The Love Letters of David Wojnarowicz

The Love Letters of David Wojnarowicz

Wojnarowicz’s first break came in the summer of 1980, when SoHo News published a centerfold of his photographic series “Rimbaud in New York.” The series was inspired by the artist Ernest Pignon-Ernest’s life-size wheat-pasted posters of Rimbaud in street clothes, which Wojnarowicz likely saw with Delage in Paris. In the photographs, his friends wear a mask of the poet as they pose throughout New York City, in decrepit warehouses by the piers, butcher shops, and subway cars, sometimes injecting drugs or masturbating.

“Dear Jean Pierre” makes the full context of the images clear, giving the series new depth. The photographs testify to Wojnarowicz’s intense cathexis of Rimbaud, and his lifelong methodology of the self as other—a notion cribbed from the French poet’s classic teen line “Je est un autre.” But reading the letters alongside these images shows that they’re about more than Wojnarowicz’s desire to be notorious and disguised. They also commemorate his yearning for his absent lover, who appeared behind the mask in a few Rimbaud photos taken during a brief visit to New York.

Those reunions were infrequent, and, by 1981, the strain on their relationship had begun to show. Wojnarowicz’s art and his life both changed dramatically that year. He met his friend and mentor Peter Hujar, a downtown photographer once affiliated with Warhol’s Factory. Hujar and Wojnarowicz began a largely chaste love affair that would last until Hujar’s death from AIDS in 1987. True to form, Wojnarowicz masks, or at least downplays, this momentous meeting in his letters to Delage. On January 5, 1981, he reported: “Spent the night talking with a new friend about life / photos etc.—rare that I have chance to just talk and listen to interesting things.” Hujar also takes portraits of Wojnarowicz that open his subject up. Wojnarowicz wrote to Delage in August, 1981, “I looked at the photos he made and was surprised: they are very beautiful—I never saw myself like this before.”

As Wojnarowicz got closer to Hujar and deeper into his art, the tone of the conversation with Jean-Pierre began to sound more mournful, and doubt crept in. In January, 1982, he wrote, “Please be patient with me.” There are no letters from March 18th to June, 1982, included in the volume. According to Carr’s biography, Delage slept with one of Wojnarowicz’s friends in Paris around this time. “Dear Jean Pierre” contains Wojnarowicz’s hurt reaction in one of the last letters in the collection: “I can not think about living with you at this time. I need to solve my problems with my work and my life.” The problems with work, at least, were good ones to have: on June 11, 1982, Wojnarowicz appeared in a group show at the Alexander Milliken Gallery on Prince Street with Jean-Michel Basquiat, Francesco Clemente, David Hockney, and other art stars, which led to his first solo show in December of that year.

This pre-AIDS arcadia didn’t last. Four months after that solo show, and right around the time that “Dear Jean Pierre” closes, Larry Kramer published “1,112 and Counting,” the first clarion warning: “Why isn’t every gay man in this city so scared shitless that he is screaming for action? Does every gay man in New York want to die?” The lone, oblique reference to the epidemic in the correspondence appears in a coda to “Dear Jean Pierre” from September, 1991, nine months before Wojnarowicz’s death. By that time, he had been largely consumed by the political and medical emergency of AIDS. He sent Jean-Pierre a card, a dispatch from a different world, referring to “a lot of different illnesses.” He wrote, “I don’t have much energy. I take a walk every day if I can. It’s difficult inside my head—I wish I could get a reprieve from these sensations and isolation.”

Wojnarowicz found reprieve in art and activism, but a comment he made to Zoe Leonard in 1989 suggests the trajectory that he could have taken in a better world. As Carr recounts in “Fire in the Belly,” Leonard asked Wojnarowicz to look at her aerial photographs, dreamy black-and-white images of feathery clouds. She was worried that the work was at odds with her activism around the AIDS crisis. Wojnarowicz told her not to worry: “We’re being angry and complaining because we have to, but where we want to go is back to beauty.” Of course, there’s beauty in Wojnarowicz’s political art, a quality deepened by seeing the artist in love in “Dear Jean Pierre.” The book is yet another monument to the incalculable lost potential of the AIDS epidemic. But it’s also a joyful reclamation of an epoch of discovery in Wojnarowicz’s art—and in the lives of its subjects, who, it is clear, were deeply affected by their time together. Speaking to a reporter about the P.P.O.W. exhibition, Delage said of his Wojnarowicz archive, “I keep it like sacred things.”

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