At the Park Avenue Armory’s “The Art Show,” organized by the Art Dealers Association of America, P.P.O.W.’s presentation of works by David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) and Hunter Reynolds was a small but powerful show. Paired together, Wojnarowicz’s The Rimbaud Series and Reynolds’s Survival AIDS provoke difficult comparisons between the lives of two gay artists before and after the knowledge of AIDS.
In 1978-79, Wojnarowicz photographed his friend and collaborator Brian Butterick disguised in a simple paper mask as the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. In the 44 black-and-white photographs aggregately titled The Rimbaud Series, the poet’s image thus appears to explore some of New York City’s famous landmarks and its more hidden interiors. In one photograph, wearing a cut-up denim jacket, Rimbaud slouches behind a table at a diner. In another, he’s a passenger in a graffiti-laden Flatbush-bound train. And here, in some dusky room, on a white bed, he looks apprehensive as he clasps the body of another man. This picture is one of the most evocative of all the prints. Maybe it’s the cast shadow beneath the supine figure’s head, lending the face more dimension, or the way his head turns away from the prostrate lover, naked, embracing the poet’s body—that makes “Rimbaud” appear weary-eyed, surrendering to the man’s embrace.
David Wojnarowicz, Arthur Rimbaud in New York (Tile floor, gun),1978-79, gelatin silver print, edition of 6, 11 x 14; Courtesy of P.P.O.W
The Rimbaud Series was first published in 1980, selected from a set of 24 prints (titled Rimbaud in New York), in the weekly publication SoHo News. In 2004, Wojnarowicz’s estate developed other photographs from the artist’s film for the sixth edition. Displayed in black frames, they were arranged in a wall-sized grid at the Armory. In most of the photographs, the Rimbaud mask projects a blank, haunting gaze. It seems to say: “I don’t care” or “Fuck you” or “I’m exhausted.” The paper’s flat whiteness heightens the wearer’s visibility in a crowd, but also renders him anonymous. Wojnarowicz wrote that, for The Rimbaud Series, he wanted to play “with ideas of compression of ‘historical time and activity.’” One can view these photographs as Wojnarowicz’s coming of age as a queer artist in New York, invoking the spirit of another queer artist in a mentorship reaching across a century. As John Chaich writes in the accompanying catalogue: “As a young gay male, forming his artistic identity, [Wojnarowicz] needed first to try on someone else’s—the cut-out mask of a historic, passionate, queer rebel—just as I [Chaich] needed those cut-out articles, documenting the lives of gay men cut short: men, who like me, only before me, lived with the same (sex) desire to connect, create, love and thrive.”
Installation view; Courtesy of P.P.O.W
The “cut-out articles” refer to Reynolds’s Survival AIDS series (2009-11), large-scale grids composed of newspaper articles photographed and sewn together. The articles date from 1989, when Reynolds tested positive for HIV and began saving the clips, to 1992. At the Armory show, two of those grids hung on separate walls, flanking The Rimbaud Series. The yellowed newsprint sheets, sutured together, disturbingly resemble skin. Long strands of thread emerge from and cross with the horizontal seams; each strand dangles hair-like past the bottom edges. On this skin-like surface, the words of each article are like tattoos—as though the media prints gathered by Reynolds formed a disembodied second skin for him. X-rays, images of the artist, and large splatters of blood are superimposed on the text. A cocoon-like encasing from one of Reynolds’s performances, rested on the floor, echoing the mummified figure in one of the Survival AIDS grids.
(Image at top: Hunter Reynolds, Path Over Corpses , 2011, photo-weaving, c-prints and thread, 48 x 60"; Courtesy of Hunter Reynolds and P.P.O.W)