CYNTHIA CARR OPENS Fire in the Belly, her biography of David Wojnarowicz, with a story about the artist as a child of six or seven running through the streets, "giddy with what he'd just learned. 'We all die! One day we will all be dead!' As he told his friends," Carr writes, "they burst into tears, parents rushed out of their houses and David was seen as a very sick little kid." This was a story he liked to tell about himself. He also told one in which he was a street kid surviving by his wits, a child runaway, and then a Times Square hustler. In one story he is a truth-teller, in the other he is an outcast; both are important to Carr's biography, as primary scenes in the artist's mythology.
Fire in the Belly goes on to map the full arc of Wojnarowicz’s life and work, placing each carefully in context. Carr's book is a frank, emotionally powerful oral history of New York's downtown scene during its best years (the explosion of experimental art spaces in the early 1980s), and its worst (the plague years which followed).
The book's architecture is provided by the recollections of the artist’s community — the voices of the people who knew him animate Carr's writing. But Fire in the Belly's spirit comes from Carr's feel for the cosmology of Wojnarowicz's work, and for the poetics of his writing. She describes the latter as a "Howl," "built on the long breath that leaves one body to engulf the endless world and, returning, sees the universe in a single action."
Wojnarowicz was one of the most influential writers and artists of his generation, and his biography plays an important role in his work. As Carr writes it, "David has been called everything from 'the last outsider' to 'the last romantic.'" She explains that writing about him meant "dealing with what [his friends] called 'the mythology.'" Where his friends seem to use that word to describe the distance between the artist's self and his self-fashioning, Carr opens that mythology up to include the way that his life and his work operate as an emblem for the end of times — for the end of the underground, for a generation wasted and traumatized by AIDS.
His visual work bodies forth the post-punk DIY street sensibilities of the 1980s. With Peter Hujar, Karen Finley, Marion Scemama, Kiki Smith, Richard Kern, Tommy Turner, James Romberger, Marguerite Van Cook, Keith Davis and Dean Savard (to name just a few of his collaborators), David Wojnarowicz participated in communal conversations about art and survival on the social and economic margins of the Reagan era.
The class antagonism of the period plays a big part in Wojnarowicz’s story as well. Carr writes, "This was someone who never went to art school, who barely finished high school, who never owned a suit, a couch, or (until the last two years of his life) a credit card." His friendships sustained him in ways that his queer and anti-capitalist work could not. Although by the mid-eighties he would just about survive from his art (and give much of what he earned to the people around him), he was caught in censorship fights soon after.
The relationships that saw him through his roughest periods were routinely tested by outbursts of rage, fits of paranoia. He felt like an alien, and kept whole sections of his life separate from each other. Although in writings and interviews he liked to offer a picaresque timeline of his life as a runaway and hustler, Carr writes "that wasn't quite who he was." Things in that...read more