30 March 2011

Fritz Scholder


[I recently published “’May You Be Blessed With Light’: The Zuni Shalako Rite” (22 October 2010) which caught the attention of Jordan Richman, a retired professor who lives in Phoenix. Richman, who did his doctoral work at the University of New Mexico, was good enough to repost the article on his blog Art Legends (http://www.artlegends.org), which features some posts dedicated to Native American culture. One of the posted items was a self-portrait and other paintings by Fritz Scholder (1937-2005), an American Indian artist in whom my family and I have had an interest for some time. Back in 2008, my mother and I went to a retrospective of his work at the National Museum of the American Indian, both the New York segment of the exhibit at the New York City satellite down at Bowling Green and, later, the larger part at the NMAI on the Mall in Washington. Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian ran from 1 November 2008 until 17 May 2009 in New York and 16 August in Washington. Here’s the report on those visits I wrote two years ago.]

On 30 November 2008, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, during an all-day drizzle here, Mom and I trucked down to the National Museum of the American Indian on Bowling Green. (It's now an annex of the main NMAI on the National Mall, but until that museum was opened in 2004, the George Gustav Heye Center was the NMAI, installed in the handsome Beaux Arts Alexander Hamilton Customs House in 1994.) NMAI was holding a two-part exhibit/retrospective of the work of Fritz Scholder, half here in New York and half in Washington; the smaller half here focused on Scholder's painting and sculpture of the 1980s and '90s when he concentrated on non-Indian subjects, including his "mystery woman," a recurring subject, as well as mythical and supernatural figures. Scholder’s an artist in whom my mother has a special interest, having first seen his work with my dad in Santa Fe at the artist's studio there and then again in Dallas, where they bought Another Mystery Woman (c. 1987), a bronze sculpture that’s one of his Mystery Woman series.

Fritz Scholder is, himself, something of a curious character quite aside from his art, which has always been controversial both among the art establishment and among Native Americans. He was born in Minnesota to an Anglo mother and a father who was half German-American and half Luiseño Indian; Scholder’s a member of the Luiseño tribe of Southern California, though he’s said that you can't be something when it's only a quarter of your heritage. Scholder grew up ambivalent about his Indian heritage; in fact, it was hardly mentioned in his home when he was growing up. His father was an administrator of Bureau of Indian Affairs schools but the family lived off the reservation and Fritz went to public schools instead of the BAI schools his father had attended. Scholder said of his father's attitude toward his native heritage that the elder Scholder "was the product of the old Indian schools—he was ashamed of being an Indian." (He also spoke of the Indian schools as being a brainwashing tool used by the Anglo society to erase Native American culture and language and turn Indians into Anglos. That's exactly what they were: their very philosophy was to assimilate the Indian students. It nearly worked, too.) The artist recounted that at their wedding, his mother and father had been given many Indian crafts, such as Maria Martinez pottery (very beautiful black-on-black, very famous, and very valuable), baskets, robes, and blankets, as wedding gifts, but that his father had thrown them all out.

So Scholder grew up essentially denying his own Indian heritage, and though he was determined to become an artist from an early age (his talent was first recognized as early as 1955), he was also determined not to paint Indians. In 1967, he broke his pledge, however, when he saw how badly the Indian was portrayed in art, even Indian art, and his earliest Indian works were immediately controversial for their break with the traditional view of Native Americans in art and their gritty and sometimes seamy portraits of his own people. That year, with Indian No. 16, a featureless Indian with a firm question mark floating over his headdress, “[P]eople just freaked out,” said the artist. “I knew they would.” After Scholder achieved considerable recognition, even if he was viewed as an iconoclast and rebel, in the Southwest, where he had settled, the artist decided he needed to be received by the Eastern art world in order to be a true success. After sojourns and exhibits around the world in places as exotic as Romania, Egypt (where he painted the Sphinx and the pyramids), and Paris, he moved to New York City in 1982 (he lived in the East Village) and vowed again never to paint Indians. For nearly a decade, Scholder kept to other subjects for his work—those "mystery woman" depictions and figures of myth and the spirit world—until he again turned to Indian portrayals in the 1990s, acknowledging that one should never make pledges of that nature. Hence the title for this two-part exhibit: Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian. It alludes to both the man and his work.

Whether painting (he did few sculptures, and they’re often renditions of subjects he was painting) Indians, the "mystery woman," vampires, animals, or fallen angels, Scholder's art is frequently decidedly eerie and disturbing, albeit brightly colored. The painting that was the emblem for the New York exhibit, Purgatory (1996), one of the three-part series that also includes Heaven and Hell (all displayed on three walls of the same small gallery), is a large (almost 7'x6') bust of a man in a black shirt with a purple tie, wearing a pillbox hat that looks like a black fez. The figure's face is frightening, like something from an old horror movie (think Boris Karloff in The Mummy), set in a grimace revealing a row of sharp, dripping teeth. (Another of Scholder's recurring subjects is the vampire.) The face is half shadowed, but the eye in the light half, though blue, is obscured and dark as if the socket were excessively deep, while the eye in the dark half of the face stares out brightly with a dark iris surrounded by a white cornea. The subject of all three paintings in the series was identified as the artist, who made a self-portrait every year, often on his birthday. Though not all Scholder's work is so threatening, this was the impression his retrospective gave even as there were pleasanter images among the pieces on display. Scholder said he didn't like pretty pictures (a sentiment echoed by Joan Miró when he quoted Rembrandt: "I find rubies and emeralds in a dung heap"—cited at the exhibit of the Spanish surrealist's work at MoMA which I saw at this time also).

Later, I went to Washington for two weeks at the end of the year. We drove down to the Mall to see the larger half of the two-part Scholder show at NMAI on Monday afternoon, 22 December, the day after I arrived in town. As you recall, the works exhibited at the Heye Center focused on the period when Scholder worked out of New York City and painted non-Indian subjects. The exhibit in Washington was larger and while it covered the whole of Scholder's career, from his teenage start in abstract expressionism to his late works, it was dominated by the artist's paintings of Indian subjects, the work that made him famous and successful—if also controversial. From the very start, Scholder worked in bright, often dissonant colors; pinks, oranges, blues, yellows blast out from his canvases whether they’re the youthful experimentations of his teens and early twenties or the figurative works of his middle career. His earliest works, which clearly owe a debt to such abstractionists as Roberts Rauschenberg and Motherwell (and maybe Richard Diebenkorn), are broad swatches of color on large canvases. Scholder studiously avoided figurative painting in his early years, and the works have an air of deliberation and derivation that felt to me like a young artist consciously searching for a medium that could be his, but not having found it yet. (I once saw a small show of Diego Rivera's cubist works that felt the same way—like he was trying out stuff that wasn't really "him" yet.) Scholder named Francisco Goya, Edvard Munch, and Francis Bacon as some of his influences. Ironically, after breaking his (first) vow never to paint Indians, he seemed immediately to have come into his own when he began to do so. He not only had found the style he’d manifest for the rest of his career—what I have to call "abstract impressionism," though I don't know that any such form officially exists—but he had something to say. (It’s what he seemed to have to say that made him controversial among both artists/critics and Native Americans.) He was commenting on both the world of Native Americans—their contemporary lives—and the ways in which Indians had been (and were being) depicted in American art, including Native American art. Scholder's Indian paintings seem to have fallen into three vague categories, at least as I observed them. In one, he painted the Indians he saw on the streets and in the bars of Santa Fe or Tucson; in another, he parodied, deconstructed, or travestied the conventional artistic view of Indians from the 19th century to the late 20th—those Remington depictions of the Noble Savage, for instance; and in a third, he presented what might be interpreted as a combination of these in renderings of old photographs of Indians taken in the early years of the last century, often by anthropologists and sociologists. We know from the New York City exhibit that Scholder eschewed "pretty pictures," but his Indian paintings were often also unflattering as well. His contemporary portraits included drunken Indians or Indians asleep on the sidewalk, sprawled against a storefront—the men (there are almost no women among these pictures) he saw around him. (His most iconic work is Indian with Beer Can, 1969, a man in a wide-brimmed, black cowboy hat and sunglasses, slouching over a bar with a can of Coors at his elbow, his mask-like face baring pointed, feral teeth.) The Indian communities didn't appreciate this kind of truthful art—what van Gogh called l’art véridique.

Scholder's ambivalence about painting Indians is certainly understandable from his background, but it has to be said that not only are his Indian paintings the foundation of his reputation, they’re also by far the most interesting work of his career. Ironically, it was his students at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe who turned him onto Indian paintings. Though he had abjured the subject for himself, the young artists he was teaching were exploring different ways to depict their own people and this intrigued Scholder. Artistically, emotionally, and intellectually, they’re the most complex of his works.

[A little history of NMAI: George Gustav Heye opened his private Museum of the American Indian to the public in 1922 to house and display his own collection of Native American art. He’d started collecting in 1903 and he established the Heye Foundation in 1916 to oversee it and promote the study of Indian art and culture. The museum was located at 155th Street and Broadway in Harlem until it had been acquired by the Smithsonian Institution and moved to the Custom House in 1994. The Smithsonian took over Heye’s museum in 1989 and then opened the main building for the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in 2004. The Heye Center, now a satellite of the larger NMAI, maintains its own permanent collection (based on Heye’s original holdings) and exhibits.

