“Fever: The Art of David Wojnarowicz,” at the New Museum, is one long howl of rage at the cruelty of contemporary culture. A well-known figure in the East Village scene of the eighties, Wojnarowicz (1954-92) grew up in a harsh and abusive family. When he was a teenager, he lived on the street as a hustler and prostitute. This did not blunt or coarsen his sensibility. He seems to have been one of those painfully sensitive people who lack the filters that others depend upon to block out what cannot be borne. In art, he found a way to confront directly what the world was determined to ignore, notably homophobia and the suffering caused by aids, which led to his own death at the age of 37. Art became his way of living the hard truths.
Organized by Dan Cameron, “Fever” includes macabre paintings, photographs, sculptures, and films. The spirit of the show is Bosch-like; Wojnarowicz’s art teems with tiny, twisted grotesques. Wojnarowicz was also a writer who kept a diary. And for a time he worked in a rock band. And he was a vigorous aids activist. To Wojnarowicz, being an artist did not mean being a “painter” or a “sculptor” or a maker of traditional objects. It meant being a free voice in any medium. His actual art, particularly his paintings, is often amateurish; his visual skills could not match his ambition. And yet … The exhibit is well-named: A fever enters the eye. A photograph at the beginning of the catalogue shows Wojnarowicz’s head next to a little fetus in a round nest and a globe of the world. Wojnarowicz’s expression seems to ask, “Why? Why?”
Wojnarowicz’s outrage gained authority because it underscored an essential gentleness. He looked to the outcast for the promise of a better world: “I realized that my queerness was a wedge,” he once wrote, “that was slowly separating me from a sick society.” Not surprisingly, he did not shy away from his own impending death. There is an extraordinary photograph of his face – which we grow accustomed to seeing throughout the show – half buried among dry clumps of earth. His eyes are screwed shut in pain. His lips are open, and his two front teeth gleam with an otherworldly whiteness. Is he dreaming? This is an image of death haunted by life.