Fever Dreams: David Wojnarowicz at the New Museum

By Jenevive Nykolak

October 2012


In December 2010, the New Museum installed David Wojnarowicz’s unfinished film A Fire in My Belly, A Work in Progress (1986–87) in the Museum’s Lobby. The film consists of a charged, associative montage: gritty footage from the artist’s travels to Mexico combines with staged scenes of surreal imagery, such as blood dripping into a dish, two halves of a loaf of bread being stitched together, and the artist’s lips sewn shut. The presentation of the film was organized in response to its removal from the exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” at the National Portrait Gallery on November 30—the result of a campaign launched by Catholic League president William Donohue against the public funding of what he claimed was anti-Christian art. Donohue pointed to a single motif of ants crawling over a crucifix—crudely excerpted from the dense, open-ended film—as evidence of such a bias, and (erroneously) described the work as, “a video that shows large ants eating away at Jesus on a crucifix.” [1] Exhibiting A Fire in My Belly at the New Museum served not only to protest the removal of the film, but also to refute Donohue’s reductive and misleading characterization of its content by presenting the film in its entirety—as a work in progress with multiple, overlapping incarnations.

 

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"David Wojnarowicz: A Fire in My Belly, A Work in Progress (1986-87)" Installation view.

 

The New Museum was among the first of numerous institutions nationwide to show Wojnarowicz’s film in the wake of this controversy. Explaining the concerns that prompted the New Museum’s swift response, Lisa Phillips, Toby Devan Lewis Director, said, “The New Museum has always defended freedom of expression and continues to oppose censorship. We cannot afford to take hard-won civil liberties for granted and need to remain vigilant and protect artistic freedom.”[2] On view between December 4, 2010, and January 23, 2011, the presentation consisted of a digitized loop of the thirteen-minute, silent, 8mm film and another, separate seven-minute version. The latter incarnation had previously been included in Rosa von Praunheim’s 1989 documentary on the AIDS epidemic, Silence=Death. For “Hide/Seek,” this version was edited down further to four minutes and set to the soundtrack of an ACT UP demonstration.[3]


Wojnarowicz often repeated or recycled images among his works, providing space for viewers to make open-ended, contingent connections. This strategy, combined with the film’s unfinished condition, led to the confusing proliferation of different versions of the film that circulated in the wake of the removal of the one included in “Hide/Seek.” Archival versions, posthumous exhibition versions, and unauthorized online versions: each posed a different interpretation of the “work in progress,” shifting the film’s resonance through changes in the montage or the addition of a soundtrack. By presenting multiple archival versions of Wojnarowicz’s moving work, the New Museum worked against its censorship by restoring both its multiplicity and unresolved status.


The exhibition of Fire in My Belly in 2010 came exactly twenty years after Wojnarowicz’s work was first exhibited at the New Museum. In the ensuing decades, the Museum had continued to support the artist, exhibiting his work in the face of various political challenges. His work was first exhibited at the Museum as part of “The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the 1980s” in 1990. The following year, Wojnarowicz was featured again at the New Museum in the group exhibition “The Interrupted Life,” a thematic exploration of death that included artists ranging from Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys to Jimmie Durham and Kiki Smith. In 1999, the Museum then hosted “Fever: The Art of David Wojnarowicz,” the first retrospective of the artist’s work and consideration of his legacy following his untimely death from AIDS-related complications in 1992.

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"Fever: The Art of David Wojnarowicz." Installation view. Photo: Fred Scruton

 

These exhibitions of Wojnarowicz’s work unfolded against the Museum’s ongoing engagement with contemporary discourses of identity, desire, and politics in contemporary art. For example, exhibitions such as “Art and Ideology” (1984) and “Cadences: Icons and Abstraction in Context” (1991), explored the place of politics in art practices ranging from engaged activist art to abstract painting. “Extended Sensibilities: Homosexual Presence in Contemporary Art” (1982), organized by the young curator Dan Cameron (who would later organize the Wojnarowicz retrospective in 1999), was one of the earliest museum exhibitions to address sexual identity and contemporary art, a focus revisited five years later in William Olander’s exhibition “Homo Video: Where We Are Now” (1987). Finally, several exhibitions and presentations mark the Museum’s ongoing presentation of responses by artists to the AIDS epidemic: “The Window: Let the Record Show” (1987–88), “Félix González-Torres” (1988), “The Window: An Installation by General Idea” (1988–89), the aforementioned “The Interrupted Life” (1991), and “Day Without Art” (1995).