[As it happens, the Heye Center’s just undergone a reorganization. Housed in the 1907 Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in lower Manhattan, it’s redesigned the exhibition for its permanent collection. I haven’t seen the new installation, but since the old one was interesting as it was, I can only recommend that anyone even remotely interested in the art of the American Indian, much of which is breathtakingly beautiful and all of which is eye-opening, pay a visit to this little-known museum at the southern tip of the island. It’s free (as are all Smithsonian facilities) and open every day (including Mondays, the traditional dark day for museums, and holidays except Christmas Day). The Customs House alone is worth the trip—it’s a magnificent Beaux Arts building in its own right, a Historic Landmark, and serves as a perfect example of terrific re-use of historic architecture.

[Thanks to Jordan Richman both for his compliment of republishing my Shalako article on Art Legends and for providing the impetus to publish this report on a fascinating American artist on ROT.]

25 March 2011

“As It Is in 'Heaven'”

[In 1992, I was approached by Drama Review editor Richard Schechner, who was planning a series of articles on experimental theater companies that had begun in the 1960s and ‘70s and were still producing. At the time, I was working a little as a freelance dramaturg with Leonardo Shapiro’s Shaliko Company (which I’ve mentioned many times on ROT), having met Leo and seen the company’s work at the Theatre of Nations international theater festival in Baltimore in 1986. Since I’d written for TDR before, Richard and Leo agreed that I might be the person to do the profile of The Shaliko Company for the planned series. (I don’t believe the series actually materialized in the end. "Shapiro and Shaliko: Techniques of Testimony," however, was published in the Winter 1993 issue of TDR.)

[For the better part of a year, I shadowed Leo, interviewing him and his colleagues, friends, critics, and employers; attending rehearsals for the various productions he was directing; observing classes for his Trinity/La MaMa Performing Arts Program; combing through the company’s files and records; and generally gathering everything I could on Shaliko and Leo that might be pertinent. The Shaliko Company’s main project during that time was the production at Theatre for the New City of Karen Malpede’s Blue Heaven, 17 September-11 October 1992, and I attended most of the rehearsals starting on 10 August. Shortly before opening, Leo, Karen, and I decided to try to get a little early publicity by submitting an article on the work-in-progress to the Village Voice, and I set out to write it, a description of the work-in-progress. The result was published as "As It Is in Heaven" on 22 September 1992.

[In a recent ROT article, I wrote about the controversy of reviewing plays in previews and I cited Linda Winer’s Newsday column of 25 December 2010 on Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark as an example of a good way to split the difference between an actual review of an unfinished production and covering only the news of accidents, injuries, safety measures, and production costs. I also mentioned in passing that I’d done something similar myself when I wrote the article on Blue Heaven, so instead of republishing Winer’s article, I’m republishing my own.]

* * * *

A young man strolls into a cafe and sits at the table of a woman kneading clay. Two musicians wait silently on the bandstand. “Lend me a dollar fifty,” says the man. “I want some scrambled eggs.” Not looking up from her clay, she scolds him for eating “things that clog you up.” They’re only a few feet from my table, and I hear the whole exchange. Even so, a woman with a video camera broadcasts it onto a TV across the room. The man, whose name is John, goes to the bandstand and plays a bluesy riff on the piano, picking up the rhythm of the cook’s slow chop-chop-pause from the kitchen. John has AIDS but the artist, Aria, warns him that AZT “ruins your liver.” “Honey, I found delicious ways to ruin my liver,” John replies. He doesn’t speak the words, though—he sings them.

What kind of cafe is this? No, it’s not Cop Rock returned to haunt us. I’ve been watching rehearsals of Blue Heaven, Karen Malpede’s new play under construction, like the Heaven Cafe, at Theater for the New City. Halfway through rehearsals, it’s quite different from what I pictured from Malpede’s script. Under the direction of Leonardo Shapiro, founder of The Shaliko Company which is co-producing the play, this environmental production where the spectators sit amidst the action in the cafe (which opens a half hour before performances for drinks and snacks) is becoming a sort of live-action, low-tech virtual reality experience.

Later in the scene, Jill (Christen Clifford), a teenage junkie who’s lost a leg, and Dee (Sheila Dabney), her older companion, have joined other regulars at the Heaven. Aria (Rosalie Triana) has just read the newspaper account of the death of another artist who was her lover’s wife. Names are never used, though the videographer will shoot the headline, but you’re expected to recognize Ana Mendieta who fell or was thrown from the apartment she shared with her husband, Carl Andre, in 1985. “Did you know her?” asks John (Nicky Paraiso). There is a long pause as the jazz duo starts playing; Aria answers, a sharp sob over her body mike: “No.” Suddenly, Dee and John, circulating among the tables, begin detailing Mendieta’s art while Jill offers personal commentary on it. They taunt Aria with suspicions about her lover, whose art and character Sada (Lee Nagrin), Buddha-like owner of the Heaven Cafe in her booth, extols through the speakers. The characters appear on the TV monitor as they speak. The dialogue is rhythmic; accompanied by Gretchen Langheld’s sax-and-guitar composition, it becomes a jazz oratorio. It builds to a nearly intolerable tension until Jill asks the question that began the stichomythia: “Did you know her?” Aria’s amplified anguished murmur briefly halts the build: “No.” It starts again, but this time I watch Aria’s stony-faced reaction on the monitor.

Blue Heaven isn’t just a stylized slice of urban life or, like Song of Singapore, merely a reconstructed cafe. Set on the eve of 1991’s Persian Gulf war, several things in particular distinguish it—two that intrigue me most. First is Malpede’s poetic distillation of our world. “All of us experienced the war,” Malpede points out, “and most of us also experienced the death of Ana Mendieta. These are two contemporary historical events that are part of our lives.” True, but more immediately, her characters’ daily efforts just to carry on are totally familiar to me. If I don’t actually know these people, I’ve encountered them over and over again in my neighborhood and in places like the Heaven Cafe.

The second allure is the immersion in the action—being not only in the cafe, but in communion with the performers. “That’s why people go to cafes,” Shapiro tells me; “they want community.” He’s instructed his cast, who perform as actual presences not just fictional characters, to “cross-document our lives with the characters’ lives, . . . our voices with theirs,” so they speak of themselves through the dialogue. “Elements of this play remind me of The Brig,” remarks George Bartenieff who plays Herbie, the cook. TNC’s co-founder compares the “intensity and emotional demands” he felt in that 1963 Living Theatre production with Blue Heaven’s: “It’s like living the experience, not just pretending.” My closest theatre adventure to what I project this will be was Jim Cartwright’s Road when I paid a visit to a block in an English rust-belt town and was given a resident’s-eye-view of its reality. But Road was about Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, while Blue Heaven is about my own America. Also, Shapiro insists, “The play is about what happened last year. The production is about what’s happening now.” As he sees it, we’re all in it together.

Another difference from Road: Blue Heaven isn’t all unrelenting naturalism and illusionistic acting. Intermixed with realism are moments of broad theatricality: aside from the sung dialogue, video broadcasts and amplified voices, there will be scenes behind a scrim or with film and numerous effects, tricks and gags. Much of this hasn’t been introduced yet, but I’ve seen some of the masks, wigs and funny faces—there is considerable humor in Blue Heaven—and I’ve heard what Shapiro has asked his technical director for. Besides, there is the war in act two.

Theater for the New City is at 155 First Avenue at 10th Street and tickets for Blue Heaven will be $10, with drinks and food extra. Performances are at 8 p.m., Thursday through Sunday, September 10 through October 11; call (212) 254-1109 for reservations. Displayed for sale in TNC’s lobby will be original art commensurate with the downtown nature of the Heaven Cafe.

[Blue Heaven ran into internal difficulties which aren’t relevant here, and it didn’t get good reviews when it opened. Playwright Malpede, whom I’d interviewed before rehearsals began ("An Interview with Karen Malpede," Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present 8.1 [1993], reprinted as "Karen Malpede" in Speaking on Stage: Interviews with Contemporary American Playwrights [Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996]), as well as during the work as part of my research for the TDR article, retitled the play Going to Iraq, which is what she’d called it before the Shaliko-TNC production. I don’t believe the play’s been published under either title, Blue Heaven or Going to Iraq; I’m also not aware of any other productions other than the TNC staging, except a reading over WBAI radio in March 1992.]

20 March 2011

Reviewing the Situation: 'Spider-Man' & the Press

On 8 January, Charles Isherwood wrote a column in the New York Times about reviewing previews. His comments were directed at the argument between the press and the producers of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark because some reviewers—Linda Winer of Long Island’s Newsday and Jeremy Gerard of Bloomberg News, in particular—had published criticism of the production. It was a topical issue because Spider-Man, as you all know, had been running in previews since 28 November 2010 and had recently postponed its opening once a fourth time, this time from 11 January to 7 February, making it a potential record-breaker for Broadway shows in previews. (Isherwood asserted that the Times would honor the official opening, but that the culture editor would reexamine that position should the opening be further delayed. As we know now, that's what transpired.) As a former review writer, I’ve been contemplating the question a little since it arose. The debate seems to be predicated on the dichotomy of reviewing a play in previews because they’re extended and the tickets are at full price versus not reviewing because the play’s not finished and the producers haven’t declared it ready for scrutiny. What no one seems to feel is that this is a false dichotomy because there’s a third option: to write a feature that’s not a review. Though it can still discuss the work as it stands now, a news report can also talk about the delayed opening, the lack of notification that the performances are previews (that is, dress rehearsals), that tickets are selling for full price ($180-$290 for Saturday night orchestra seats) for an unfinished product, and that it’s a money pit. That’s what I’d do. (In fact, that’s what I did in essence when I published an article in the Village Voice about the work on Blue Heaven [”As It Is in Heaven,” 22 September 1992]. Of course, that was at the behest of the director and playwright, and I was attending rehearsals, not a preview—but it’s basically the same idea. I plan to republish this article on ROT in a few days.) It’s simply theater journalism, I think—reporting on a current cultural event, and Spider-Man is unquestionably newsworthy.

