Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz

Artist and writer, quiet soul and furious provocateur, David Wojnarowicz retains all his power to shock two decades after his death — so much so that in 2010 the director of the Smithsonian censored one of his most famous films. But the overreaction to a few works has often obscured the rest of his career, and his central position in the culture of the 1980s. So we owe a tremendous debt to Cynthia Carr, a longtime Village Voice writer who knew the artist in his later years, for giving us the man in full. Her grand, elegiac book Fire in the Belly, drawing on years’ worth of interviews and copious archives, is more than just a great biography — the greatest biography of an American artist in years. It’s a history of an entire American generation, of the plague that decimated it, and of the world it inhabited, one that has long since been built over.

Wojnarowicz’s art often drew on the cruelty and neglect he faced in childhood, but according to Carr, it was even worse than he let on. His alcoholic father beat him and his siblings with grim regularity, often with a two-by-four; his self-absorbed mother left David to fend for himself on the streets of New York. He hustled from an early age: he turned his first trick “for ice cream money,” and one john nearly killed him before he turned eighteen.

His greatest inspirations weren’t artists but writers — Marcel Proust, Jean Genet, and especially Arthur Rimbaud — who helped him make sense of violence, beauty, and gay desire. At twenty-two he moved to Paris, where he first fell in love, and when he returned to New York he produced his first major photographic series: images of his friends and lovers (the distinction was almost meaningless for him) wearing a Rimbaud mask around the city. There was Rimbaud at Coney Island, Rimbaud on a graffiti-covered subway train, and Rimbaud down on the Hudson River piers where men congregated to sunbathe and cruise. Wojnarowicz loved the piers: they were, Carr writes, “a glimpse of life outside the approved social structure,” where in the course of an evening he could meet a man, recite Genet to the setting sun, and meet another man later on.

But in 1982, just as his career began to take off, the papers started reporting on a new “gay cancer” referred to as GRID — the “gay-related immune disorder.” One of Wojnarowicz’s buddies from the disco had it; by the time it was renamed AIDS, he did too. It’s sobering to see how little these artists knew about how to stay safe — many thought that if they weren’t infected after a certain time then they were home free — and how abjectly the government and the medical establishment failed to educate people. (In 1985, the Reagan administration cut all funding for AIDS education, on the grounds that “the government should not be in the business of telling homosexuals how to have sodomy.”) In the later chapters, Carr announces the deaths of a whole generation, from colleagues like Keith Haring to David’s lovers and friends, in stark single-sentence paragraphs like the toll of a church bell. But Wojnarowicz kept working, and kept fighting. His art became angrier and more political later in life — a forbidding phrase to describe a man in his mid-thirties. A painting of a map of Iraq incorporated red blood cells and homophobic graffiti; an installation of a man on his deathbed included a Howdy Doody automaton aping Jesse Helms. Even his late paintings of flowers — recalling both the Garden of Eden and the poetry of syphilis-stricken Charles Baudelaire — dripped with fury.

He didn’t want people with AIDS to die in secret. Far better, he wrote, to have their lovers crash through the gates of the White House and “dump their lifeless forms on the front steps.” So perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Carr’s heartrending, beautiful book is that it honors Wojnarowicz’s ambition: to give us an artist’s whole life, and whole death, alongside the political system that tried to erase him. The censors might still be coming after Wojnarowicz, but with advocates like Carr, he’ll win in the end.