Given this background of the institution’s attention to contemporary art addressing issues of sexuality and responses to homophobia and the AIDS crisis, when the New Museum opened the retrospective in January of 1999, it appeared not only as a careful presentation of Wojnarowicz’s work, but also as a consideration of the legacy of the so-called “culture wars” and the politicized context of art during that period. Indeed, in 1999, fresh historical assessments of the cultural politics of the previous decade were prompted, as in the anthology “Art Matters: How the Culture Wars Changed America,” coedited by former New Museum curator Brian Wallis.[4] Even the practical organization of “Fever” inescapably reflected on the arts funding crises and censorship controversies of the preceding decade. The ’90s had seen an increasing withdrawal and restructuring of governmental support for the arts, culminating in the vote to abolish the NEA in 1997.[5] The agency survived, but with a reduced budget and increased federal oversight. In a grant proposal for the show, the show’s curator Dan Cameron worried, “given the provocative nature of Wojnarowicz’s work, government or corporate funding is highly unlikely…”[6] In the end, the show did receive corporate sponsorship—in the form of support from Versace Classic and Out magazine—as well as private funding from the Henry Luce Foundation’s Program in American Art, and a grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.


“Fever” was both a product of this history, as well as a critical attempt to intervene into its effects. It was explicitly conceived as a way of developing an understanding and appreciation of Wojnarowicz’s body of work beyond the polemics of the tumultuous and often tragic course of its making and initial reception. In an interview on the eve of the show, Cameron emphasized the pressing need to “build a case for Wojnarowicz as an artist” after what he described as the art world’s marginalization of Wojnarowicz in the wake of his legal battles in 1989 and 1990, and his outspoken activism around issues of AIDS and homophobia.[7] The critical response to “Fever” centered precisely on the question of Wojnarowicz’s role in the controversies and struggles of the previous decades. Writing in the New York Times, Holland Cotter considered the reception of such politicized work at the end of the century, suggesting that “Wojnarowicz’s all-or-nothing intensities might register as artifacts of another era and a different set of circumstances,” but concluding that the retrospective proved to be both timely and timeless.[8] Coinciding with exhibitions of the artist’s work at P.P.O.W., Gracie Mansion Gallery, Adam Baumgold Fine Art, and the Fales Library at New York University, “Fever” sparked a flurry of such reconsiderations, in what Time Out New York called “a full-blown revival of this white hot cultural warrior.”[9] A preview for the show in Artforum suggested that “this first full-scale retrospective will remind many visitors of the corrosive cultural climate of the ’80s, the politics of AIDS, of homophobia, of conservative hostility to socially committed, sexually explicit art.”[10] This critical consensus perhaps glossed over some of the underlying continuities between the two moments of Wojnarowicz’s reception: the situation of arts funding and expression in 1999 was premised upon processes begun in the late ’80s, and sexuality remained a charged issue at the turn of the century, with gains in queer visibility matched by a marked tendency towards an emphasis on conservative political positions and mainstream institutions.