Then Ben Brantley published a review of Spider-Man in the Times on 8 February, the Tuesday after what would have been the opening date before the producers postponed it the fifth time till 15 March. Many other outlets also ran reviews of the production. Most were quite negative, though much of the tone really sounded like sour grapes to me. Brantley actually said that he thought everyone in the audience was there to see an accident, and it sounded to me like he was, too. Maybe I read too much into his prose, but it felt to me as if Brantley, at least, wanted the show to be bad so he could pan it.

(I’m not going to capsulize or comment on the content of the reviews themselves. First of all, since I haven’t seen the play, it wouldn’t be fair and, second, there are plenty of sites on the web where a reader can find articles about the controversy which include quotations. Of course, you can go to the individual publications themselves and read the notices for yourselves. The main publications, aside from the Times, are the Daily News, New York Post, USA Today, L.A. Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Variety, and New York magazine. Like Newsday and Bloomberg News, the Newark Star-Ledger ran a review earlier. Several of the review writers said they expected to re-review the production after its official opening. Several others said they wouldn’t. For my purposes on ROT, it’s enough to note that all the notices were poor to awful. The important point here is that they were written and published.)

The editors and reviewers all say that there was no collusion, according to Patrick Healy in the Times the next day, but the word obviously went out since almost all the press ran reviews. The producers are raising a ruckus over this, for obvious reasons: they think the notices are premature since they’re still actively working on the show. "The PILE-ON by the critics was ridiculous and uncalled for,” declared Rick Miramontez, press agent and spokesman for Spider-Man. “Their actions are unprecedented and UNCOOL!" The day the notices came out, he pronounced it “a huge disappointment. Changes are still being made, and any review that runs before the show is frozen is totally invalid.” I understand this, and I actually support them to a certain extent. In his book The Art of Writing Reviews (http://www.lulu.com/content/paperback-book/the-art-of-writing-reviews/6785272), on which I commented on ROT, Kirk Woodward wrote of reviewing a play in tryouts:

The problem is, of course, that these reviewers bring back judgments on what are essentially works in progress. Someone may evaluate the way you’re dressed once you’re ready, but to pop into the room while you’re half-clothed and say, “That looks awful!” is absurd. No more absurd, though, than to report on a work in its tryout phase.

Kirk was writing specifically about out-of-town tryouts, a practice that isn’t followed much anymore, but the principal still holds—and applies in the current case of Spider-Man. In my ROT commentary on Writing Reviews (November 2009). I declared:

Even when the producers charge the same for a seat at the preview as they do for post-opening tickets, they’re still previews. You’re watching a dress rehearsal, you understand. The cast is still working, and sometimes things haven’t gelled—might even be changed before opening. Reviewers who see a performance before opening night aren’t seeing the finished product.

I still believe that, even in the face of the phenomenon of Spider-Man since, as I also wrote:

In many shows, the first time everyone has gone through the entire play with full tech and costumes the way it’s supposed to be seen by the audience is the final dress rehearsal. . . . In new plays, it’s not unusual for new lines and even new scenes to be inserted within days of opening; new songs can be added to musicals. Because of the labor-intensivity of the rehearsal period plus the union regulations, technical adjustments are often brought in at the last minute: costumes don’t fit quite right yet, set pieces haven’t been tested, lights aren’t focused right. . . . It’s more like the first time a cook makes a new recipe—it’s not really ready for primetime.

The further back from opening night you see a play, the less stageworthy it will be—though by “critics’ previews” the show’s supposed to be “frozen.” That only means no more changes can be made; it doesn’t mean the work is complete. To be fair, though, Brantley did write, “I would like to acknowledge here that ‘Spider-Man’ doesn’t officially open until March 15 . . . ,” thus noting that he saw a preview over a month before the production is now scheduled to open. The rest of the column, however, was phrased just like any other New York Times theater review (except, perhaps, a little more negative than most): there was no way to distinguish this review from one of a production that had completed its previews and had been deemed to be “finished.” In my view, that’s the incorrect approach.

Some in the press (and on the blogs) have described the relationship between reviewers and producers as an implicit contract. The producers give the media outlets free tickets for their shows, usually a pair of the best seats, in exchange for the promise that the writers will only see the performance when the producers want them to and won’t publish reviews until after a specific date, the “press opening.” Some critics of the move to review Spider-Man early have characterized it as a breach of the agreement. Others see it as a signal to re-examine the convention. On Huffington Post, arts journalist Leonard Jacobs cast the contretemps as a way to look at “what constitutes a critic and who decides,” because part of the argument review writers are using to justify publishing early is the fact that blog reviewers and on-line writers, with no sense of the obligation that traditional press writers have, are writing reviews or critiques whenever they buy a ticket and see the show. Isaac Butler, who on 5 January wrote on his blog, Parabasis, a detailed critique of Spider-Man, appended a note to his post in which he acknowledged: “I paid full price for my ticket and I have no deal with producers where they give me free tickets in exchange for waiting to see a show when they want me to. I also think that custom is somewhat arcane and should be rethought.” If blogger-reviewers can publish without limitations, where does that leave the print or broadcast reviewer? Some critics and defenders of the advance publication have debated that such web‑‘viewers such as Butler aren’t “critics” anyway and their posts aren’t “reviews.” (Jacobs pronounced, “Butler's post is quite manifestly a review.”) If sour grapes had been on the menu last 8 February, is it any wonder? The traditional journalists find themselves at the back of the line while all this good stuff is happening on their beat. Part of this response, I’m sure, is also a foreboding that Jacobs explains:

If a blogger-critic can attract thousands of readers a week (it can happen now, and will happen more in the future), and if a blogger-critic can buy tickets for a show and write about it, what will prevent that blogger-critic from generating even more readership, even more influence? What will press agents and traditional-media critics do then? How long will tradition, protocol and reality exist in opposition?

If you subscribe to this fear—and it’s certainly not at all beyond possibility, the way newspapers are shrinking and dropping arts coverage as more and more people turn to the ‘Net for news and information anyway—then there’s reason for traditional journalists to fight for a piece of the action. If the producers and some unspoken agreement that was put in place long before they were born are taking away their ability to cover their beat, why shouldn’t they fight back with the means that are at their disposal?

(I must confess here that this discussion has made me consider my own position. I, too, am a blogger and I write about theater, among other subjects. I don’t consider what I publish on performances reviews, but let’s be honest: they are critical analyses of productions even if they don’t fit any academic or journalistic definition of “review.” Now, I generally avoid previews; I like to see a play when the creators have decided it’s finished. But what if I do see a play before it opens? Would I blog on it? I don’t rush my reports onto ROT; I give myself the leisure of taking my time writing down my thoughts—and I even do a little research sometimes, which takes a bit more time. But would I publish before opening? I suspect I would, since I “don’t write reviews,” and I buy my own ticket, and I don’t write for a traditional media outlet. Those are all the same excuses the pre-reviewers (as Jacobs might call them) are using now, because the Isaac Butlers are already doing it. That may be why I feel kinship with the journalists even as I disagree with their final approach.)

Though I sympathize with the reviewers’ position more than a little, at least as I’ve stated it here, I think both sides are behaving improperly. The retributive tone of the reviews is unbecoming—and may make a reader wonder about the writer’s objectivity and sincerity. Are those really his opinions? Is she just twisting the knife while she has a chance? The Spider-Man reviews that appeared in February made it sound to me as if the reviewers and editors were pissed that the producers were holding them off (and charging full price for tickets—several of the writers stated what they’d paid for their seats), so they’ve taken a kind of revenge by panning the show in advance of its actual opening, hoping to damage it. I hope that’s not true, but that’s how it seemed to me.

Further, the insistence that the show’s cost is a reason to review it early is specious. The waste, if that’s what it turns out to be, might make us angry, but it’s no justification for breaching the producer-journalist compact. It may be worth reporting in context, such as to ask why, with such immense expenditures, the sets are so cheap-jack (if Brantley’s assessment is accurate). But it seems unnecessarily mercenary to harp on Spider-Man’s price tag as a rationale for going to print. (What’s the logic? They’re spending like Bernie Madoff, so I get to take a shot at them early? How does that make sense?)

Another claim used to justify the pre-reviews is that the play’s selling tickets and spectators are flocking to the theater, but they don’t know what they’re buying. Really? Isn’t that just a little arrogant? It presumes, first, that the reviewer is really just a consumer reporter whose responsibility it is to judge a product for sale and advise the paying customer whether it’s worth the price or not. I know that some arts journalists think of themselves that way, but most, I believe, see themselves as reporters covering the special field of the arts, in this case theater. Second, it assumes that the ticket-buyers need the reviewer’s opinion in order to make a decision, that the spectators can’t decide for themselves; and third, it takes for granted that there are no other viable sources of information available to the theatergoer—which is patently untrue since they’ve been arriving at the Foxwoods Theatre in droves even without formal reviews based, I would guess, on the scads of articles, reports, and rumors flooding the press, TV, and the ‘Net all this time. No, what this argument sounds like to me is frustration that everyone else is getting in their licks, and the traditional review writer is being left out. It sounds a little juvenile, doesn’t it?

