The Return of David Wojnarowicz and the Burning Boy: An Homage to NYC 1985

The year was 1985. The East Village was hot. The Whitney Biennial gave props, referencing Gracie Mansion and P.P.O.W. galleries. American artist David Wojnarowicz was among those chosen, the world finally catching up to the raw intense energy the artist put into his work. Wojnarowicz had spent his teen years as a street hustler and an art student in New York. Bu the late 1970s, he was emerging as one of the downtown avant garde, combining a love of graffiti and street art, stencils and sculpture, photography and painting to incredible effect.

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In November of that year, Wojnarowicz accepted a commission from collectors Robert and Adriana Mnuchin to create a site specific installation in the basement of their Madison Avenue townhouse. Tucked away inside the confines of the Upper East Side, Wojnarowicz created Untitled (Burning Boy Installation), an apocalyptic vision of New York. It is a daunting vision of what was happening on the streets at that time, as the twin plagues of crack and AIDS had just taken hold in communities already ravaged by the decades-long effect of “benign neglect.”

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Untitled (Burning Boy Installation) is currently on view at P.P.O.W. Gallery booth (C1) at Frieze New York in advance of the artist’s retrospective opening at the Whitney Museum of Art in 2018. The work appears when you first enter the fair, quietly vibrating with an energy that remains unchanged, speaking to the haves of the have nots while confronting the ultimate truth: the inevitable.

Inspired by the sixteenth century Mayan genesis myth, Papal Vuh, Wojnarowicz takes on Manhattan on the cusp of the new millennium. The artist positions us on the New Jersey shoreline, looking across the vast expanse of the Hudson River, at a city on fire. A giant figure in a asbestos suit fights fires, seemingly in vain, as a boy set afire runs covered in flames. A tree covered in skeletal heads made from actual detritus collected from the Lower East Side and the South Bronx, reinforces the stark reality of the work. It’s a city filled with death and destruction, with more than a decade of disaster still to come, including the artist’s death from AIDS in 1992.

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“History is made and preserved by and for particular classes of people,” Wojnarowicz wisely observed, creating art dedicated to the people who are more often than not erased from the books. Already, just a couple of decades on, the public at large has completely forgotten about what a dark and nihilistic time the 1980s were. Death and dying were so common that Wojnarowicz noted, “I worry that friends will slowly become professional pallbearers, waiting for each death, of their lovers, friends and neighbors, and polishing their funeral speeches; perfecting their rituals of death rather than a relatively simple ritual of life such as screaming in the streets.”

It is that silent scream that the Burning Boy emits, three decades after he first appeared. The boy runs toward New Jersey, the state where Wojnarowicz was born and lived his earliest years, seeking sanctuary from the devastation of life. There’s nothing here, just more death. It is ever-so-pervasive, yet hauntingly beautiful. It is the end, only to be born anew, like the phoenix rising from the ashes of its former self—as evidenced by its resurrection at Frieze New York.

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All photos: ©Miss Rosen.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.