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June 16, 2023

Acquisition: David Wojnarowicz

David Wojnarowicz, "Arthur Rimbaud in New York"

David Wojnarowicz
Arthur Rimbaud in New York (Coney Island), 1978–1979
gelatin silver print
image: 16.51 x 24.13 cm (6 1/2 x 9 1/2 in.)
sheet: 20.32 x 25.4 cm (8 x 10 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Alfred H. Moses and Fern M. Schad Fund

Painter, photographer, filmmaker, musician, author, poet, and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz (1954–1992) incorporated personal narratives influenced by his struggle with AIDS as well as his political activism in his art. Best known for his work documenting the AIDS crisis and the culture wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s, he refused to be bound by a signature style and instead experimented widely. The National Gallery of Art has acquired two photographs from his earliest series, Arthur Rimbaud in New York (1978–1979). Synthesizing his literary fascinations with a highly transgressive visual practice, these works initiated a period of immense creativity for Wojnarowicz that would propel him to the center of the burgeoning East Village Art scene of the 1980s. Like his idol Arthur Rimbaud, Wojnarowicz died young. His life was tragically cut short by AIDS in 1992 at the age of 38.

Merging street photography’s celebration of the randomness of everyday life with the growing fascination in staged pictures, he posed friends wearing a mask portraying 19th-century French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud on New York’s city streets and the subway; in apartments, amusement parks, and all-night diners; below the piers along the Hudson River; in front of graffiti Wojnarowicz painted in abandoned warehouses; shooting drugs, having sex, and masturbating—all the places and acts that defined his daily existence. Functioning as a visual diary of his daily life and his psychic state, Wojnarowicz mailed these pictures—approximately 30 in total—over the next few years to Jean Pierre Delage, whom he considered his first true love.

The mask itself was created using a photograph of Rimbaud by renowned French portrait photographer Étienne Carjat. Wojnarowicz first saw this picture in Paris in 1978 on posters that were pasted around the city depicting the face of Rimbaud collaged on top of a workman’s body. When he returned to New York in the summer of 1979, Wojnarowicz made his own life-size Rimbaud mask by using a photostat of the cover of the New Directions edition of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, which also featured Carjat’s portrait of the poet. Homogenized by the black and white tones of both the photostat and Wojnarowicz’s print, the mask suggests a surprisingly believable image of Rimbaud’s face that has been oddly superimposed onto the body of another. The mask also has holes in place of Rimbaud’s pupils that gaze directly, almost plaintively at the viewer, creating a sense of separation, dislocation, and otherness, as if the figure of Rimbaud is both a participant in and an observer of the world around him.

Arthur Rimbaud in New York (Diner) and Arthur Rimbaud in New York (Coney Island) (both 1978–1979), are two of the best-known and celebrated pictures from the series Arthur Rimbaud in New York. They were reproduced in the alternative newspaper the SoHo Weekly News in 1980, the first public display of these pictures and the first evidence of Wojnarowicz’s blossoming career as a visual artist. Both separate the figure of Rimbaud from the surrounding pictorial space to create a sense of otherness: Arthur Rimbaud in New York (Diner) uses a long shutter speed and a shallow depth of field that blurs the people and objects in the background. Arthur Rimbaud in New York (Coney Island) places the figure with the Rimbaud mask in front of rocks and a beach across from Coney Island’s iconic—but then defunct—parachute jump and its Cyclone rollercoaster.

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