I’ve proposed that journalists write on the production, even critically, not in a review per se, but in a report on the production, its status, its newsworthiness, and its issues. I don’t object to a writer assessing the quality of the production in such a report, but only as a work in progress. If a show’s been in previews for months, like Spider-Man, some evidence of the artistic work should be visible—and it’d be fair game for “reporting” (as opposed to “reviewing”). I don’t think this freedom ought to apply to a show in the normal run of previews, about four weeks, before opening. Though it seems wrong to write an actual review of a show that’s not finished, even if the official opening has been delayed for months because of problems, I think writers can say what they saw at the preview and describe the problems, as well as the assets, that are being presented to paying audiences. It’d be acceptable, for instance, for the writer to point out moments or aspects of the show that look promising, even though that promise isn’t fulfilled yet. I think a writer can couch this in terms that make it clear that work is still in progress and that the current state of the production is not its final form. That way readers can determine if they want to see the show now, in its interim condition, or wait till opening and see it finished. They know where they and the writer stand.

Linda Winer’s Newsday column on 25 December last year is a perfect example of what I have in mind. She reported on the aspects of the production that have been in the news (“four premiere push-backs . . . , four high-profile injuries, 19 previews at full price . . . , and public investigations by state and federal safety agencies”) and she commented on the current state of the show (“safety measures are being secured and director Julie Taymor is said to be making much-needed changes to the meandering book”). Winer also remarked on the reviewing debate (“it seems that critics are now the only interested parties who can't see the bride before the wedding”). So she was behaving like a reporter on the theater beat, but she didn’t avoid making critical comments (“the surprisingly conventional Broadway-pop score by U2's Bono and the Edge”; ”Joshua Kobak [the flying Spidey], and his daring (especially in a fight scene with Patrick Page's terrific Green Goblin) was a highlight of the show”). Like a news reporter, too, Winer wrote about some non-performance elements of the experience, like audience reaction (“. . . he admired the sets and the special effects”; “. . . he was wowed by the stunts, but acknowledged that ‘the sense that something unsafe might happen is spectacular.’”) And to complete her approach, Winer acknowledged she was describing a work still in progress: “I understand that is the official purpose of previews.” Winer’s article, while including critical appraisal, was a report; it was comprehensive in its coverage, forthright and open, well written and even witty—a perfect model for what I think reviewers should have aimed for in their pre-reviews (though no one else did, from my perspective).

As for the producers, they may be relishing all the coverage, even if it’s been negative for the most part. (No publicity is bad publicity, I guess.) And maybe that’s one of the reasons they’re running in previews for so long. I remember a Papp production of Timon of Athens in 1996 that ran a month in previews and didn’t officially open until a week before it closed in order to keep the press out. Circle in the Square began previews of Hughie starring Al Pacino on 25 July 1996 and didn’t open until 22 August for a scheduled closing date of 31 August (though the theater added an extension until November). In the commercial theater, producers of Home Sweet Homer with Yul Brynner, knowing it wasn’t a good show, stayed on the road for a year before coming to Broadway and suffering from the reviewers’ opprobrium. (After 11 previews, Homer opened and closed on 4 January 1976. I think it may have gone back on the road, trying to outrun the New York reviews. I saw the show at the Kennedy Center in Washington—which had produced it—before it came here, and it was pretty awful.) In 2006, the producers of the stage musical Lord of the Rings tried to run their show, which was getting terrible reviews I recall, all over the place, mostly outside the U.S.—it may have been a Canadian product. I assume they lost a lot of money (and I don’t know if they’re still running somewhere like Canberra or Auckland), but my guess is that they knew the show would be lambasted in the New York press, so they kept it out for as long as they could to make money before the inevitable dénouement; they never did get into New York in the end. Considering how much they’re spending on Spider-Man, its producers obviously need to recoup as much of the cost as they can before they let the press affect their box-office appeal. (I don’t know if the economics works for them, with $65 million at stake, but I can guess that that’s their strategy. They’ve also been using focus groups to get spectator feedback—like a TV producer or a candy manufacturer.) Spider-Man isn’t doing out-of-town tryouts (they say their elaborate tech makes that impractical), so they’re using previews for the same thing. Unfortunately for the producers, previews in New York City don’t actually prevent the New York press from getting into the theater; it only means that convention is supposed to prohibit the reviewers from publishing before the play opens. Obviously that only works for a limited time. They got caught in February; we’ll have to see if anything comes of the publication.

With the wasted money—not to overlook wasted talent and energy—I don’t have much sympathy for the producers on this. Everything I’ve read, not just the reviews, tells me this is an unworthy effort. (If, as some say, Taymor’s working as if this were a movie, not a stage play, it’s kind of shameful since she’s a product of the stage, not film. Linda Winer, by the way, asserts Taymor’s intent is “to compete with arena rock, the Spidey movies and video games.”) The photos with the Times review showed characters in cartoon/comic book costumes. That’s more reminiscent to me of Disney on Ice than a legit stage musical. Taymor’s reinterpretation of the Lion King cartoon figures was brilliant—but she used stage conventions and traditions (intercultural ones to a great degree) to accomplish that, and that was fantastic. But this is almost like live-action CGI—the designers just translated comic book characters to 3D. It’s not interesting to me, theatrically speaking. The writing sounds like it’s just a pastiche of scenes with no cohesion, and until the February reviews, no one said much about the music that I’d read. The names most associated with Spider-Man, along with Taymor, are Bono and The Edge, the composers. Why hadn’t anyone written about their work? It made me suspect it isn’t very good—at least not for the purpose it’s intended. (My suspicions seem to have been right: Brantley subsequently dismissed the music without really describing it and even Jay Lustig, a pop music reviewer who wrote the Star-Ledger’s early notice of the production last January, didn’t say much about the U2 team’s contribution. Peter Marks of the Washington Post wrote half a paragraph panning the score and Charles McNulty gave it a whole ‘graph of bad-mouthing in the L. A. Times.)

If the producers are going to throw away $65 million on this kind of muddle and then diddle the press (not to mention the spectators) the way they have, I don’t feel particularly well disposed toward them. I still think the reviewers ought to have held off on running actual reviews and opted for something more reportorial, as Winer did. The producers don’t deserve complete indemnity, especially since, as it seems, they’re benefiting from the other coverage at the same time, but given the (perhaps unlikely) chance that Taymor, et al., might manage to fix the mess, they deserve the shot. Maybe the distinction is too small to matter, but the way I look at it, at least, is that a review is a final judgment, while an interim report is an honest appraisal of where the work is right now. Linda Winer has proved it can be done right, and her approach should be honored and emulated.


[When stories concerning Spider-Man started to appear, I began thinking about whether there was some aspect of the production about which I wanted to write. I found I wasn’t terribly interested in the show itself despite its reported cost, and even the safety question, the subject of much of the news coverage, didn’t move me to offer an opinion. When Charles Isherwood wrote his column in January about the early reviews, I thought again about writing something for ROT, but I wasn’t sufficiently engaged in the issue to feel that I had anything different to say than was already being published. When the debate heated up, however, with the publication of the February reviews in the Times and other periodicals, I was moved to express an opinion of my own that I think is a little different from those that have been published. So, I’ve added my voice to the conversation—which is, of course, how this process is supposed to work.

[For readers who are interested, here are the sources of the articles mentioned, referenced, or quoted in my ROT article: Charles Isherwood, “Review A Preview? Untangling A Web,” New York Times 8 Jan. 2011, sec. C (“The Arts”): 1, 9; Linda Winer, “Shedding a little light on ‘Spider-Man,'“ Newsday, 25 Dec. 2010, http://www.newsday.com/columnists/linda-winer/shedding-a-little-light-on-spider-man-1.256926 (Winer’s article isn’t accessible unless you subscribe to Newsday); Jeremy Gerard, “Spidey Flails in Taymor’s Tale of Spider Woman,” Bloomberg 26 Dec. 2010, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-12-27/spidey-green-goblin-flail-in-taymor-s-tale-of-spider-woman-jeremy-gerard.html; Ben Brantley, “Good vs. Evil, Hanging by a Thread.” New York Times 8 Feb. 2011, sec. C (“The Arts”): 1, 7; Patrick Healy, “’Spider-Man’ Early Reviews Set Off A Storm,” New York Times 9 Feb. 2011, sec. C (“The Arts”): 1, 5; Leonard Jacobs, “Ensnaring Theatre Critics in the Spider-Man Web,” Huffington Post 14 Jan. 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/leonard-jacobs/ensnaring-theatre-critics_b_806101.html; Isaac Butler, “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark,” Parabasis [blog] 5 Jan. 2011, http://parabasis.typepad.com/blog/2011/01/spider-man-turn-off-the-dark.html; Jay Lustig, “'Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark' – a review,” Star-Ledger [Newark, NJ] 18 January 2011, http://www.nj.com/entertainment/music/index.ssf/2011/01/spider-man_turn_off_the_dark_-.html; Peter Marks, “'Spider-Man' on Broadway: No superpowers needed to sniff out this stinker,” Washington Post 7 Feb. 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/07/AR2011020704088.html; Charles McNulty, “Theater review: 'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark' at Foxwoods Theatre,” Los Angeles Times 7 Feb. 2011, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2011/02/theater-review-spider-man-turn-off-the-dark-at-foxwoods-theatre.html. A couple of sites that I looked at but didn’t name are: John Simon, “Spiderman Birthpains,” Uncensored John Simon [blog], 29 December 2010, http://uncensoredsimon.blogspot.com/2010/12/spiderman-birthpains.html; and Mark Kennedy, “'Spider-Man' Musical Reviews: Too Early To Critique?” Associated Press, on Huffington Post 8 Feb. 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/08/spiderman-musical-reviews_n_820088.html. Some other pertinent sites include: David Cote, “Tune In: David Cote on WQXR's Arts File Friday,” Upstaged [blog], on Time Out New York 5 Jan. 2011, http://newyork.timeout.com/arts-culture/upstaged-blog/672707/tune-in-david-cote-on-wqxrs-arts-file-friday; and Jeff Lunden, “Angry Reaction as Theater Critics Cross the Line on 'Spider-Man,'” Hollywood Reporter 28 Dec. 2010, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/angry-reaction-theater-critics-cross-66191.

