“‘History Keeps Me Awake at Night,’ the Whitney Museum’s retrospective of the works of the artist, writer, and activist David Wojnarowicz, opened with a mask of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. Wojnarowicz made the mask out of cardstock and a rubber band, using a famous photograph of the poet at the age of seventeen, and then took a series of photos of his friends wearing it around New York City in the late seventies. Rimbaud rides a densely graffitied subway train; Rimbaud tries to cross an avenue in rush-hour traffic; Rimbaud lies naked on a bed with his penis in one hand; Rimbaud poses with a syringe in his left arm, a bandanna used for a tourniquet. Wojnarowicz, whose artistic career spanned the late seventies to his death, from AIDS, in 1992, at thirty-seven, posed the Rimbaud portraits in spots around New York that were significant in his own life, primarily the places where he had hustled as a child prostitute in his teen years.
Wojnarowicz identified with Rimbaud when he took those photos, and in the twenty-six years since his death, he has became a Rimbaud-like figure: young, iconoclastic, gay, and gone too soon. In his early career, he stenciled graffiti on the abandoned buildings of the bankrupt city, scrawled poetry on the dirty walls of the Chelsea Piers, where he went to cruise for anonymous sex, and wrote moving essays and diary entries that described the beauty he found in the parts of his life that made him an outcast: being gay, and being addicted to heroin.”
“The figures are posed, on the fly and in verité style, in various situations of public and semi-private urban life. They represent a very specific moment in history, a brief period of both innocence and raunch in the City after Stonewall but before AIDS, a wonderland of sex and drugs, of art and love, of material poverty and overwhelming emotional richness. That was the world Wojnarowicz was formed in, and, as we know too well, it was followed by an era almost opposite in every regard, years when Manhattan became dominated by money and death, a sleek wealthy city rising, while an entire generation of gay men, drug users, and others were being buried.”