Sculpture--Exhibited Sculpture

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Wojnarowicz’s first discrete body of exhibited sculpture was a series of driftwood totems he created in 1983, for an installation at Hal Bromm Gallery that year. This series emerged from a day he spent on Jones Beach with Keith Davis and Elayne King painting driftwood and creating a makeshift monolith. [1] The works displayed at Hal Bromm were painted to resemble stylized fish and snakes. They were covered with iconography from elsewhere in Wojnarowicz’s work, including images of globes, falling men, and targets.

Throughout 1984, he shifted from painting found items like driftwood and garbage can lids to creating sculpture more in the assemblage tradition. One sculptural work, which has since been dispersed or destroyed, was Metamorphosis, 1984, which was shown in his last exhibition at Civilian Warfare. This work consisted of 23 plaster alien heads, fired in his home, which he painted or covered with pieces of maps; as the heads progressed, they showed signs of distress (painted or collaged bandages or wounds), and the final head was smashed. He said the piece was about “the evolution of consciousness,”[2] which was symbolized for Wojnarowicz by the number 23 (the number of genes in a chromosome).

While traveling in Argentina with Luis Frangella in the spring of 1984, Wojnarowicz created the Altar for the People of Villa Miseria in response to a shantytown he visited. The work consisted of a painted wooden cabinet with a human figurine, a Mayan statue, and a loaf of bread sewn together with red thread (an image he revisited in the sculpture Untitled (Bread Sculpture), 1988-89) displayed in different compartments. That year, he also began regularly working with animal skulls, skeletons, and mannequins, covering them with paint or paper and incorporating them into installations and/or exhibiting them as sculptures in themselves. One example is Untitled (Shark), 1984, which consists of a found fiberglass sculpture of a shark, covered with decoupaged cut-outs of world maps and painted with acrylic. It hung from the ceiling in the Burning Child installation at Gracie Mansion in 1984. Later, it hung in the exhibition Tongues of Flame at University Galleries of Illinois State University, and was photographed and reproduced in the catalogue for that show.

Media and techniques

From early on in his career, Wojnarowicz’s favored technique for creating sculpture involved working with found objects and transforming them through paint or paper collage. The latter was a particularly rich technique for Wojnarowicz, as covering natural forms like animal skulls with pre-printed materials like maps allowed him to juxtapose the themes of organized society and nature he explored throughout his work.

Conservation and display

The driftwood pieces are primarily displayed mounted on the wall, although in his exhibition at Hal Bromm in 1983, some were placed on piles of sand on the floor. Wojnarowicz frequently hung sculptural pieces, such as Untitled (Shark), and the hanging painted plaster heads and animal skulls covered with maps that he suspended from the central tree in the Mnuchin installation. In these cases the sculptures were outfitted with hanging hardware. In his retrospective Tongues of Flame, small sculptural works were displayed on pedestals under plexiglass, though Wojnarowicz was not involved in the exhibition design of this show. [3]

Selected works

An Altar for the People of the Villa Miseria, 1984. Wood construction with sticks, tape, barbed wire, plaster, and wire; 21 1/4 x 18 1/4 x 6 inches (open). Yale University Art Gallery


  1. Cynthia Carr, Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (New York, Bloomsbury, 2012):230.
  2. Carr, 256.
  3. See interview with Barry Blinderman on this site.