By taking up Wojnarowicz’s body of work, the retrospective revisited this earlier moment in the Museum’s history, when Wojnarowicz had contributed a sprawling installation to “The Decade Show” in the summer of 1990. Produced in collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art and the Studio Museum in Harlem, “The Decade Show” brought together a multicultural and interdisciplinary group of artists exploring the “idea of identity” in the political, social, and cultural contexts of the 1980s.[11] It occurred in the wake of Wojnarowicz’s high-profile involvement in a battle with the National Endowment of the Arts over the funding of the exhibition “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing” at Artists Space in 1989, and during his lawsuit against Donald Wildmon and the American Family Association (AFA).[12] Wojnarowicz’s piece America: Heads of Family, Heads of State (1989–90) consisted of a large, blindfolded papier-mâché head, labeled “QUEER,” roasting over a platform built from video monitors and large blocks covered by enlargements of hate mail received by the artist along with newspaper photographs of homophobic picketers. Symbolically charged objects installed to either side of the platform rested on a bed of twigs and leaves while images of right-wing politicians and the artist’s parents were hung on the walls along with the piece Untitled (One day this kid…).[13] In a talk given by Wojnarowicz that year, he wondered if the public assertion of his sexual identity “makes some people see the word ‘QUEER’ somehow written across my forehead in capital letters,” and if that “prevents some from hearing anything else I say, or whether or not it automatically discounts anything else I might say.”[14]

 

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David Wojnarowicz, America: Heads of Family, Heads of State (1990). Photo: Fred Scruton

 

The installation stages the artist’s perception of the ambient and intimate homophobia of American society, incorporating artifacts of his encounter with its silencing forces. In this respect, it exhibits a dynamic described by Richard Meyer in his study of homosexuality and censorship in twentieth-century American art, Outlaw Representation, in which, “attempts to censor or suppress works of art produce contradictory effects: they provoke as well as prohibit artistic expression.”[15] He suggests that Wojnarowicz, along with groups like Gran Fury, often responded to threats of censorship by representing them within the very fabric of their work, incorporating them into their art in challenging ways. Indeed, Wojnarowicz conceived of and realized America in the midst of a contentious encounter with threats of censorship. When his first lifetime retrospective, “Tongues of Flame,” opened at Illinois State University on January 23, 1990, images reproduced in the NEA-funded catalogue became fodder for the campaign launched by Wildmon and the AFA. Wildmon excerpted details from Wojnarowicz’s work, isolating thirteen sexually explicit images and one image of Jesus shooting heroin, and recombined them under the headline “Your Tax Dollars Helped to Pay for These Works of Art.”[16] Thousands of flyers of this disingenuous portrayal of Wojnarowicz’s art, depicting it as obscene and sacrilegious, were mailed to members of congress and Christian leaders and organizations in mid-April, prompting Wojnarowicz to sue Wildmon and the AFA. His lawyers filed a complaint just days after “The Decade Show” opened at the New Museum in May. Right before the close of the show in August, the judge delivered a ruling for Wojnarowicz v. American Family Association, dismissing the charges of copyright infringement and libel, but finding the defendant guilty of violating the New York Artists’ Authorship Rights Act, and requiring a corrective mailing be sent out and for Wojnarowicz to be paid a symbolic dollar in damages.[17]


However, due to Wojnarowicz’s brushes with censorship and outspoken activism, by the time of his 1999 retrospective, his work risked lapsing into another kind of silence: wariness and neglect from arts institutions. In “Fever,” Cameron emphasized his formal achievements and influence on contemporary art, linking the artist’s use of different media—painting, writing, photography, film, video, music, cartooning, performance, installation—to a “multilayered, synchronic vision,” in which individual and world, personal and political, past and present converge.[18] In the catalogue, the art historian Mysoon Rizk similarly argued, “a collage aesthetic provided the means for synthesizing Wojnarowicz’s own life and the lives of others.”[19] Rizk suggests that by using collage, Wojnarowicz “shuffled meanings and associations, uncovered schisms and contradictions, and generated alternative narratives of his own history and that of the world.”[20] The specificity of this undertaking, as well as its difference from superficially similar Neo-Expressionist modes of pastiche, is clear when considered against the form of the right-wing attacks to which Wojnarowicz’s work was repeatedly subjected.


