New books look back at NYC's neighborhood art scene
On the run from an abusive father, Wojnarowicz started sleeping with older men for money while living on the streets in his teens. Drawn to other criminals and outlaws, his first published writings were based on interviews he did with street hustlers, travelers, and homeless people he met in skid row waterfront diners and on hitchhiking trips. In the works of Jean Genet, he found a literary moral universe that helped him make sense of his own worldview. One of his earliest surviving works, a collage entitled St. Genet, depicts the French writer wearing a halo in the foreground while in the background, Jesus is tying off to shoot up. While Wojnarowicz would continue to use such blunt religious imagery in his work, the collage resonates in other ways. Carr reports that it was Kathy Acker who first called Wojnarowicz "a saint" when she appeared with him at his final public reading in 1991. The identification of Wojnarowicz's life and work with the tragic loss of so many daring, outlaw artists to AIDS is so complete that Wojnarowicz has become a patron saint to young queer and activist artists today, his life story surrounded by an aura of myth.
Carr, a former arts reporter for the Village Voice, carefully picks apart myth from fact: Wojnarowicz didn't actually start selling his body for money at age nine as he often claimed and he also wasn't a founding member of ACT UP as many people suppose (though he did participate in some ACT UP protests). Yet, the complex and more human Wojnarowicz that Carr leaves us with is no less inspiring a figure — a self-taught artist whose lifelong struggle to make meaningful art out of his own experience, sexuality, and ultimate diagnosis with an incurable disease would almost by chance place him front and center in the story of the AIDS crisis and the great culture wars of the late 1980s and early '90s.
Carr, a resident of the East Village now for four decades, became friends with Wojnarowicz late in his life, and she refreshingly breaks journalistic "objectivity" to insert her own eyewitness perspective into the narrative at many key junctures. One senses Fire in the Belly is so good precisely because it is a story only Carr could personally tell. Built on years of observation, Fire in the Belly has the ambitious scope and rich detail of a novel, and, more than a biography, is the story of a fabled East Village scene now irrevocably lost.
Wojnarowicz arrived in a gritty East Village where whole blocks had been abandoned to heroin dealers and bricked up tenements. A nihilistic neighborhood arts scene embraced the decay of the streets as an aesthetic, and galleries like Civilian Warfare Studios presented a giddy cocktail of downtown punk and queer culture mixed with the freshly born graffiti and hip-hop scenes of the South Bronx. Carr relates now-famous events like Gracie Mansion's "Loo Division" show (mounted in the bathroom of her E. Ninth Street walkup), Keith Haring painting on the snow on the street in front of his show at Fun Gallery, and the exploits of the Wrecking Crew — a team including Wojnarowicz and other artists who would binge on acid and stay awake for days, filling galleries with creepy and crazed collaborative installations.
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