The Death of American Spirituality, by David Wojnarowicz, 1987

David Wojnarowicz's biography often provides the framework to situate his provocative and apocalyptic paintings, photomontages, and films of the 1980s. His life experiences—his early history of abuse, hustling, and drugs; his queer­ness; and his and his friends' fatal struggles with AIDS—furnish the conditions of his artistic production. "I wake up every morning in this killing machine called America," Wojnarowicz wrote, "and I'm carrying this rage like a blood filled egg."# Identifying with the outsiders of the decrepit piers and underground East Village sites that he frequented, Wojnarowicz collided the personal and the social to attack the domi­nant paradigms of a nation in the throes of the culture wars.

Creating works in numerous mediums—painting, sculpture, collage, photography, and video—Wojnarowicz was also a published writer, musician, and dedicated activist. His saturated, multimedia paintings merge imagery from pop culture, history, and dreams to assemble distinc­tive narratives and historical allegories. Crash: The Birth of Language / the Invention of Lies (1986) depicts a massive locomotive (a symbol of the industrialized West) tearing through the ruins of past civilizations, throwing up clods of dirt and body parts, and careening toward a diminutive planet. Iconic vignettes—a man tied down in a desert while being eaten by vultures, a burning building, an adobe structure and kachina figurine, and the opening of a tomb—capture moments of intense transition amid the engine's relentless, destructive forward motion.# Wojnarowicz signals the duplicitous­ness of such "progress," wherein the birth of language becomes the invention of lies.

Two works by David Wojnarowicz, from left to right: "Crash: The Birth of Language / the Invention of Lies," 1986, and "The Death of American Spirituality," 1987. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Two works by David Wojnarowicz, from left to right: Crash: The Birth of Language / the Invention of Lies, 1986, and The Death of American Spirituality, 1987. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology. February 9–May 18, 2014. Photography by Brian Forrest
In The Death of American Spirituality (1987), Wojnarowicz arranged a similarly eclectic assortment of images (a snake charmer with one eye, the head of Jesus Christ, a web of blood-red veins extending from a kachina doll, and machinery parts) in four comic strip–like frames, which refer to the four elements: earth, air, wind, and fire. The largest figure on this surrealist ground is a cowboy riding a bull made from collaged newspapers reporting on gang­sters, murders, and the clandestine sale of weapons to Iran, which was the cornerstone of the Iran-Contra affair during Ronald Reagan's administration. Underneath this conventional American symbol, red paint oozes like an open wound over a strip of nature scenes. Wojnaro­wicz's canvas registers what he often lamented as the loss of nature and belief in myth to what he called the "pre-invented" world.#

As the ravaging HIV/AIDS public health crisis tore on, Wojnarowicz's work became increasingly confrontational. In his essay "Post­cards from America: X-Rays from Hell" (1989), written two years after his closest friend and mentor, the artist Peter Hujar, died of AIDS and following the news of his own diagnosis, Wojnarowicz asserts, "My rage is really about the fact that WHEN I WAS TOLD THAT I'D CON­TRACTED THIS VIRUS IT DIDN'T TAKE ME LONG TO REALIZE THAT I'D CONTRACTED A DISEASED SOCIETY AS WELL."# Originally written for the publication accompanying the exhibition Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, curated by Nan Goldin, the essay provoked the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, John Frohnmayer, to order that no grant money go toward the important exhibition, which catapulted the essay into the spotlight.# In the face of such violent institutional indifference and silencing, Wojnarowicz championed the public expression of personal experiences and visions because, as he wrote in his memoir, "One of the last frontiers left for radical gesture is in the imagination."# Working across multiple mediums, he employed his ecstatic dreams and feverish hallucinations to chronicle the wreckage of contemporary American society.

—Ruth Erickson