Biography of Peter Hujar (7 Miles a Second), 1988-1989
acrylic, spray paint, and collage on canvas, 42 x 44 inches
© The Estate of David Wojnarowicz; Courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York
An artist, writer and activist, David Wojnarowicz honed his craft on the streets of New York City, painting on tenement walls and in abandoned piers on the Lower East Side. There he developed a highly personal iconography of poetic and provocative images that reflect his own turbulent life experiences. In his brief career Wojnarowicz became particularly accomplished as a painter and photographer, crafting indelible images that address identity, sexuality and public policy in America.
This painting was created in tribute to Wojnarowicz’s close friend and mentor, the photographer Peter Hujar, who passed away in 1987 due to complications from AIDS. Hujar is seen surrounded by fantastic images—much like microscopic views—depicting a compressed history of time on earth, from the primordial era to the industrial age. These visual fragments echo the way Hujar consciously revised his own biography to disrupt any preconceived notions about him or his work. At the center of the composition is the glowing equation for “escape velocity,” the speed at which a particle or mass must travel to break free of the earth’s gravitational pull, a poignant metaphor for Hujar’s untimely death.
Around the time he painted this, Wojnarowicz learned of his own HIV status. The diagnosis gave impetus to his increased activism and several more years of feverish creativity, much of which was driven by his outrage at the failure of political and cultural leaders to address the AIDS pandemic. He died in 1992 at the age of 37.
To learn more about David Wojnarowicz’s use of photography within his paintings, see Matthew Biro’s essay: How Can I Be Sure?.
I don’t know what’s ahead of me in the course of my life and this civilization. I just don’t feel I have reached the necessary things inside my history that would ease the pressure in my skull and in my future and in my present. It is exhausting, living in a population where people don’t speak up if what they witness doesn’t directly threaten them.
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