head, with layered stencils of soldiers, planes, and the burning house.

Wojnarowicz did occasionally paint on canvas or muslin instead of wood, as in Untitled (Man with Rifle), from 1983, and Late Afternoon in the Forest, 1986. But Masonite seemed to have been his preferred material, which he used as an architectural surface on which to create the layered, densely symbolic imagery he pursued in other media. One example, which also demonstrates Wojnarowicz’s collaborative work in painting, is the 1984 Collaboration with Marion S. In this painting, cut maps, paper money, and a photographic image of the New York City skyline form the ground for painted imagery of rivers and a hand cutting meat. A hinged door is cut out of the Masonite, on which a photograph of Kiki Smith by Marion Scemama affixed, upside-down, with a wire screen over it. [3]

After taking 1985 off from painting following his inclusion in the Whitney Biennial, Wojnarowicz continued to make large-scale, layered works. Two significant groups of works are the ones he exhibited in his 1986 Gracie Mansion Gallery solo show (which Cynthia Carr described as the “history paintings”), and the “Four Elements” paintings, two of which are in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. The “history paintings” pair imagery of post-industrial ruin with organic or archaic symbols, and include pre-printed materials like supermarket posters, maps, and paper money, as well painted images of Western landscapes, Native American symbols, and animals. In the “Four Elements” paintings, four 6x8 paintings depict fire, water, earth, and wind, and on the iconography and pre-printed material above, along with skeletons, tornadoes, volcanoes, human organs, and other personal references. [4]

The incorporation of pre-printed material like maps, music sheets, and paper money is a signature technique. For Wojnarowicz this material held very specific charge: "I'll use pre-printed material in order to illustrate something of the structure behind those pre-printed materials."[5] Maps in particular symbolized the disciplinary control of what Wojnarowicz described as the “pre-invented world,” and by altering maps, he offered an alternative vision: “By tearing through maps, I erase borders; borders create ownership and wars.”[6]

Media and techniques

Hand-written list of paints to buy, c. 1990. Wojnarowicz Papers, Fales, Phone logs, Series 4, Box 7, Folder 10

Wojnarowicz primarily worked with acrylic, enamel, and spray paint. His choice of paint was frequently guided by affordability. In 1984, he explained, "Until recently I couldn't afford to buy good acrylic paint. The cheapest stuff is Utrecht, which costs $2.99 a bottle, compared to $15 for other brands."[7] In interviews, Marguerite Van Cook and James Romberger echo his attachment to Utrecht paint, and particularly emphasized the use of Utrecht blue. They also note that a recurring green aqua (a water-based, acrylic gloss finish) was used because Civilian Warfare had cans left over from painting their storefront and Wojnarowicz used them.[8] Later in his career, a list from a circa 1989 phone log offers insight into the colors he was using at that time.

Wojnarowicz frequently salvaged Masonite from lumber yards, or from his friends who worked in the theater district.[9] Pieces with precise windows were cut to his specifications. Marion Scemama recalls dropping off instructions for wood to be cut during the Fall and Winter of 1989 and 1990 when she spent considerable time assisting him with his work. Wendy Olsoff also describes ordering wood to his specifications and delivering it to his home. [10]

In terms of process, Wojnarowicz planned out his paintings in advance, as can be seen in sketches in Fales [insert image from Series 4, Box 7, Folder 9] He sometimes reworked a painting over time, returning to a piece and adding to it. John Carlin describes the evolution of Death of American Spirituality, 1987, which began as a sketch from a dream that was then made into a painting in 1985 for a commission in Paris that was not accepted and was returned to in 1987, when Wojnarowicz added the final imagery of rifle targets and a cowboy. [11]

Conservation and display

These are wall-mounted works. Installation views during his lifetime would likely give indication of Wojnarowicz’s preferred hanging style: Wendy Olsoff recalled that Wojnarowicz was involved in the installation of his work at PPOW, though Sur Rodney Sur and Barry Blinderman recalled that Wojnarowicz was not involved in his installations at Gracie Mansion and Illinois State University, respectively.[12]

Selected works

Late Afternoon in the Forest, 1986. Acrylic, spray-paint and collage on muslin; 79 5/16 x 158 3/4 in. (201.51 x 403.23 cm). The Broad Art Foundation F-WOJN-1P86.60


Barry Blinderman
Blinderman is a curator and art historian who curated David Wojnarowicz: Tongues of Flame at the University Galleries, Illinois State University, where he has been director since 1987

Peter Hujar
Hujar was Wojnarowicz's closest friend and mentor. He died of complications related to AIDS in 1987.

Wendy Olsoff
Olsoff is the founder of PPOW Gallery, which began representing Wojnarowicz in 1988.

Marion Scemama
A French artist, Scemema was a friend and frequent collaborator with Wojnarowicz.

Kiki Smith
Smith is an artist and was a frequent collaborator with Wojnarowicz.

Sur Rodney Sur
Sur is a writer, artist and activist. He was co-director of Gracie Mansion Gallery, which showed Wojnarowicz's work in the 1980s.


  1. Cynthia Carr, Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (New York, Bloomsbury, 2012): 328.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Scemama discusses this work in the interview [Interview_with_Marion_Scemama_by_Glenn_Wharton_and_Marvin_Taylor_on_11-3-2015|on this site]
  4. Lucy Lippard discusses the "Four Elements" paintings at length in “Out of the Safety Zone,” Art in America (December 1990): 131-139, 182, 186.
  5. quoted in David Wojnarowicz: Tongues of Flame, organized by Barry Blinderman (Normal, IL: Illinois State University): 61.
  6. David Wojnarowicz, In the Shadow of Forward Motion, photocopied booklet (PPOW: New York, 1989): n.p.
  7. Hager, 17.
  8. ”Marguerite Van Cook and James Romberger” in David Wojnarowicz: A definitive history of five or six years on the Lower East Side, Eds. Sylvère Lotringer and Giancarlo Ambrosino (New York: Semiotexte, 2006): 99.
  9. David Kiehl discusses this practice in the interview on this site
  10. See interview with Wendy Olsoff on this site
  11. John Carlin, “David Wojnarowicz: As the World Turns,” in David Wojnarowicz: Tongues of Flame, P23-25
  12. See interviews with Wendy Olsoff, Barry Blinderman, and Sur Rodney Sur on this site.