We’re informed early on in Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker (★★★★☆) that maverick ’80s multi-media artist David Wojnarowicz took inspiration for his work from his turbulent life. In turn, this expressive documentary by director Chris McKim (Freedia Got a Gun) takes Wojnarowicz’s art and AIDS activism as inspiration for a bold cinematic portrait that elucidates the late firebrand’s place in LGBTQ history, while exciting a desire to examine his boundary-pushing output more closely.
In kaleidoscopic fashion, the film, produced by WOW Docs, fuses images of Wojnarowicz’s paintings, and fragments from his archive of journals, cassettes, photographs, and Super 8 films, into a chronicle largely voiced by the artist himself. Of course, it’s augmented by interviews with those who knew and loved him, from Fran Lebowitz and illustrious art dealer Gracie Mansion, to Wojnarowicz’s estranged brother Steven, who recounts the event that effectively ended their relationship. David would die at 37 of AIDS-related causes before the two saw one another again.
By all accounts, Wojnarowicz poured passion, sex, and anger into his art, love affairs, and all-too-brief life. His unapologetically brash personality, which flows freely throughout the film, fascinated paramours, and confounded critics. His rough edges, hewn by an abusive childhood and subsequent stint as a teenage hustler in Times Square, both disturbed and delighted the art world establishment. Identifying with outsider artists Jean Genet and Arthur Rimbaud, he briefly moved to Paris, before returning six months later to NYC, where he’d stalk the streets wearing a self-made mask of Rimbaud, taking his “Rimbaud” around the city that never sleeps.
McKim evokes the ’80s and early-’90s New York arts underground fondly, with recollections of packed East Village openings, and Keith Haring and Madonna sharing the spotlight at Danceteria — yet the film draws its most powerful emotions recalling the gut-punch the AIDS crisis dealt that scene in particular. By contracting the HIV virus, Wojnarowicz laments, he “contracted a diseased society as well.” In the months preceding his death in 1992, gallerist Mansion feared having to face the same crass rush to buy up his work that she had witnessed in the months leading up to Haring’s death.
Poignantly, the film captures how, despite headline-grabbing battles against lawmakers who deemed his uber-queer art obscene, Wojnarowicz did ensure his artistic legacy, through a body of work exhibited at the same esteemed institutions that initially resisted his vision. His artwork and manuscripts would be bought and sold for massive sums, and one of his pieces, “Untitled (Buffaloes),” even famously was turned into cover art for U2’s single “One.”
Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker makes a centerpiece of the gorgeous piece that lends the film its title, but doesn’t really offer viewers time to fully digest that sensual collage of painting and photographs in all its glory. Wojnarowicz’s art is foreground, background, blood, and tissue here, but in general the work’s too dense with meaning to be deciphered in just these edited glimpses. That’s all the more reason to pick up the film’s trail at the end, and follow it gladly to a further appreciation of this troubled queer genius.
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