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Left: David Wojnarowicz, Silence Through Economics (1988-89). Photo: Fred Scruton, Right: David Wojnarowicz, He Kept Following Me (1990). Photo: Fred Scruton


In the works assembled for the retrospective, several modes of collage span a variety of approaches to concatenating images, texts, and objects. Summarizing this range, John Carlin notes in the catalogue that Wojnarowicz quickly moved from “collage homages to literary outlaws [Jean] Genet and [William] Burroughs to the creation of giant symbol systems,” such as his culminating 1987 “Four Elements” paintings. [21] Wojnarowicz approached collage through a range of inventive strategies. In later works, such as Fever (1988–89), Spirituality (for Paul Thek) (1988–89), and Silence Through Economics (1988–89), the more austere, lapidary arrangement of discrete photographs on board suggests simultaneity and sequence, subjective associations and narrative connections. Wojnarowicz also experimented with circular inset photographs, as in “Sex Series (For Marion Scemama)” (1988–89), and stitched-in photographs, as in his final paintings, such as He Kept Following Me (1990) and I Feel a Vague Nausea (1990). In her foreword to the catalogue for “Fever,” New Museum founding director Marcia Tucker crystallizes this aesthetic as an interweaving of individual experience and the social world: “His work spoke graphically about gay life, politics, sex, AIDS, homophobia, friendship, death, industrialization, grief, religion, and more—overlaying ideas, sensations, images, words, sounds, and icons in a richly textured, layered screen in which experience and fact coalesced and separated continuously.”[22]


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David Wojnarowicz, Arthur Rimbaud In New York (1978-79). Installation view: "Fever: The Art of David Wojnarowicz," 1999. Photo: Fred Scruton

 

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David Wojnarowicz, Arthur Rimbaud In New York (1978-79). Photo: Fred Scruton


This specificity of Wojnarowicz’s collage aesthetic is already apparent in some of the earliest paintings and photographs featured in “Fever,” where it is used to bring together disparate historical moments, as well as references to other media, such as literature and poetry. For example, in the photographic series Arthur Rimbaud in New York (1978–79) the donning of a photocopied mask collages the guise of the nineteenth-century French poet together with the spaces of New York in the late 1970s. These black-and-white photographs were undoubtedly one of the revelations of the retrospective, prominently mentioned throughout the show’s critical coverage. In the New York Times, Holland Cotter tied the series to the centrality of gay identity in Wojnarowicz’s life and work: “For this series, made with a beat-up old camera, he asked a lover to wear a portrait mask of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, an icon of the gay movement. He then took pictures of him at various locations around the city…as if to say, ‘We are everywhere.’”[23] This project pointed to the power of a collage aesthetic to reference other times and media within the space of photography.[24] It also demonstrated the potential for this space to actively register social and political concerns, especially those pertaining to sexuality: the appearance of Rimbaud in New York spoke to the impoverishment of the present moment, as well as to the difficult texture of cross-generational desire and identification (as the mask must erase the face of its bearer). These dynamics would be further explored and imported into the space of painting, in another early work, Peter Hujar Dreaming/Yuko Mishima: St. Sebastian/em> <(1982).


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Left and Right: David Wojnarowicz, Peter Hujar Dreaming/Yukio Mishima: St Sebastian, 1982. Installation view: "Fever: The Art of David Wojnarowicz," 1999. Photo: Fred Scruton


In this painting, Wojnarowicz stenciled three intersecting figures in spray paint against a speckled black background and a network of torn-up map fragments. A large blue torso, stuck with yellow arrows dominates the canvas. A smaller, supine figure masturbating is superimposed in the center, above a more elaborately rendered depiction of the sleeping Hujar, who is also pierced by the yellow arrows. The painting recalls the traditional conceit of depicting both dream and dreamer within the space of a painting—a convention also used in Something from Sleep II (1987) and History Keeps Me Awake at Night (For Rilo Chmielorz) (1986)—but multiplies and telescopes the interrelated figures. The upper two figures explicitly reference an iconic passage from Yukio Mishima’s 1949 novel, Confessions of a Mask, which describes the male protagonist’s sexual awakening while looking at a print of Guido Reni’s painting of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian.[25] The complex space of the painting seems to describe Hujar’s dream of Mishima’s protagonist masturbating to a fantasy of St. Sebastian; yet the overlapping and interpenetrating forms blur the direction of this chain, as the fantasy materializes in the painting to wound the dreamer. The enmeshed figures are heterogeneous in terms of scale, mode of rendering, and orientation—a condition amplified by the painting’s initial installation suspended face down from the ceiling of Gracie Mansion in November 1982 for “The Famous Show.”[26] Wojnarowicz’s interest in bringing together distinct temporalities and media, through a collage aesthetic of layering and juxtaposition, is here represented as both a desired and fraught project, both dreamed of and potentially wounding. Above all, these early works suggest that the space of collage—either virtual, as in photography and painting, or actual—might become an active arena in which to stage dialogues across time, space, and mediums, as well as to illuminate and contest the workings of homophobia.


