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Mudam Luxembourg opens the first major European retrospective of the work of David Wojnarowicz
David Wojnarowicz, History Keeps Me Awake at Night (For Rilo Chmielorz), 1986. Collection of John P. Axelrod © Ron Cowie.

LUXEMBOURG .- Mudam Luxembourg – Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean presents the first major European retrospective of the work of artist, writer and activist David Wojnarowicz (b. 1954, Red Bank, New Jersey; d. 1992, New York). Following its inaugural presentation at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (from 13 July to 30 September 2018) and subsequent iteration at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid (from 29 May to 30 September 2019), the exhibition travels to Mudam for its third and final presentation. History Keeps Me Awake at Night, which brings together more than 150 works, is the first retrospective to be organised in two decades and the most complete presentation of Wojnarowicz’s work to date.

Beginning in the late 1970s David Wojnarowicz created a body of work that spanned photography, painting, music, film, sculpture, writing, performance and activism. Joining a lineage of iconoclasts, Wojnarowicz saw the outsider as his true subject. His mature period began with a series of photographs and collages that honoured – and placed himself among – consummate countercultural figures such as Arthur Rimbaud, William Burroughs and Jean Genet. Queer and HIVpositive, at the end of the 1980s, Wojnarowicz became an impassioned advocate for people with AIDS at a time when an inconceivable number of friends, lovers and strangers – disproportionately gay men – were dying from the disease and as a result of government inaction.

Largely self-taught, Wojnarowicz came to prominence in New York in the 1980s, a period marked by great creative energy, economic insecurity and profound cultural change. Intersecting movements – graffiti, new and no wave music, conceptual photography, performance and neo-expressionist painting – made New York a laboratory for innovation. Unlike many artists, Wojnarowicz refused a signature style, adopting a wide variety of techniques with an attitude of radical possibility.

His art documents and illuminates a dark period in US history that unfolded around the AIDS crisis and the cultural conflicts of the 1980s and early 1990s. More generally, it perpetuates a tradition of iconoclasm in American culture, exploring the country’s myths and charting their dissemination through culture, their effects on society and their underlying violence. Like his predecessors, Wojnarowicz engaged with timeless topics such as sexual desire, spirituality, love and loss. In his own words: ‘To make the private into something public is an action that has terrific repercussions.’

Reflecting the close relationship between his personal life, artistic oeuvre and activism, the exhibition presents a broad spectrum of his work. From his seminal photographic series Arthur Rimbaud in New York (1978–79) – for which his friends posed in locations in New York city wearing a mask of the nineteenth-century French poet’s face – to late work that is characterised by grief and illness, including Untitled (When I Put My Hand on Your Body) (1990) and Untitled (One Day This Kid...) (1990–91). One part of the exhibition presents a selection of his early experiments in collage, paintings and stencil works that first appeared on the streets of downtown Manhattan. Accompanied by the music of his band 3 Teens Kill 4, these works show the artist developing an iconographic language that he also used on the walls of the abandoned piers on the Hudson River and would figure in the more complex studio paintings that he developed later in his career. A slideshow by Andreas Sterzing that retraces the artistic activity around Pier 34, an abandoned structure that played host to an ephemeral, alternative art system created by Wojnarowicz and fellow artist, Mike Bidlo. An important group of spray and collage paintings from 1982 focus on an image of the artist Peter Hujar, Wojnarowicz’s friend and mentor. A selection of paintings from mid 1980s combine mythological subject matter with elements that refer variously to urbanism, technology, religion and industry. Several major works, including the quartet of paintings Water, Earth, Fire and Wind (1987), the series of head-shaped sculptures Metamorphosis (1984) and works from the Ant Series (1988–89) and Sex Series (1989) are also part of the selection.

History Keeps Me Awake at Night is accompanied by an extensive programme of lectures, workshops, and screenings that further explore the many facets of the artist’s work and life. The exhibition opens at 5 pm on Friday 25 October, with an introductory talk by the curators of the exhibition, David Breslin, De Marini Family Curator and Director of the Collection and David Kiehl, Curator Emeritus at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. During the exhibition’s run, Mudam will host a programme of film and video screenings around the question of activism devised by the anthropologist and curator Julien Ribeiro. On 17 November the museum will screen Marion Scemama’s film Self-Portrait in 23 Rounds: A Chapter in David Wojnarowicz’s Life 1989–1991 (2018), based on a long interview between the artist and the critic Sylvère Lotringer. Mudam will mark World AIDS Day, with a series of special events, including a screening of Jean-Claude Schlim’s House of Boys (2009) and Jacques Molitor’s Listen (2017) on 30 November and 1 December 2019, presented in collaboration with Stop Aids Now.

The catalogue published by the Whitney Museum of American Art features essays by artists Gregg Bordowitz and Julie Ault; Marvin Taylor, Director of the Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University; writer Hanya Yanagihara; Cynthia Carr, author of Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (Bloomsbury, 2012) and the curators of the exhibition.

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