[After I wrote this article, the New Yorker published John Lahr’s review of Spider-Man (http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/theatre/2011/02/28/110228crth_theatre_lahr). Furthermore, a brief notice appeared in the New York Times reporting that the producers had hired a music constultant for the score. Included in that short announcement were unconmfirmed reports that Spider-Man’s producers were talking to a script doctor and a co-director, and that the opening date might be postponed for a sixth time. Later, the producers announced an expanded creative team, a three-week shut-down of preview performances in April and May to revise the play, and a delay of the opening until 14 June 2011. The cost of the production is now reported to have climbed to $70 million.]


15 March 2011

David Wojnarowicz

[16 March will be ROT’s second anniversary. I’m very pleased to have made it to that benchmark, and I hope to keep the blog going for some time into the future. This profile of artist and activist David Wojnarowicz, whose work I got to know after his death, will serve as the anniversary article, the 159th I’ve published on the site. While I haven’t written all the articles, I have selected them all, and my one intention has been to keep a variety of topics and ideas before the readers. I think I’ve managed that to a small degree at least, and I hope my choices have been interesting—and, in some way, instructive. I’m sure readers of ROT will find the subject of this profile, who found himself once again at the center of recent controversy, one of the most fascinating in the two years of the blog. ~Rick]

On 1 December 2010, Martin E. Sullivan, director of the National Portrait Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution, removed a video from its exhibit Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture which, according to the museum’s website, was “the first major museum exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture.” (In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll state now that my late father had been a docent at the Portrait Gallery for several years in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.) The video, A Fire in My Belly, was made in 1986-87 by artist David Wojnarowicz, a painter, photographer, videographer, sculptor, writer, and activist (among other things) who died of AIDS in 1992 at 37. Fire is a kaleidoscopic, two-part film (one part’s 13 minutes long, the other’s seven) of scattered scenes, many filmed in Mexico, intended to communicate the suffering of people with AIDS—it was made at the time Wojnarowicz saw his best friend die of the disease and when he learned he had it also—but Wojnarowicz used multifarious images to make his point. One of the scenes, 11 seconds long, included in the four-minute excerpt at the museum, displays ants crawling over a crucifix. It was this scene that riled William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, who claimed that the video was anti-Catholic “hate speech” and galvanized several prominent conservative politicians and public figures to pressure the Smithsonian to remove the offending clip from the exhibit. (On a holiday trip to Washington, I saw Hide/Seek, which ran from 30 October 2010 to 13 February 2011.)

Explaining why A Fire in My Belly belonged in Hide/Seek, New York Times art critic Holland Cotter wrote:

And crucial elements missing from much of the exhibition—personal and political anger, formal rawness, overt spirituality—are embodied in that work. In a sense the video was missing even when it was here: it was edited down for the occasion to barely 4 minutes from 20. But to have removed it entirely because of ideological strong-arming was to violate the premise and the promise of the show: difference was sent back into hiding.

I’ve said before (most notably in “The First Amendment & The Arts,” 8 May 2010 on ROT) that I’m close to a First Amendment absolutist. With few exceptions, I oppose suppression of artistic or intellectual expression, censorship by government action or private intimidation. I especially oppose it when its a matter of someone’s sensitivities being offended. (Not everything you don’t like is hate speech.) We’re grown-ups: we should be able to take that and fight back like adults—speaking out and protesting. Suppression is just not an acceptable method of fighting expression you don’t like. We shouldn’t have to run off to tattle to the principal every time someone calls us a name. (Ironically, it’s usually the schoolyard bully who does the name-calling; in this case, the bully is the tattler.) There’s no Constitutional protection against hurt feelings. And Wojnarowicz had a valid point to make: like Terrence McNally in his 1998 play Corpus Christi, also an object of attempted suppression (including again by Donohue and his organization, which ironically claims to stand for free speech), Wojnarowicz had long been angry at the Catholic Church’s treatment of homosexuals and the Church was often one target of his activism. (Also like McNally, Wojnarowicz was raised Catholic. He had some horrific childhood memories of brutal treatment by the nuns who taught him.) In other words, this wasn’t just a blind gesture of anti-Catholic antagonism—the artist had something to say that even the Church should hear. In the New York Times, Michael Kimmelman called the video “a spiritual cri de coeur.” Leo Shapiro, the stage director whom I’ve mentioned often on ROT, believed that artists are society’s oracles. “The point of an oracle,” Shapiro asserted, “—you support the oracle, you don’t support what it says. It doesn’t always give you good news.”

Wojnarowicz wasn’t unfamiliar with this kind of clamor during his lifetime. Some of you may recognize the artist’s name as the plaintiff of a lawsuit that derived from another controversy over his art some two decades ago: David Wojnarowicz v. American Family Association and Donald E. Wildmon in 1990.

Wojnarowicz’s essay in the exhibit catalogue for Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, Artists Space’s 1989-90 show about the devastation of AIDS on the art community curated by photographer Nan Goldin, was assailed by such NEA opponents as then-North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms and California Congressmen Dana Rohrabacher and William Dannemeyer, members of what Paul Mattick of The Nation called “Helms and Co.” “Postcards from America: X-Rays from Hell” (reprinted in Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration by David Wojnarowicz [Vintage Books, 1991] and David Wojnarowicz: Tongues of Flame, edited by Barry Blinderman [University Galleries of Illinois State University, 1990]) engendered the wrath of conservative culture warriors because they claimed that public funds were used to publish the essay, which they had found offensive. (Wojnarowicz had called John Cardinal O’Connor, the Archbishop of New York City, “This fat cannibal from that house of walking swastikas” and described how in his imagination he’d “dowse Helms with a bucket of gasoline and set his putrid ass on fire,” for instance.) This scrutiny brought Wojnarowicz onto the radar screens of the conservative activists who had already threatened the NEA over an exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs in 1989 and would again over the “NEA Four” in 1990.

(In September 1989, the private Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., planned to host Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, inaugurated by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. The Perfect Moment, supported by an NEA grant, had run at the ICA in December and January 1988-89. Mapplethorpe decided to show a series of photographs that he’d explored shortly before his death on 9 March 1989 and the directorship of the Corcoran and several members of Congress were shocked when they saw the new works, which included homoerotic male nudes and depictions of gay sex. The museum refused to go forward with the exhibit and its organizers turned to the non-profit Washington Project for the Arts, which showed the photos in July and August 1989. The Perfect Moment went on to Boston and Cincinnati, and in April 1990, the director of Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center was indicted on obscenity charges for mounting the show. Although the CAA director was acquitted, the episode marked a serious point in the struggle between the forces of censorship and the advocates of free and open expression in the arts.

(In June 1990, NEA chairman John Frohnmayer, appointed by George H. W. Bush a year before, rejected grants for four performance artists—Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, Tim Miller, and John Fleck—due to “political realities.” This action was followed by a requirement that all NEA grant-recipients sign an anti-obscenity pledge. Many artists refused and rejected their grants, among them Joseph Papp of the New York Shakespeare Festival, now the Joseph Papp Public Theater. Stephen Sondheim turned down a 1992 National Medal of the Arts, awarded by the president and administered by the NEA, because he felt it would be hypocritical due to President Bush's policy concerning the Endowment; he accepted the award five years later from President Bill Clinton. In September 1990, the NEA Four, as they were by then known, sued the Endowment and the government settled in June 1993, admitting most of the charges of political influence in its grant-making decisions. The politicization of the arts agency went further than the four artists in the suit: additional targets included other performance artists, filmmakers, art publications, exhibitions, and performance venues. President Bush even made specific mention of a painting by David Wojnarowicz during his ex parte communications with Frohnmayer. Later, when Anne-Imelda Radice became interim chairman after Frohnmayer’s dismissal, the Endowment continued its content-based decisions by excluding gay and lesbian artists and projects. The NEA Four were awarded their original grants, but the Endowment ceased funding individual artists.)

From November to January 1990-91, Exit Art in New York’s SoHo mounted David Wojnarowicz: Tongues in Flame, a retrospective. Because the University Galleries of Illinois State University in Normal had originated the exhibit with an NEA grant, Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association launched a campaign against Wojnarowicz, combing through the show’s catalogue looking for sexual imagery. Wildmon then published in a pamphlet opposing funding for the NEA, sexually explicit excerpts of several of Wojnarowicz’s works and an image of Jesus as a drug addict from another painting. Wildmon sent the pamphlet to all members of Congress, among thousands of others, and in May 1990, Wojnarowicz sued Wildmon for libel and copyright infringement under the New York Artists' Authorship Rights Act. Wojnarowicz argued that since the published details were only small elements of the much larger paintings, they didn’t fairly represent the whole works. Wojnarowicz v. AFA was heard in June in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, attracting attention because of the issues. In August, the judge enjoined AFA from distributing the pamphlet further, but awarded the artist only $1 in damages. (Wojnarowicz apparently never cashed the check: it was among the papers and exhibits of the legal case from his effects that were donated to NYU and included in Reality and Realism: The Vision of David Wojnarowicz, a 1999 exhibition at the Fales Library, the rare materials collection within Bobst Library.) With the low award, both sides declared the outcome a victory.

