David Wojnarowicz. Untitled. 1990–91. Photostat, composition (irreg.): 27 15/16 x 37 3/16" (70.9 x 94.4 cm); sheet: 32 15/16 x 39 15/16" (83.7 x 101.4 cm). David Wojnarowicz. Giant Photo, New York. Purchased in part with funds from Linda Barth Goldstein and Art Matters Inc. © 2024 Estate of David Wojnarowicz

“My rage is really about the fact that when I was told that I’d contracted this virus it didn’t take me long to realize that I’d contracted a diseased society as well.”

David Wojnarowicz

“The work that anybody does as an artist—if it doesn’t reflect resistance then they’re helping a system of control become more perfect,”1 wrote David Wojnarowicz. For Wojnarowicz, exposing the hypocrisy of an unjust society was a fundamental reason for making art. Through his paintings, photography, sculptures, films, performances, and writing, Wojnarowicz captured the rage felt by those society had cast aside—himself included—and expressed it in ways that still impact us today. “It’s a compulsion to make things. To make sense of my life,” he wrote. “It makes me feel relieved about the experience of living.”2

Wojnarowicz’s start in life was traumatic. Having been physically and emotionally abused and neglected by his parents during his upbringing in New Jersey, Wojnarowicz carried a burdensome rage throughout his life. Escaping that world as a teenager, he began a precarious life in New York City. Sometimes hustling, sometimes living on the streets, he eventually found a fitting home in the East Village art scene of the 1980s. Identifying as social outcasts and rejecting the commodification of art bought and sold at the established galleries on 57th Street and in Soho, East Village artists strove to make work that was anti-elitist and raw. Incorporating cartoonish figures, reappropriated images, found items, and street art, East Village art was made quickly and roughly, and was often designed to shock. Within the artist-run clubs and galleries that multiplied in the East Village during the early 1980s, Wojnarowicz’s work fit right in.

In keeping with the ethos of the scene, Wojnarowicz often worked collaboratively with other East Village artists. Whether he was making music in the band 3 Teens Kill 4, shooting films with Richard Kern and Tommy Turner, or working with filmmaker Marion Scemama to document the queer cruising scene on the abandoned West Side piers, Wojnarowicz became a creative force. Yet it was in an East Village gay bar in 1980 that he lucked upon the person who would have the greatest influence on his art: Peter Hujar, a photographer 20 years his senior. After a brief romantic relationship, the two formed a deep bond. “He was like the parent I never had, like the brother I never had,”3 said Wojnarowicz. Hujar gave the younger artist the confidence to see that what he had already created was indeed art, and urged him never to censor his creativity. Looking back on his career near the end of his life, Wojnarowicz said, “Everything I made, I made for Peter.”4

Many of Wojnarowicz’s themes, techniques, and choices of iconography reappear throughout a fiery body of work that includes painting, film, video, performance, writing, and music. Collages made of maps allude to the fragmentation of society; found images from advertising posters comment on consumerism; contrasts between natural and industrial landscapes explore greed, colonialism, and capitalism.

After learning he had AIDS at the age of 33, Wojnarowicz turned to activism and pointedly referred to his sexuality and diagnosis in his art. Untitled, also known as “One Day This Kid” (1990–91), features Wojnarowicz’s writing surrounding an image of a smiling boy taken from a photograph of the artist at around age nine. With a relentless rhythm, Wojnarowicz’s words detail the ways an institutionally homophobic society makes “existence intolerable for this kid” simply because “he desires to place his naked body on the naked body of another boy.” The contrast between the boy’s unguarded smile and the adult artist’s decidedly angry political writing underscores Wojnarowicz’s reaction upon learning of his diagnosis: “If I die it is because a handful of people in power…believe I am expendable.”5

Wojnarowicz intended his art to light a fire in people’s bellies. He wanted them to grasp the terrifying injustices laid bare by the AIDS crisis. When he died, at the age of 37, members of the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) were so inspired by his art and activism that they gave Wojnarowicz the first political funeral of the AIDS crisis. At the head of a funeral march through the East Village in September 1992, friends, loved ones, and members of the community held a street-wide banner that read, “DAVID WOJNAROWICZ: 1954–1992, DIED OF AIDS DUE TO GOVERNMENT NEGLECT.”

George Benson, Assistant Educator, Interpretation, Research, and Digital Learning, Department of Learning and Engagement, 2023

Note: Opening quote is from Wojnarowicz, David. Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1991).

  1. Wojnarowicz, David. Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1991).

  2. Ibid.

  3. Carr, C. Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (Bloomsbury USA, 2012).

  4. Ibid.

  5. Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration.

Wikipedia entry
David Michael Wojnarowicz ( VOY-nə-ROH-vitch; September 14, 1954 – July 22, 1992) was an American painter, photographer, writer, filmmaker, performance artist, songwriter/recording artist, and AIDS activist prominent in the East Village art scene. He incorporated personal narratives influenced by his struggle with AIDS as well as his political activism in his art until his death from the disease in 1992.
Information from Wikipedia, made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License
Getty record
Artist, Writer, Collagist, Mixed-Media Artist, Painter, Performance Artist, Photographer, Sculptor
David Wojnarowicz
Information from Getty’s Union List of Artist Names ® (ULAN), made available under the ODC Attribution License


17 works online



  • MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art Flexibound, 408 pages
  • MoMA Now: Highlights from The Museum of Modern Art—Ninetieth Anniversary Edition Hardcover, 424 pages
  • Photography at MoMA: 1960 to Now Hardcover, 368 pages

If you would like to reproduce an image of a work of art in MoMA’s collection, or an image of a MoMA publication or archival material (including installation views, checklists, and press releases), please contact Art Resource (publication in North America) or Scala Archives (publication in all other geographic locations).

MoMA licenses archival audio and select out of copyright film clips from our film collection. At this time, MoMA produced video cannot be licensed by MoMA/Scala. All requests to license archival audio or out of copyright film clips should be addressed to Scala Archives at [email protected]. Motion picture film stills cannot be licensed by MoMA/Scala. For access to motion picture film stills for research purposes, please contact the Film Study Center at [email protected]. For more information about film loans and our Circulating Film and Video Library, please visit https://www.moma.org/research/circulating-film.

If you would like to reproduce text from a MoMA publication, please email [email protected]. If you would like to publish text from MoMA’s archival materials, please fill out this permission form and send to [email protected].


This record is a work in progress. If you have additional information or spotted an error, please send feedback to [email protected].