In his painting, writing, film, photography, sculpture, and performance, David [Wojnarowicz] was committed to facing uncomfortable truths. Even as a kid of six or seven, he told me, he was the one who ran down the block one day, giddy with what he'd just learned. "We all die! One day we're all going to be dead!" As he told his little friends, they burst into tears, parents rushed out of their houses, and David was seen as a very sick little kid for exposing the Real Deal. Recalling that memory, David smiled: "That's a metaphor for the rest of my life."
But David was also an elusive character -- a truth teller who kept secrets, a loner who loved to collaborate, an artist who craved recognition but did not want to be seen.
I met him in 1982 and interviewed him in 1990 for a Village Voice cover story. At the time, David was still working on the book he would eventually call "Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration." He told me that he was going to let the publisher classify it as nonfiction, even though he thought of it as "a fusion of fiction and nonfiction." He had decided to let everything in his emotional history become part of his palette, whether or not he remembered it accurately.
I knew David best during the last eight months of his life. We also had some mutual friends, and a couple of them warned me that if I chose to write about David, I would have to deal with what they called "the mythology." Not that anyone knew of any specific myth. Or lie. But those stories! In 1989, when David prepared a Biographical Dateline for the catalog accompanying "Tongues of Flame," one of the first readers remarked (though not to David), "It's like . . . Candide!" The Dateline ends in 1982, as David began his art career. Certainly, some of the facts he laid out on his early life are skewed or exaggerated or just wrong. His account emphasizes the hardships and omits a lot. But the Dateline does not vary from the accounts of his life he'd been giving since he first became a public figure.
So his childhood wasn't as bad as he said? I think it was worse. For one thing, the real David was never as hard-bitten as the persona toughing it out through those stories. Nor did he include much of what his siblings and half-siblings endured, which really provides context.
I don't think David understood the pathos in his own story. He emphasized the hardship he went through, and the hardship was there. But the central struggle in his life was about how much of himself to reveal. Who was safe? What could he tell? He felt he was an alien, that something at his core was suspect and would make people hate him. This feeling persisted until the last few years of his life.
David once told me that he used to long for acceptance from other people. Then he began to value the way he didn't fit in. He realized that his uneasiness with the world was where his work came from.
David learned to be daring when he lived on the street, when he came out as a gay man and refused to hide it, and then when he met his great mentor, Peter Hujar -- part of an older generation of high- riskers and, for David, a guiding light. Hujar could not tell David how to have a career, since he was no good at that, but he could show him how to be an artist. David did not know much art history but realized he didn't need that in order to develop an iconography. In a yellow steno pad found among his papers, he wrote, "I had always believed that the content of paintings were always some denial of history -- images preserved by and for a particular class of people. So it was in them that I reached for images of chaos -- images that weren't used in paintings -- maybe obscure books detailing the human efforts of power structures -- also in growing up in a world without role models where all institutions relegated homosexual matters to snide johns or things to be exterminated. . . . I had always believed that change came down to personal action -- not just language but the idea of self truth. / Peter's search for self-truth / All this in my work."