Most of Wojnarowicz’s short life was fraught with hardship. If it wasn’t artistic or political, then it was personal. Born in Red Bank, New Jersey, on 14 September 1954, he dropped out of the High School of Music and Art in New York City, where he’d moved with his mother, at 16 and ran away from home to escape a violently abusive, alcoholic father. (David’s mother had divorced his father, a sailor on passenger ships, when the boy was two and gained custody of David and his brother and sister, but the children’s father kidnapped them and they lived with him, moving frequently and subject to constant abuse until David was nine. The father eventually returned the children to their mother, but they continued to live in fear of him until he hanged himself in 1981.) After hitchhiking cross country and back between 1970 and ‘73, Wojnarowicz settled again in New York City, living for a time on the streets and working as a prostitute (among other things). He recorded some of this life in a graphic (and autobiographic) novel, Seven Miles a Second (DC Comics, 1996), created with artist and cartoonist James Romberger. The world in which Wojnarowicz lived is also preserved in the monologues he transcribed from some of the people he met on the streets, published in The Waterfront Journals (Grove Press, 1996). The artist’s own journals have also been published: In the Shadow of the American Dream: The Diaries of David Wojnarowicz (Grove Press, 1999). His world’s also visible in much of Wojnarowicz’s art, especially his paintings, which often contain images and sometimes words reminiscent of his childhood. Sadly, when he died of AIDS on 22 July 1992—he was diagnosed in 1987, the year his closest friend and former lover, photographer Peter Hujar, died of the disease—he hadn’t gotten very far chronologically from that childhood.

As early as 1970, Wojnarowicz began writing and taking photographs (with a stolen camera and film) to document his life and the life he saw around him, and also as a way to take control of his life, which was already painful and difficult. His first major project, which he developed between 1978 and ’79, was Arthur Rimbaud in New York in which Wojnarowicz photographed a friend wearing a mask of Rimbaud’s face in various places around the city as he engaged in different activities—riding the subway, standing in an abandoned warehouse, masturbating on a bed. (Some of these pictures were in Hide/Seek. Wojnarowicz especially identified with the French poet, along with Jean Genet and the Beats, particularly William Burroughs, who was also a friend, and Jack Kerouac.) At the same time, Wojnarowicz was making short films like Heroin, made not only about addicts but by them; stenciling burning houses or falling people on the sides of buildings throughout the city; and playing in a band called 3 Teens Kill 4—No Motive (from a New York Post headline). He was bearing witness to the history that the official record didn’t tell because, the artist thought, “People should witness things. They should, at the very bottom level, be witnessed.” This might be called the artist’s creed and would be the prevailing impulse of Wojnarowicz’s art in all the forms, including his writing—perhaps particularly his writing—and it often alluded to his own life, especially his childhood, which he said he always carried with him.

By the ‘80s, Wojnarowicz devoted his art to chronicling the gay sex scene in the New York City. He frequented the piers and abandoned warehouses along the Hudson and photographed, painted, or described the life he witnessed. At the same time, he began to show his art in all its forms—painting, sculpture, photographs, videos and films, collages, mixed-media—in galleries in the East Village, becoming an important venue for challenging art. Wojnarowicz was experimenting with any medium he could find, it seemed without restriction. In 1982, he let loose 30 “cock-a-bunnies”—he’d rubber-cemented tiny rabbit ears and tails onto cockroaches from his apartment—at the Beast Show, a star-studded event at P.S. 1, an art center in Long Island City, Queens. His visual artworks were eclectic in their use of media, ranging from conventional canvas, to masonite, maps, photographs, trash-can lids, “found objects,” and such unlikely material as loaves of bread and plastic sharks—and he often incorporated texts into his paintings, along with other visual media. He painted in acrylics and spray paint, on top of his own works and on supermarket posters. He was also appearing in the works of other artists as a model or subject, and many of his own works were collaborations with other East Village artists. His first important show was Fast, a group exhibit in 1982 at the Alexander F. Milliken Gallery in SoHo and in 1985 (and then again in 1991), one of his pieces was included in the prestigious Whitney Biennial. After that, his reputation for both shocking and insightful, pointed and moving work grew, spreading beyond New York’s downtown art scene. By the ‘90s, he was participating in exhibits not only in California, Illinois, and Ohio, but Paris, Cologne, and Madrid. In the end, as Richard B. Woodward wrote in the New York Times three years after the artist died, “he was an angry, East Village misfit who mined his own troubled life—as an abused child, a young street hustler and a gay man with AIDS—for his work. Especially in his last year, he boldly explored his outcast state, brimming with rage against political or religious power that would brand him a pariah.” He was angry at the forces that wanted him just to disappear, that treated him as if he were invisible. He wasn’t invisible anymore!

Two years before Wojnarowicz’s death, at the time of Tongues of Flame, Shapiro, who knew and admired the artist, said: “One of the things he sets a clear example of is the function of the artist in this society. You know, they always talk about like the canary in the mines—the ones that die first. . . . This is what Wojnarowicz’s function is: he was literal cutting edge.” Wojnarowicz offered his art as testimony of life he felt no one else acknowledged. According to writer and cultural critic Cynthia Carr, “Art was his way of witnessing. On some level, the work was about putting information out there, exposing what’s usually hidden and creating cultural counterweight. Where the marginal were ignored, he would exalt them.” In the words of artist Adam Kuby, who pointed out that the artist’s work wasn’t just about politics and AIDS:

Wojnarowicz illuminates connections that are present but unseen, and creates associations that help us understand the web within web of our complex existence. Through startling juxtapositions he describes the real ecology between man and nature, economics and the environment, compassion and compulsion.

For Shapiro, who also saw his own art as testimony, “It’s very brave work,” for, as Living Theatre co-founder Julian Beck asserted, “The avant-garde artist travels a dangerous road.” Beck characterized such artists as “the advance guard, the ones who were looking for trouble, who were taking the risks, the fools and the heroes.” David Wojnarowicz was one of these men: “One lesson from childhood,” Carr also observed. “The neighbors knew about the violence in his household. They witnessed it. But nobody intervened. David promised himself that when he saw injustice, he would not be silent.” Until his death (and apparently even beyond), he never was. Personally shy and reticent, art and writing gave him a way to say what he couldn’t in a social setting. His prominence eventually taught him to talk about his work and his feelings, and he spoke out whenever he could and wherever he found a platform and through whatever medium he found effective—visual art, video, performance, writing, speaking. He did it all—and he got very good at it. And it landed him under the microscopes of people like Wildmon, Helms, Rohrabacher, Dannemeyer, Pat Robertson, and George H. W. Bush. In his essay for the catalogue of Fever: The Art of David Wojnarowicz at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York in 1999, the first retrospective of Wojnarowicz’s work after his death, Dan Cameron, then senior curator there, wrote:

In the most fundamental historical terms, Wojnarowicz appears to have been the leading voice in the first generation of artists to come of age in the AIDS era, for whom the relationship between the private and the political was powerfully evident.

Wojnarowicz quite simply put himself out there, his heart upon his sleeve for daws to peck at. And peck they did.

It became the artist’s mission to call attention to any injustice he perceived in American society, especially (but not exclusively) where it concerned the gay community. As we’ve seen, he targeted the Catholic Church for its treatment of homosexuals, but he didn’t limit his anger to religious institutions. He railed against politicians, the government, health-care bureaucrats, and journalists, too, but his largest target was American culture itself. Wojnarowicz saw himself as on the outside—but he wasn’t looking in, his nose pressed against the window glass. He wanted everyone else to get out. He often wrote of “the preinvented world,” the programmed society that promulgated rules by which we are all forced to live, not for the good of all but so those who make the rules can control us better, the world where the wilderness has been chopped up into property by fences and no-entry signs—

the world of the stop light, the no smoking signs, the rental world, the split rail fencing shielding hundreds of barren miles of wilderness from the human step; the place where by virtue of having been born centuries late one is denied access to earth or space; choice or movement. The bought up world; the owned world—the world of coded sounds; the world of language; the world of lies; the packaged world; the world in metallic motion.

Wojnarowicz said he recognized this as a teenager “after my first motorcycle ride.” One morning, he realized “that government and god were interchangeable and that most of the people in the landscape of my birth insisted on having one or both determine the form of their lives.” In a 1988 interview in Arts Magazine, the artist explained:

[T]he world is a place we’re born into with a preinvented existence, where everything’s been laid out. Perhaps the most radical thing you can do, then, is use your imagination. With all these different indicators seeming to press on you wherever you go—stopping for a traffic light, walking on the sidewalk instead of the middle of the street, the imagination, too, is shaped somehow. But I still think there are keys that can unlock it, you can break through a lot of things . . . like socialization.

The conformity he thought society demanded, turning us into “a tribal nation of zombies,” was not where the imagination lived. In that same interview, Wojnarowicz said of one of his large paintings from The Four Elements series:

Earth is about the idea of architecture coming from an unconscious impulse. It’s the same thing I said before about preinvented existence where the imagination is formed by all these signifiers we’re surrounded by. And that’s where I think the most radical thing lies; inside that imagination where we can leave that pre-invented world. That’s where real freedom is.