This critical capacity is explored in Fuck You Faggot Fucker (1984), a mixed media work in which a stenciled image depicts the outline of two young men kissing, set against a background of torn map fragments clouded with white acrylic paint. The pair is doubled by an obscene doodle on a found scrap of paper embedded directly below them—from which the painting derives its incendiary title. The resonance of the two pairs of figures hovers between insult and affirmation, figuring passionate transcendence against crude traces of hostility. The painting was originally exhibited in May of 1984 at Civilian Warfare Gallery, where Wojnarowicz argued with gallery codirector Alan Barrows over the suitability of the title—specifically it’s potential to offend the gallery’s audience. In her biography of the artist, Cynthia Carr reports that Wojnarowicz’s response to this altercation was to forever link images of Barrows to the motif of the kissing couple through his untitled piece from 1988—in which the stenciled couple from Fuck You Faggot Fucker reappears, outlining two shaped contact sheets, the one on the left derived from a roll of film documenting Wojnarowicz and Barrows’s trip to Europe.[27] These works point to Wojnarowicz’s use of collage not only as a way to bring together disparate elements, but also as part of a confrontation, in which multimedia juxtapositions are transformed into spaces of active contestation.


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David Wojnarowicz, Fuck You Faggot Fucker, 1984. Black-and-white photographs, acrylic, spray paint, and collage on masonite. Photo: Fred Scruton


This strategy became increasingly explicit towards the end of the eighties. From the aforementioned inclusion of reproductions of hate mail in America to the collaging of a copy of Wildmon’s incendiary flyer onto Why the Church Can’t/Won’t Be Separated from the State (1991), Wojnarowicz repeatedly incorporated traces of hostile and homophobic reactions into the matrix of his art. In both 1990 and 2010, the attack on Wojnarowicz’s work hinged upon an operation perversely echoing the very strategies of collage that the artist himself used to great effect. In Wildmon’s flyer in 1990 and Donohue’s clumsy characterization twenty years later, single images or shots were ripped away from their complex spatial and temporal contexts, and given a fixed, tendentious meaning. However, throughout his work, Wojnarowicz’s canny use of collage aesthetics consistently foregrounded the forces of this hostile context, suggesting that this open-ended approach was not a potential liability, but an indispensable source of power.

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"Fever: The Art of David Wojnarowicz," 1999. Exhibition view. Photo: Fred Scruton


In 1999, the New Museum’s presentation of “Fever” highlighted the specificity and force of Wojnarowicz’s collage aesthetic, as well as the high stakes of its use. It also brought together—intact—many of the works that had been appropriated and recontextualized in the 1990 AFA mailing, such as Arthur Rimbaud in New York (Masturbating) (1978–79), Water (1987), and Sex Series (For Marion Scemama) (1988–89). No doubt Cameron succeeded in cementing the artist’s reputation and legacy through this retrospective, as seen, for example, in the 2006 publication of David Wojnarowicz: A Definitive History of Five or Six Years on the Lower East Side by Semiotext(e), and in the work of the artists participating in the 2008 exhibition at P.P.O.W., “History Keeps Me Awake at Night: A Genealogy of David Wojnarowicz.”[28] When Wojnarowicz’s work was once again subject to violent fragmentation in 2010, the New Museum was quick to respond, once again countering the forces of censorship with the thoughtful and sustained exhibition of the work itself, in all of its open-ended multiplicity. If worrying echoes of the previous decades were glimpsed in the 2010 controversy, so too, perhaps, was the strength and sophistication developed through the reconsideration of Wojnarowicz’s works launched during the intervening years.


