Works on Paper--Stencils

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Wojnarowicz's stenciled imagery on abandoned car in East Village, 1982. Courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W, New York

Wojnarowicz discussed how he first started working with stencils in an interview with Cynthia Carr:

"Julie Hair had a box of international symbols in stencil form. I thought, Oh, we should do stencils that they forgot, such as burning houses. You know, images of resistance or violence. They never make international symbols like that, so let’s develop the burning house, a falling man, the target-face person, and little soldiers."[1].

From the early 1980s on, these iconic images became closely associated with Wojnarowicz. He used them on posters advertising his band 3 Teens Kill 4, on individual prints, and applied to a variety of surfaces, including the walls and windows of abandoned warehouses along the West Side piers, the interior of galleries (see 411 installation), streets, storefronts, and abandoned cars. Many recall first recognizing Wojnarowicz as the guy who was doing the burning house stencils around the Lower East Side. [2] At the time, other artists (notably Keith Haring) were also spraypainting with stencils to create street art around the neighborhood, but Wojnarowicz’s work stood out with its distinctive imagery.

Media and techniques

Stencil is one of four broad categories utilized to distinguish different types of fine art prints and includes cut-out and screenprinting techniques. Wojnarowicz, by using the cut-out technique, both by itself and in combination with other media, worked within the printmaking tradition while also expanding the limits of the medium.

Wojnarowicz created the cut-outs using free-hand drawings, or occasionally copied them from photographs or other reference images obtained from his archive of ephemera, of which he was a fervent collector. A stencil of Peter Hujar’s head that was spraypainted onto the storefront of Civilian Warfare Studio and used in various paintings is an example of the latter; Wojnarowicz created it from a photograph he had taken of the artist. To do his stencils on the street, Wojnarowicz required a lookout. Artist Jane Bauman recalled that she would accompany him on stenciling trips, wandering the neighborhood after midnight.[3] These prints were done hastily, and in the dark.

To make a stencil print, using the cut-out technique, Wojnarowicz applied spray paint through areas cut-out of a paper support to create a positive image. Wojnarowicz used this technique often and with great ingenuity to serially print his compositions of letters, symbols, shapes, and patterns on traditional supports like paper or wood, but also appropriated the urban landscape, stenciling walls, windows, cars or other found objects. With little to no formal art training, Wojnarowicz must have appreciated the inherent simplicity and versatility of the technique as a means to broadly disseminate his ideas.

The stencil templates were created by cutting away sections of a rigid paper support with a knife to create a negative of the intended composition. However, Wojnarowicz also utilized the positive cut-out portion as a stencil to print the inverse. His stencil print, Culture in Variation, for example, depicts a reoccurring motif in his work, a figure with his arm raised above is head in both formats.

Surviving cut-out templates are mostly poster boards—a low cost, widely available material, ideal for Wojnarowicz who had little resources for art supplies at the height of his stencil use in the early 1980s. Once the design was cut-out, an impression was made by affixing the template to the chosen support—either with tape, but often with a spray adhesive (there are adhesive residues on extant Wojnarowicz stencils in the collection of the Fales Library, New York University)—and then spray painting over the templates to create the positive image. It would have been necessary to secure the template to the support regardless of whether working vertically or horizontally as the force of the air from the spray paint could disrupt it during image making. Images of the artist taken by Andreas Sterzing in 1983 reveal Wojnarowicz’s penchant for working horizontally on the floor—either because of preference or necessity—and they also reveal Wojnarowicz’s collection of paints, brushes and other supplies scattered throughout the studio including numerous cans of Krylon paint which today is an icon of 1980s street art.

Krylon was a go-to for many artists, including graffiti artists of the day, because of its general quality, low price, availability and range of colors. Spray paint was also appealing because it could cover a lot of surface area quickly, an advantage when, as in the case of street art, the act of creating the work was often illegal. A range of colors including primaries, as well as a variety of bright colors including green, pink, yellow, orange and silver, can be found in existing stencil prints and in photo-documentation of his work in the Wojnarowicz Papers in the collection of Fales Library, New York University. One possible way of reconstructing his palette, albeit an unscientific one, would be using Krylon spray paint color charts by Borden from that time.