Homogeneity, which Wojnarowicz called “a one-tribe nation,” is an illusion anyway, because within that society are several tribes. One runs the government with false promises, propaganda, and a strong arm; one comprises the reporters and commentators who “work hand in hand with the government” to con the people so that they never “break through the illusion and examine the structures of their world.” Finally, there’s the tribe that sees the truth through the manufactured haze. This diatribe appears in Wojnarowicz’s essay “In the Shadow of the American Dream: Soon All This Will Be Picturesque Ruins,” published in Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, which came out in 1991, the year before the author died. His rage was well established by then, of course; he’d seen the marginalization, the repression, the denial of anyone who dared not to conform—sexually, politically, religiously, intellectually, culturally. Of course Helms and Co. would go on the attack. David Wojnarowicz was dangerous! The people who see the reality, he warned, want action:

A civil war and a national trial for the “leaders” of this country, as well as certain individuals in organized religions, is the soundtrack that plays and replays in the heads of members of that tribe. Some members of the tribe understand the meaning of language. They also understand what freedom truly is and if the other tribes want to hand them the illusion of hope in the form of the leash—in the form of language—like all stray dogs with intelligence from experience, they know how to turn the leash into a rope to exit the jail windows or how to turn the leash into a noose to hang the jailers.

Wojnarowicz was entirely unschooled. He got into the High School of Music and Art with a portfolio he’d put together one night and he’d play hookie for weeks at a time to roam the streets and hustle. He ultimately dropped out at 16 to live on the streets and never returned to any kind of formal school, learning entirely on the streets and highways of the United States and Europe, the ultimate autodidact. He was also self-taught as an artist, picking up his knowledge of style, technique, and materials from other street artists, observation, experience, and experimentation. Because he wasn’t a product of the art establishment, he had little regard for it. Just as he saw himself as an outsider in society at large—a position he believed was vital not just for his own work, but for the art world and society as a whole—he regarded himself as separate from the world of galleries and studios, patrons and collectors. It wasn’t so much that he disdained that world—he would eventually show his work in galleries, sell paintings for as much as $20,000 even in his lifetime, and see his art displayed in museums—he just never figured the established art world would be interested in the kinds of work he was doing. Like many street artists, his canvases were usually the walls of buildings and, in his case, the wrecks of cars abandoned outside his Lower East Side apartment. (He’d discovered that if he graffitied the hulks, the city’d tow them away overnight instead of the months they’d sit at the curb otherwise.)

Wojnarowicz began his art career while he was playing in his band, known as 3TK4, a “post-punk” combo that used recordings of street noises and conversations as a form of percussion. He’d hang posters he’d spray-painted in the areas near the group’s gigs. The posters disappeared as fast as he put them up, he recalled—apparently people were taking them down to hang in their homes. He began painting directly on the buildings, and he started a series of graffiti works, walking around SoHo at night and spray-painting what would become his iconic imagery—burning house, flying bomber, and cowering figure—on gallery doors. In one early piece, he dumped a 100-pound pile of bloody cow bones from a meat packer in the West Village on the stairs of the Leo Castelli Gallery in SoHo, stenciling a knife, fork, and plate on the wall along with his customary burning house and plane. It wasn’t that the artist had anything against Castelli or the art establishment. “At that time I thought galleries were a joke, that they would never touch anything this real or address issues like that.” Collectors were all about collecting, amassing art for themselves, he thought, and galleries catered to buyers, not artists. They were all about selling, “the collector structure,” art as a commodity. “I did that work just to give people something different to look at on the way in,“ Wojnarowicz explained, “something that would balance their view of what I thought was inside.” His first exhibit came when the owner of the Milliken Gallery had taken notice of his “street signs” and, after finding out from Peter Hujar who the graffitist was, asked Wojnarowicz to participate in Fast (which also included Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, two other former graffitists). That was the summer of 1982, and the young street artist soon began having his own shows. Several galleries championed his work, and I think his attitude to galleries changed—though not necessarily his feelings about collectors. He attended some of the parties to which buyers invited him, but he wasn’t comfortable hobnobbing with people who thought they knew him because they’d seen his work. It dismayed Wojnarowicz that once his work began to sell, once he’d been “validated” by the critical establishment, people would buy anything to which his name was attached. (He also learned that this world could be fickle.) He continued to see himself as an outsider in the art world; in fact, Wojnarowicz at first didn’t think of himself as an artist at all. “Artists,” according to him, “were such-and-such people,” people who were special, different from the rest of us. Wojnarowicz “wasn’t particularly an artist,” he insisted; he was just a guy with something to say who tried hard to find ways to say it—like music, writing, or installations.

Wojnarowicz’s partner in the Castelli action was bandmate Julie Hair, so he didn’t think of what he was doing as art. It was an outgrowth of his work with 3TK4 which he called “action installations.” Then Wojnarowicz met Hujar in a bar in 1979 and “we just started talking.” Hujar, 20 years Wojnarowicz’s senior, became the younger man’s brother, father, mentor, teacher, and, ultimately, the audience for all his art. Because Hujar was a photographer, Wojnarowicz began taking pictures again. He’d been writing since he left the streets—poetry, transcribed monologues of street people—but photography was another way to chronicle the world he was witnessing (and which few others, especially the established media, were recording). “Images can be used as tools of alert, or tools of organization,” explained Wojnarowicz in Aperture, an art photography quarterly. “A photographic image can be a disruption of previously unchallenged power.” The budding artist’s early visual works were photographs, like the Rimbaud series. “A camera in some hands can preserve an alternate history,” Wojnarowicz asserted. (He continued to use photography in his paintings as well as on its own. One of his most moving pieces is a photo portrait of Hujar immediately after his death, a work on exhibit in Hide/Seek.) But at one of the clubs where Wojnarowicz worked as a busboy and dishwasher another street artist, Keith Haring, also worked and Wojnarowicz saw what his fellow artist was doing as his work developed, though Wojnarowicz still thought of his own efforts as an extension of his action installations, not art. Photography quickly led to exploring other art forms, including painting and sculpture; but Wojnarowicz grew into the field almost without realizing that’s what he was doing. “Originally the early stuff I did was very simple,” he said. “I was trying to bring art back from its ‘elite’ nature, the artist as a special creature, an elite person.”

Wojnarowicz didn’t work in so many media and forms, including writing and music as well as all the visual techniques, because he was a dilettante or wasn’t serious about his work and artistic mission. His experimentation had two origins, I believe. First, it was the result of an endlessly restless and curious mind. He was continuously searching for more effective and stunning ways to communicate his ideas and thoughts. Furthermore, his major works, particularly those of his later years, were sorts of collages—if not in the literal sense, which many of them were, then collages of styles, techniques, and media. Whatever he learned eventually found its way into one of his complex works.

The second source for Wojnarowicz’s multi-media impulse was his belief that artists of the future wouldn’t be restricted, by custom or training, to one or two methods of making art. They’d be freer to choose the media and materials they used as well as the ways they applied them. (I find this attitude very like Tennessee Williams’s plastic theater concept, about which I wrote in “’The Sculptural Drama’: Tennessee Williams’s Plastic Theatre” in the Tennessee Williams Annual Review [2002], http://www.tennesseewilliamsstudies.org/archives/2002/3kramer.htm. A shorter version is in the Tennessee Williams Encyclopedia [Greenwood Press, 2004].) Wojnarowicz was simply in the forefront of this movement, perhaps taking his license from his lack of formal art schooling so he’d never been taught the rules. Of course, Wojnarowicz was never much for following rules and restrictions—even when he knew them. As artist and writer Mark Alice Durant wrote: “Wojnarowicz as painter, photographer, and writer transgresses as many formal boundaries as his content transgresses taboos.”

In fact, Wojnarowicz’s large paintings resemble nothing so much as multi-media performances. Divided into quadrants like cartoon panels, a form the artist used in his early wall paintings, or a movie storyboard, they move from image to image, idea to idea like scenes in a play, but communicating in different media and techniques. Some of his later works incorporate disparate visual media and written texts in the form of short stories, which, as in William Blake’s artwork, are integrated into the painting with the other media (see He Kept Following Me and I Feel a Vague Nausea, both 1990). His 1987 Four Elements series not only combines images from many sources (including pornography) but also diverse media. For instance, Water (from which Wildmon excerpted some sexual images for the anti-NEA pamphlet) incorporates texts. (The Four Elements—the other works of the series are Earth, Fire, and Wind (for Peter Hujar)—are reproduced in Tongues of Flame and Fever; He Kept Following Me and I Feel a Vague Nausea are reproduced in Fever. There are undoubtedly reproductions on the ‘Net as well.)

“David’s life had nothing to do with the art world,” wrote author, journalist, and art critic Elizabeth Hess, “and his work was inseparable from his life.” Cynthia Carr further explained:

David’s work emerged directly from his life. He knew little art history, had no training past high school, and made a point of not trolling the galleries to see what everyone else was doing. Exposed to unusual hardship as a boy, as a sexually active teen, and as a street person, he didn’t see his experience reflected in the culture. Art was his antidote.

In his essay in the Fever catalogue, art historian and critic John Carlin wrote:

Simply put, David was not just an artist; he used art as a vehicle for something else, not as an end in itself. David was more like a shaman, the witch doctor of our tribe, than someone purely interested in formal relations or being smart. He was a visionary whose work was deeply rooted in our collective daily lives yet constantly linked the everyday to some greater, unknowable force.