Jenevive Nykolak is an art historian who lives in Rochester and Brooklyn. She is a PhD candidate in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester.


 

Notes


[1] William Donohue, “Smithsonian Hosts Anti-Christian Exhibit,” Catholic League press release (November 30, 2010), http://www.catholicleague.org/smithsonian-hosts-anti-christian-exhibit-2/ (accessed September 14, 2012).

[2] “David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in my Belly on View at the New Museum Through January 23, 2011,” New Museum press release (December 6, 2010), http://archive.newmuseum.org/index.php/Detail/Object/Show/object_id/7460 (accessed September 14, 2012).

[3] The initial reporting on the removal of the video was rife with inaccuracies due, in part, to confusion about versions of the unfinished film. My account draws from the clarifications offered by “Hide/Seek” curator Jonathan D. Katz and Director of Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University Marvin Taylor, collected here: http://www.hideseek.org/versions/ (accessed September 14, 2012). See also: Pia Catton, “Recovering a Legacy Lost in the 'Fire,'” in the Wall Street Journal (January 31, 2011).

[4] Brian Wallis, Marianne Weems, and Philip Yenawine, eds., Art Matters: How the Culture Wars Changed America (New York: New York University Press, 1999).

[5] Jerry Gray, “House Approves Measure to Kill Arts Endowment,” in the New York Times, July 16, 1997.

[7] “The Uncut Interview with Dan Cameron,” in City Arts, n.p., “Fever: The Art of David Wojnarowicz” curatorial files, New Museum Archive.

[8] Holland Cotter, “The Tinderbox Career of a Legendary Truth Teller,” in the New York Times, January 22, 1999, 36.

[9] “David Wojnarowicz,” in Time Out New York, January 21, 1999, New Museum Archive.

[10] DF, “Fever: The Art of David Wojnarowicz,” in Artforum 37, no. 5 (January 1999), 37.

[11] The New Museum Annual Report, 1990, New Museum Archive.

[12] Richard Meyer, Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), 244–264.

[13] For a description of the elements of this installation, see: Cynthia Carr, Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012), 485.

[14] David Wojnarowicz, “Do Not Doubt the Dangerousness of the 12-Inch-Tall Politician,” collected in Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, 1991, 150. The essay is “derived from talks delivered at Illinois State University at Normal, Illinois, and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1990.”

[15] Meyer, 2002, 227.

[16] For a detailed account of this episode, see: Meyer, 2002, 255–59, and Brian Wallis, “Wojnarowicz Show Riles Right-Wingers,” in Art in America 78 (June 1990), 45.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Dan Cameron, “Passion in the Wilderness,” ed. Amy Scholder, in Fever: The Art of David Wojnarowicz (New York: Rizzoli/ New Museum Books, 1999), 4.

[19] Mysoon Rizk, “Reinventing the Pre-invented World,” in Fever, 49.

[20] Rizk, 50.

[21] John Carlin, “Angel With a Gun: David Wojnarowicz, 1954-1992,” in Fever, 94.

[22] Marcia Tucker, “Foreword,” in Fever.

[23] Cotter, 1999, 36.

[24] For further discussion of the relationship of this series to Wojnarowicz’s approach to collage, see: Mysoon Rizk, “Constructing Histories: David Wojnarowicz’s Arthur Rimbaud in New York,” ed. Deborah Bright, in The Passionate Camera (New York: Routledge, 1998), and Fiona Anderson, “Notions of the Collaborative in the Work of David Wojnarowicz,” Papers of Surrealism 8 (Spring 2010).

[25] Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask, trans. Meredith Weatherby (New York: New Directions, 1958), 38–41.

[26] Carr, 2012, 219.

[27] Ibid., 257–9.

[28] Ed. Giancarlo Ambrosino, David Wojnarowicz: A Definitive History of Five or Six Years on the Lower East Side (New York: Semiotext(e), 2006).