'Fire in the Belly' review: The life of David Wojnarowicz

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Artist David Wojnarowicz, subject of a new biography,

Artist David Wojnarowicz, subject of a new biography, "Fire in the Belly" by Cynthia Carr (Bloomsbury, July 2012). Photo Credit: Marion Scemama

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FIRE IN THE BELLY: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz, by Cynthia Carr. Bloomsbury, 640 pp., $35

Two years ago Patti Smith published "Just Kids," a memoir of her Bohemian coming-of-age in downtown Manhattan during the late 1960s and early '70s, and of her friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Cynthia Carr's new biography of artist David Wojnarowicz, "Fire in the Belly," is, in some ways, a companion piece and bookend, tracing one young man's growth and flowering as an artist, a writer and a gay man during the '80s and early '90s, perhaps the last time during which "kids" like Patti, Robert or David could come to the city and live on nothing, experimenting freely with poetry, art and music.

Wojnarowicz (Voyna-ROW-vich), who died of AIDS 20 years ago, at age 37, is not a household name today. But Carr, who wrote about art for the Village Voice and knew Wojnarowicz, has created a vivid portrait of the artist as a young man, set in a gritty, derelict New York peopled by wildly creative characters pushing artistic boundaries.

The youngest child of a hotheaded American seaman and a much younger Australian woman, Wojnarowicz was born in Red Bank, N.J., in 1954, to an explosive family already in its downward spiral. Ed Wojnarowicz was given to alcoholic rages, beatings and suicide threats; when he and Dolores split up, Ed kidnapped the kids; Dolores didn't seek them out again for years. "David . . . experienced childhood without stability or security, spiked for some years with violence, then chaos, then neglect," Carr writes.

For a brief period, the teenage Wojnarowicz wound up on the streets of New York, sleeping on rooftops and in boiler rooms, and hustling in Times Square. Although his experience surely wasn't romantic, he would always be inspired by the junkies, hustlers and hoboes "residing at the shattered edge of the map," as Carr describes them. His posthumous book, "The Waterfront Journals," assembled a chorus of street voices he remembered and recorded.

Off the streets, but still wandering creatively, Wojnarowicz got a job as a busboy at Danceteria, a club where much of the staff, including still-unknown graffitist Keith Haring, were aspiring artists. "All over the East Village and beyond," Carr writes, "the impact of punk's DIY aesthetic was evident. It questioned the basics: What was music? What was fashion? What was art? Anything went and anyone could do it." Wojnarowicz formed a band, 3 Teens Kill 4 -- No Motive, its name cribbed from a tabloid headline.

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He also began shooting photographs, making collages, creating stencils and, with other artists, transformed an abandoned, rotting pier on the Hudson River into a massive art installation. Wojnarowicz had no formal training, but he overflowed with ideas and images, developing a personal "iconography" of burning houses, soldiers, falling men, snakes, etc., that reappear throughout his paintings. "I see the world as just these images -- constantly, constantly, and my art is how I organize this," he told a friend.

This anarchic, outsider aesthetic dovetailed perfectly with the emerging East Village art scene, a reaction to the "sleek white walls," "formalist paintings" and "hushed propriety" of the establishment that would soon find itself co-opted by the market. Uncomfortable with success, Wojnarowicz began selling paintings and became a poster boy for the movement. In dealing frankly with sex and AIDS, he also provoked the wrath of conservatives, who denounced his work as state-funded decadence. (Just two years ago, a Wojnarowicz film was removed from an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., after complaints from the Catholic League.)

It's no surprise that Carr writes perceptively about Wojnarowicz's art and the era's "culture wars." But she also is exceptionally good at fleshing out her subject as a person -- his vulnerability and contrasting prickliness; his passionate friendships, love affairs and feuds; his quest to understand the world around him. The last section of "Fire in the Belly," chronicling Wojnarowicz's sickness and death from AIDS, framed by the deaths of many friends and contemporaries, is simply heartbreaking. That Carr has resurrected him so fully and hauntingly feels like a vindication.

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