Alan Barrows, a gallery owner, objected to the explicit title when Wojnarowicz included the piece in his May 1984 one-person show at Civilian Warfare, a space that Barrows co-owned. Wojnarowicz refused any request or demand to change the title or remove the piece. It stayed in the show.
After his diagnosis as HIV+ in 1988, Wojnarowicz continually challenged what he called the “one-tribe nation” who subsists in a “predetermined world” fabricated by political, commercial, and religious forces. Considering how those forces fought back, he did an outstanding job.
In 1989, Wojnarowicz wrote an essay for the exhibit catalog accompanying Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, a foundational group exhibition of work responding to AIDS at the gallery Artists Space. He titled the essay “Postcards from America: X-rays from Hell.” In it, he proclaimed in all caps: “WHEN I WAS TOLD I’D CONTRACTED THIS VIRUS IT DIDN’T TAKE ME LONG TO REALIZE THAT I’D CONTRACTED A DISEASE SOCIETY AS WELL.” Wojnarowicz named those at fault: Senators Jesse Helms and Alfonse D’Amato, New York City Mayor Ed Koch, the leaders of both the American Medical Association and the Food and Drug Administration, among others.
The National Endowment for the Arts pulled the funding it had awarded Artists Space, citing the catalog’s inclusion of work that, as the NEA chairman John E. Frohnmayer noted in his press release, “is political rather than artistic in nature.” Artists Space returned the NEA funding, but only because of the technicality that the awarded grant had been part of the agency’s previous fiscal year of funding.
In 1990, Wojnarowicz sued the American Family Association (AFA) and its executive director, Rev. Donald E. Wildmon, for defamation because they sent out a mailing that misrepresented artwork that had been included in the NEA-funded catalog for Tongues of Flame, the only retrospective held in Wojnarowicz’s lifetime, at Illinois State University and curated by Barry Blinderman. That mailing led to lawmakers in Congress denouncing the NEA’s involvement and demanding the federal General Accounting Office investigate “questionable activities” related to the grant.
Wojnarowicz won his case. The court determined Wojnarowicz deserved one dollar in damages, likely believing he had not suffered any real damages. Wildmon and the AFA did not appeal their loss and promptly sent Wojnarowicz a single check for the entire settlement. It was never cashed and sits in a folder at New York University’s Fales Library. Wildmon and the AFA continue to thrive in Mississippi.
At Houston’s Astrodome in August 1992, a month after Blane and Wojnarowicz died, the Republican National Convention met to nominate President George H. W. Bush for reelection. I had been working at a local nonprofit arts organization in the museum district as the curatorial assistant for about a year. Tim Miller, one of the NEA 4—four performance artists who’d had their NEA grants stripped the same year Wojnarowicz was suing Wildmon—performed at a rally held in the park next door to our gallery. Bullhorn in hand, Miller explained how he became a “queer point of light” to a packed crowd of artists, art lovers, and press. He demanded that artists maintain their vigilance in all attempts to limit freedom of expression.
On election night in November, Bill Clinton gave his victory speech from Little Rock, Arkansas, and included “AIDS” in a list of problems ignored for too long. I burst into tears hearing it. It was only a crumb of acknowledgement, but Reagan barely said it and Bush did so grudgingly. Clinton said it on his first night. The next day, I asked others if they’d heard it too.
Wojnarowicz demanded that artists maintain their vigilance in all attempts to limit freedom of expression.
At work, I painted walls between shows and wrote press releases for upcoming exhibitions. I organized the files of slides from artists and maintained the list of books sent to us for possible review in the quarterly magazine we published. The Tongues of Flame catalog that incited Wildmon’s rage was in a box from a regular distributor that arrived before Thanksgiving. I flipped through and saw sketches of men in a park with prominent erections, photographs of graffiti-covered piers, and ants crawling over detritus in the streets. Fuck You Faggot Fucker was on page twenty-nine. I took the catalog home, crawled into bed, and read it twice. That was my introduction to David Wojnarowicz.
The editor not only supported my pitch for a review but added a catalog from an independently curated group exhibition, From Media to Metaphor: Art about AIDS, that had traveled through the United States and Canada with work by Wojnarowicz, Félix González-Torres, Robert Mapplethorpe, and over twenty others. I spent a month printing drafts whenever I was at work, editing them by hand.
When he was alive, Blane had attended the gallery’s openings when he wasn’t too tired, and we had gone on dates to the Museum of Fine Art, Houston, but art was not something about which he expressed opinions. He would have been thrilled I had been assigned the review because he was supportive of me more than he believed in the content of my work. That said, he fueled my writing, of course. The last day I worked before the holidays, I left a disk with my final draft in the editor’s mailbox.
At the first staff meeting in January, the accountant who handled all finances said my review should not be published because it would hurt our prospects for grant funding. The NEA and the Texas Commission on the Arts would notice. He was a proud proponent of Southern decorum; he believed art should remain separate from politics. He was also a gay man proud no one knew he was gay for months after his hire. At that moment, I froze like I always do when encountering unexpected attention. My eyes started tearing up.
The executive director stood, squeezed my hand, and walked me out. I mumbled, struggling to say I was sorry for causing problems. She said there were no problems, and they were printing it. I cried, and she let me. Everyone was in their own workspaces when we returned, the accountant in his back office, me at the front desk.
A week after that meeting, I dropped off a new draft that addressed the editor’s sentence-level concerns. I added a new introduction they approved.
“When my lover, Blane, died of AIDS in July 1992, I went through the normal reactions: shock, anger. I did not really begin to deal with the situation and accept what had happened until I started to write about it.”
Nels Highberg (he/they) is an essayist, mixed media artist, and professor of English and modern languages at the University of Hartford who received an Artistic Excellence Award for his writing from the State of Connecticut in 2020.