by David Breslin and David Kiehl. Yale University Press, July 2018. 384 p. Ill. ISBN: 9780300221886 (h/c), $65.00.
Reviewed July 2019
Amy Ballmer, Chair of the Library, Pratt Institute, email@example.com
David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) was an artist and writer active in New York City from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. His art was a lauded example of the 1980s East Village gallery scene and attacked during the culture wars at the end of that same decade. Wojnarowicz’s work is a reflection of his life, passions, and politics and is as impactful and urgent today as it was thirty years ago.
History Keeps Me Awake at Night is the catalogue for a retrospective held at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Each of the essays approaches Wojnarowicz’s oeuvre from a distinct perspective and is written in an equally distinct style. Contributors include artists (Julie Ault and Gregg Bordowitz), an archivist (Marvin Taylor, director of the Fales Archive and Special Collections, which holds the David Wojnarowicz papers), curators (David Breslin and David Kiehl), and a novelist (Hanya Yanagihara). Two standout essays are “Chaos Reason and Delight” by David Breslin, and “Notes Toward a Frame of Reference” by Julie Ault. Breslin’s essay is scholarly while also making clear the emotional and personal connection the author feels with the work and the artist. “Notes Toward a Frame of Reference” is a thirty-two page collage of quotations from Wojnarowicz and dozens of his contemporaries (fully sourced in an adjacent bibliography). All of the essays are illustrated with artworks as well as personal materials from his archive, adding an element of biography and process to the writings that deepens the reader’s engagement with the work.
A biographical dateline written by Wojnarowicz and his biographer Cynthia Carr is a juxtaposition of mythmaking and biography. Wojnarowicz wrote his timeline for the 1990 exhibition catalogue David Wojnarowicz: Tongues of Flame (written with Barry Blinderman, University Galleries of Illinois State University). Carr’s contribution was written for this catalogue and includes corrections and addendums to Wojnarowicz’s timeline as well as personal photographs and examples of early works.
While the essays and timeline contextualize and engage on a scholarly and personal level with Wojnarowicz’s work and legacy, the catalogue also provides plenty of focus on the art itself. In addition to the amply illustrated contributions, there are 143 high quality color plates supplemented with essays by co-curator David Kiehl.
The catalogue includes an exhibition history, bibliography, exhibition checklist, and index. It is a key source on the art and life of David Wojnarowicz and a resource on art and activism in the United States in the 1980s and early 1990s. It is highly recommended for all libraries.