. . . .

While most young artists looked to other artists for their referents, Wojnarowicz drew upon the common experiences of Americans of his generation. He did not make art that tried to fit into preconceived notions of what art should be. He was less concerned with aesthetics than with communicating—about himself and society, about things that were real and actually happening but that no one wanted to talk about.

At the same time, though, Wojnarowicz was impelled to work closely with other artists and performers. He did a lot of solo work, to be sure, but he “collaborated incessantly,” as Dan Cameron put it. “In general, the importance of collaboration for Wojnarowicz was based on his belief that the art he produced required the support of and constant interchange with the highly creative individuals with whom he surrounded himself,” the curator wrote. I think that it had taken the young man so long to find a place where he felt he belonged, that he felt a need to work alongside others from the same community—finally, here were people who understood him and whom he understood. In fact, in his short career—it was only about 10 years—Wojnarowicz became a leader in the East Village art and culture world. Many younger artists found in him an inspiration and a model who didn’t succumb to art stardom, and today acknowledge his influence on their work.

The artist was generous not only with his time, appearing as a model in the works of photographers like Hujar and others, performing in films and videos for friends, speaking at rallies and protests, but he donated his work to benefits and gave money to less prosperous artists to the extent that he was often broke. Though he remained an outsider to mainstream society, as much by his own nature and choice as by establishment exclusion, he saw himself as part of a community of artists, a citizen of the East Village, and a native of the gay United States—and he supported these and other societies of which he considered himself part. Wojnarowicz was a true idealist: his art wasn’t for making money—though he took it—it was for telling his stories or making his political points. I worked with Leo Shapiro on a collage performance which included texts by many writers, including playwrights Karen Malpede and Charles Mee, and one contributor was David Wojnarowicz. (I never met the artist; he died the following year and was already too ill to attend rehearsals or meetings.) His concern for others was genuine and deeply felt and it extended to animal life of all kinds, even what Cynthia Carr labeled “the unlovable insects and reptiles.” (Wojnarowicz confessed that when he was living on the street, he shoplifted animals from pet shops, freeing them in Central Park and turning the halfway house in which he stayed into a menagerie until the residents threatened to throw him out.) Lucy Lippard, writer and curator, noted that Wojnarowicz displayed “extraordinary honesty and responsible humanity (is it too corny to call it love?) that was inseparable from the work.” His sole purpose, he said, was “to be understood and acknowledged”:

We can all affect each other, by being open enough to make each other feel less alienated. We all are able to have a profound [e]ffect on each other, a positive effect that sustains us . . . .

Félix Guattari, French activist and philosopher, wrote of the artist:

The authenticity of his work on the imaginary plane is quite exceptional. His “method” consists of using his fantasies and above all his dreams . . . in order to forge himself a language and a cartography enabling him at all times to reconstruct his own existence. It is from here that the extraordinary vigor of his work lies.

Guattari concluded that Wojnarowicz “attempts to create imaginary weapons to resist established powers,” but the artist’s overarching goal, “the most meaningful thing,” was “to make somebody else feel less alienated.” His artistic matrix, however, wasn’t beauty or even aesthetics in general. He had no interest in being “decorative.” Wojnarowicz wasn’t interested in design or composition—he hadn’t had any training in that anyway. He wanted to communicate, to show people what the world he saw looked like—even if they didn’t want to see it. He was a habitual truth-teller, even as a second-grader when he learned that everyone dies: “I remember running down the block and to every kid that I saw I said, ‘We all die, one day we’re all going to be dead!’” The kids cried and their parents decided Wojnarowicz was a sick child—because he thought everyone should know the truth. After his AIDS diagnosis, his message became not resignation but rage. As the New York Times’ Woodward concluded in his contemplation of Wojnarowicz’s work, “Choler . . . was his style.” In a 1990 interview, the artist said, “Somewhere in me, I feel that I don’t want to be polite. I don’t want that pressure of dying in a very clean way, making it easy for people. Somewhere, I want the world to have my rage and reactions.” (It was this element in Wojnarowicz’s work that Holland Cotter felt was excised from Hide/Seek when A Fire in My Belly was excluded.)

Wojnarowicz returned over and over to the same images, like the crawling ants in the video, in different applications in order to wave the red flag and I, for one, found his work disturbing, provocative, confounding, frightening, intriguing, and always, always moving. The America Wojnarowicz depicted, though, was a scary place. “When I was told I’d contracted this virus it didn’t take me too long to realize that I’d contracted a diseased society as well,” wrote the artist. As Marcia Tucker, founding director of the New Museum, wrote in her forward to the Fever catalogue, “In an articulate howl of pain, rage, and longing, Wojnarowicz spoke of a world so dark, so bitter, and so pervasive that its very existence was denied by those who had not experienced it firsthand.” Nevertheless, Wojnarowicz would say, it should be witnessed.

[As long as this profile is, it’s incomplete. David Wojnarowicz, as an artist, as a writer, and as a man, is so complex and his work so nuanced and layered that I have left out volumes that can be said about him. For that I apologize, and I urge interested readers to seek out his art, his books, and the hundreds of article by or about him. Wojnarowicz’s ideas and his work may be difficult, even harsh, but his sincerity is assured, and I guarantee you will find a fascinating subject and a compelling figure. I can tell you that once I started to learn about him from the footprints he left, I regretted not having had the chance at least to meet him when our paths almost crossed in 1991.

[I had intended to mention Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture in the Wojnarowicz article, but there was never the place for even a brief report. So I’ll do it here, as an addendum. To be honest, I don’t have a lot to say about the exhibit. First of all, between the reviews in the New York Times (“Sexuality in Modernism: The (Partial) History,” 11 Dec. 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/11/arts/design/11hide.html) and the Washington Post (“National Portrait Gallery's 'Hide/Seek' finds a frame for sexual identity,” 5 Nov. 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/04/AR2010110407182.html), the critics, Holland Cotter and Blake Gopnik respectively, said anything I might have and I find I have little to add. Second, the show was very large: 105 pieces covering the end of the 19th century through the first decade of the 21st—essentially a history of 20th-century gay portraiture. Third, since most of the works were photographs and I’m not enamored of art photography, I can’t really comment critically on the art. Generally, however, I agree with Cotter that the exhibit was focused on “stars” and “Hall-of-Fame” art, but since I’m less familiar with this field than he is, that didn’t bother me so much. I was glad to see some of the Thomas Eakinses, Romare Beardons, Jasper Johnses, and Andy Warhols, even if I might also have been awakened to new possibilities if less-well-known artists’ portraits had been displayed. As it was, I didn’t know the work of such artists as Romaine Brooks, Cass Bird, or Minor White anyway, so I was introduced to new artistic experiences anyway. The controversy over A Fire in My Belly notwithstanding, though, I ended up feeling that the sheer volume of work in Hide/Seek made it hard for me to see the overall point of the exhibit. Cotter phrased this as “Work of gay artists was fundamental to the invention of American modernism” or “Difference had created the mainstream” and Gopnik expressed the idea as “Being gay—or being straight and paying close attention to the twists of gender and desire—makes you a better, more careful observer”; but in the welter of photographs, drawings, paintings, videos, and one or two sculptures, what I carried away was that here was a collection of intriguing work by even more intriguing artists. (I also found, like I did at the wonderful Dada exhibit some years ago, that I had to read all or most of the panels accompanying the portraits because, one, I knew so little about the work and, two, it was all so interesting and revealing.) There were some real surprises, like Men Reading (1914) by commercial illustrator Joseph Christian Leyendecker. Approaching the painting of two young, handsome men, impeccably dressed, it’s immediately reminiscent of the classic Arrow Shirt ads, and it was fascinating to learn that Leyendecker was, in fact, the designer of that ad campaign—the painting was the original ad—and that one of the men, who in context are obviously a gay couple, was modeled from the artist’s own partner. Ironically, a few of the items in the exhibit weren’t great or even good art; their inclusion in the show owed more to their message or, if you will, political impact than their artistic quality. The show was sometimes more about history than aesthetics. The excision of the Wojnarowicz video echoed and underscored that. One other point came out from Hide/Seek: The presence of works by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, a clandestine couple in the middle of the last century, seems to say that self-identification as gay has become more openly acceptable since Johns permitted his work to appear here (Rauschenberg died in 2008) as a sign that what once had to be hidden now didn’t have to be. Sadly, the message of the administration of the gallery and the Smithsonian is that some things still have to be.

[As a result of the removal of A Fire in My Belly, several artists tried to remove their work from Hide/Seek (the museum wouldn't comply with the requests) and a number of donors have withdrawn support from the Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian. Martin Sullivan, the curator of the gallery, and G. Wayne Clough, the secretary of the Smithsonian have been forced to justify their actions and have expressed regrets over their decision. The video has been made available on the ‘Net and some galleries and museums around the country, such as New York’s New Museum and Transformer in Washington, have scheduled showings in protest. In London, the Tate Modern, like the Smithsonian a national museum, held a tribute to Wojnarowicz on 22 January at which several of his videos, including Fire, were shown. In the latest move, the Brooklyn Museum has announced plans to remount Hide/Seek, including Fire in My Belly, in cooperation with the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington State, possibly before the end of 2011. As if predicting his own future impact, the artist declared: “Do not give me a memorial if I die. Give me a demonstration.” It seems he got one.]