Last month a retrospective of the work of David Wojnarowicz opened at the Whitney Museum in Manhattan. Known as a painter, photographer, writer, filmmaker, performance artist, songwriter/recording artist and AIDS activist, he died of HIV AIDS in 1992.
He was born in in Red Bank, New Jersey, the youngest of three, to an alcoholic abusive father who committed suicide when David was 22. As a teen Wojnarowicz hustled on the streets of New York. He attended the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan.
He emerged in the early 1980s in the New York City art scene that combined graffiti and street art and other mixed media, which for Wojnarowicz included super-8 films, still photography and collage, often on the themes of social injustice, and the AIDS epidemic. He was also an author of several books, which included his autobiography, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration. In 1983 he met fellow artists and James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook who went on to found the Ground Zero gallery, which included Wojnarowicz in its roster of artists.
Thus began a relationship with the team of Romberger and Van Cook, who together and separately have themselves had successful careers in both the worlds of fine arts and comics. One such collaboration between the three of them is Seven Miles A Second.
Seven Miles A Second is a graphic novel that harrowingly tells the tale of Wojnarowicz’s youth and adult life, with art by Romberger and coloring by Van Cook. It was originally published by Vertigo (DC) comics in 1994, and reissued by Fantagraphics Books in 2013, where it hit the New York Times best seller list. A new edition was just self-published.
I interviewed Romberger about Wojnarowicz and their friendship.
Where did you and Marguerite meet David?
Around 1983-84 when I met Marguerite, she had a rehearsal studio on Avenue A. One day I went to visit her and knowing as she did that I didn’t have a clear idea of my place in the world as an artist, she sent me around the corner with the very few pastel drawings I’d done on butcher paper to a little gallery on 11th Street, Civilian Warfare. The show there was powerful: soft sculptures, drawings and watercolors by the late Greer Lankton depicting her sex-change operation. Hunkered down out front was this lanky guy with a deep, gravelly voice, hacking with a hatchet at a log, turning it into a totem pole. This was David Wojnarowicz. He said the owners weren’t there, but he’d be happy to look at my drawings. I unrolled them for him and he freaked. He told the owners they should give me a show—and they would have, if I’d been ready—but I wasn’t, not at that time. A year or two later, Marguerite and I took over the remainder of their lease for that storefront for our first Ground Zero gallery. David brought his mentor Peter Hujar to my first show there. They were both generous with their praise and we became good friends with him. When we got our second storefront on 10th and Avenue B in 1985, David made his installation “You Killed Me First” there with filmmaker Richard Kern, and a year later, at our third space on 9th Street near 2nd Avenue, he did his show of paintings, “Mexican Diaries”.
What was New York like and the art scene like at that time?
The Lower East Side of New York in the early to mid-1980s was a place of extreme poverty and degradation, most apparent in the open drug traffic on the streets—while at the same time, it was richly multicultural and rents were very cheap, which made it possible for a vibrant community of young musicians and visual and performance artists to spring up. We found it to be a place of great freedom; intellectually, aesthetically, emotionally and sexually—any given night held mystery, danger, romance and excitement, as there were parties, concerts and art openings happening all over the place— and we all collaborated with each other in a multitude of ways. David was an exemplar of this sort of fluid sharing of ideas; he worked together not just with us, but with a host of artists on many different projects and in different mediums.
What was he like as a person?
David was very serious and focused, but he was also kind and funny. He had suffered a lot and this continued to his death, but I’ve never met a more empathetic individual. You wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of his anger, though.
How did Seven Miles A Second come about?
We had spoken about comics, which influenced his visual symbology, but he didn’t consider himself to be much of a draftsman and in fact, his earlier work is a bit unrefined. He had a sharp learning curve though and got a lot better very quickly. After we closed our gallery in 1987, before “graphic novels” existed, we began talking about the comic and worked out a 3-part structure for what is really a graphic novella. He respected my abilities in graphic storytelling and allowed me to edit his raw text to craft a narrative that conformed to our agreed-upon structure from a pile of typed autobiographical fragments, overheard monologues and dream journals.
It was published only 2 years after his death. How involved was he in the process?
David saw and approved my completions of the first and second parts, “Thirst” and “Stray Dogs.” Those were inked and excerpts were published in a few small press zines in David’s lifetime. We both got involved in other projects for a few years, although we did meet a few times to talk about the final section—however, he died before I could begin serious work on it. So a year or so after his passing, his lover Tom Rauffenbart gave me access to his final journals and permission to edit a sequence from his writings that adhered as closely as possible to what David and I had discussed. I then went through a gauntlet of rejections by most publishers in the US before DC/Vertigo took it on. A series of circumstances at that time led to Marguerite taking on the coloring and she did such a singularly innovative job of it, also informed by her own friendship with David and her knowledge of his work, that she became a full collaborator and the third co-author of the book.
What has been the lasting affect of your friendship?
David and 7 Miles A Second are an ever-present element of our lives. We are constantly interviewed about him and the book. He had intended it in the first place to be a mass media object for LGBTQ youth to see themselves reflected in, to know that they weren’t alone, that others had gone though the same sort of issues they faced.
Is there anything you believe is misunderstood about his work or him that needs to be corrected?
One thing I find aggravating is that so many writers in talking about him mention drug abuse and even addiction; but David was never a drug addict. He once dabbled with heroin, but after shooting it up with some other fools, his arm swelled up and when he went to visit Peter Hujar in that state, Peter told him that if he ever saw David messing with heroin again, he wouldn’t ever talk to him again—so he stopped.
Another error that crops up constantly is the myth that David stopped painting in 1985-86. This is bullshit; because this is the exact time that he was showing at Ground Zero with us. Even during his “You Killed Me First” installation in 1985 he gave us one of his recent Buenos Aires paintings done on street posters to sell from our back room—and the next year he did a whole show of paintings with us.
I would finally say that though most people are familiar with his writing and with his later AIDS-oriented work, David’s entire body of work is unified by his attention to the bigger picture: a sort of global consciousness. He always looked at the entire span of human history and our place on this planet, our relationship to other living things and the natural world. This just became more focused as he narrowed his view to deal with his illness. But it was that way he had of fearlessly looking at the world that made us want to be friends with him and work with him, long before his work became so much about the virus.