Wojnarowicz was masterful at achieving a broad range of effects with his use of spray paint, which inherently has a very flat and smooth finish. While some of his stencil prints were simple, depicting broad, flat fields of color, requiring one template and one color of paint like the original Burning House, others, like Wojnarowicz’s 1982 composition Firing Squad/Brick Wall were technically sophisticated impressions composed on Bristol paper from multiple templates and layers of color. The use of spray paint to create works like this pushes the visual structure of printmaking, from the textural characteristics produced by the spray, depending on how much paint is applied and from what distance; and other, less predictable issues, such as how the mist settles on the surface or how colors intertwine.

Wojnarowicz likely purchased some of his papers to create prints like Firing Squad/Brick Wall from New York Central, known at the time for its vast selection and knowledge of artist’s papers. He noted that one of the art store clerks “knew everything there was to know about paper.” Other than Strathmore Bristol, a high quality artist paper, Wojnarowicz used poor-quality papers like newsprint, supermarket posters, a ubiquitous printed material that he would return to throughout his career, and maps, which he liked to deconstruct the meaning of by literally ripping them up or through the stenciled symbols he applied.

The stencils that Wojnarowicz produced in the early 1980s were created with inexpensive materials and in a technically straightforward fashion. Wojnarowicz stenciled on nontraditional surfaces; he largely ignored the potential of editioning in his early works (most of his stencil prints are unique); and his process was direct—he was not reliant on the collaboration between printer and artist common to more technically demanding mediums like etching and lithography. Wojnarowicz clearly saw the medium’s potential as a means of communication and appreciated that, by creating prints on distinctive surfaces, the messages conveyed by the images he rendered would be intermingled with the connotations of the surface on which they were printed, thereby challenging conventional paradigms of technique, reproducibility, and dissemination. These methods worked for Wojnarowicz because of their simple graphic power and speed of manufacture, and with stencil, the artist was able to have at hand reproducible imagery that could be widely distributed, from the street to gallery walls.

Conservation and display

In early exhibitions, Wojnarowicz hung the paper stenciled prints directly onto the wall, unframed (see 411 installation for images). There is no history of Wojnarowicz exhibiting the stencil cutouts themselves.

There is a substantial selection of stencils in the Wojnarowicz Papers at Fales. See interview with conservator Laura McCann on this site for additional information about their care at New York University.

Works on paper are inherently fragile objects. They are particularly susceptible to damage caused by mishandling, exposure to light and fluctuations and extremes of temperature and humidity. Damage caused by exposure to light is cumulative and irreversible and can cause fading of media and discolor or weaken paper. Wojnarowicz’s stencil prints on paper are no exception to these concerns. The constituent materials of each print (e.g., fiber composition of the paper, colorants and binder of each color of spray paint used) in combination with its unique display and storage history will affect its condition today.

The stencil templates, constructed out of paper, are equally as vulnerable as the prints themselves. The thin paper board Wojnarowicz used to construct them would easily have been damaged through use, especially the more intricately cut designs. Most of the stencil templates in the collection of the PPOW Gallery and the David Wojnarowicz Papers at Fales Library appear to have been used on only a few occasions, as evidenced by the minimal layers of spray paint on them. This means that Wojnarowicz must have produced many stencils of his recurring motifs and discarded them as they became less suitable for use.

Wojnarowicz’s stenciled images rendered on the street pose altogether different preservation challenges than his stenciled prints on paper. These projects are preserved only through documentation—oral histories, photographs, and other primary sources. At the Hudson River Piers, for example, Wojnarowicz (with Mike Bidlo) organized the Ward Line Pier Project in1983, where he and other artists created projects on the walls of the abandoned and dilapidated warehouses, which have since been destroyed. Likewise, there is no photographic documentation of Hunger, a rogue project in which Wojanrowicz and Julie Hair reportedly dumped a pile of cow bones and stenciled images in the stairwell of the Leo Castelli Gallery. Although Wojnarowicz subsequently recreated aspects of this project (in 1982, at the Gallery 345, in New York City), and stencil prints that appear to be a part of this process are contained in the collection of Fales Library, the original work is preserved only through oral and written accounts. While documentation can create a useful cultural record of these and Wojnarowicz’s other ephemeral, site-specific projects, it is important to consider that any efforts at reconstructing these works are influenced by the perspective of their source and that the works lose some of their meaning and impact divorced from their original context.

Selected works

Untitled (Burning House), 1982. Spray paint on paper, 23 15/16 x 17 7/8 inches, sheet. Unique. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Purchase with funds from the Print Committee 2010. 87.1