David Wojnarowicz American

Not on view

The multivalent visual artist, musician, photographer, writer, filmmaker, and activist David Wojnarowicz came to prominence in the early 1980s with his searing comments on queerness, conservative politics, disenfranchisement, and the status quo. Steeped in the punk and graffiti scene of New York’s East Village, Wojnarowicz made stencils, paintings, and sculptures in this period, many of them incorporating scavenged materials and elements from his developing visual iconography, such as clocks, maps, and US currency. The artist saw these as symbols of a regulated and corrupt mainstream that devalued those on the margins of society.

In May 1984, Civilian Warfare—a small East Village gallery far from the genteel art centers of SoHo and uptown—held a solo exhibition of Wojnarowicz’s work that included a series of plaster casts, paintings, and sculptures, this example among them. A painted pig skull wrapped in segments from a map, it incorporates further references to the degraded industrialized society that the artist so vilified in the form of a timepiece in place of an eye and a globe of $100 bills gripped in the animal’s jaws. Wojnarowicz made a number of these assemblages in the mid- to late-1980s, all incorporating the same set of visual symbols. In this skull, pierced with rusted nails and wrapped in barbed wire, forcing it to forever hold a ball of money, one can read a critique of the capitalist interests and corrupt government politics that presided over the administration of then-President Reagan. Wojnarowicz’s lover, the famed photographer Peter Hujar, captured the artist holding a skull from this series in a Civilian Warfare ad. The exhibition helped to launch Wojnarowicz’s career, as it did for many artists of the New York underground.

By the late 1980s, the New York art world was gripped by twin crises: the AIDS epidemic, which had killed thousands in the city alone, and the so-called Culture Wars, which pitted right-wing politicians and religious leaders against artists whose work was deemed "obscene." Wojnarowicz became an outspoken activist in this moment, particularly after Hujar’s death from AIDS in 1987 and the artist’s own HIV-positive diagnosis that year. His writings harshly disparaged conservative policymakers for their negligence in responding to the growing crisis, first identified in 1981 but only publicly acknowledged by Reagan four years later; by that time, more than 12,000 people had died. While Wojnarowicz’s art took on an increasingly political valence, he also fought against censorship of his work, winning a lawsuit against the American Family Association. Wojnarowicz himself would die of AIDS in 1992 at the age of 37. The disease remains a global health issue today. In 2019, nearly 40 million people worldwide were reported to be living with HIV/AIDS and around 700,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses.

Untitled, David Wojnarowicz (American, Red Bank, New Jersey 1954–1992 New York), Bone Skull, papier-maché, barbed wire, battery, watch, and rusty nails

Due to rights restrictions, this image cannot be enlarged, viewed at full screen, or downloaded.

Open Access

As part of the Met's Open Access policy, you can freely copy, modify and distribute this image, even for commercial purposes.


Public domain data for this object can also be accessed using the Met's Open Access API.