David Wojnarowicz Fire 1987

  • MoMA, Floor 2, 202

Artist, writer, and activist Wojnarowicz first gained public attention in the early 1980s on the streets of downtown New York through his handmade posters and graffiti murals. Fire is one of four paintings in a series titled The Four Elements, in which the artist aimed to complicate narratives from American culture by suffusing them with his own lived experiences. The work contains depictions of natural, mythic, and symbolic sources of heat and energy, such as a volcano, Satan, and a heart. This imagery is combined with iconography that recurs throughout Wojnarowicz’s work: snakes, dung beetles, maps, and advertisements.

Gallery label from 2024
Additional text

Wojnarowicz worked as an artist, writer, and activist in New York in the 1980s, a period marked by the initial outbreak of AIDS and by the high–profile charges of obscenity against certain artists advanced by senator Jesse Helms and the American Family Association. The imagery in Fire, such as the rattlesnake imprinted with dollar bills in the lower left and the wanted posters of criminalized (and therefore marginalized) subjects, imbues the work with layered personal and political meanings that address the greed, violence, and homophobia the artist perceived in American culture.

Fire belongs to a series of four paintings in MoMA's collection each relating to one of the classical elements: fire, water, earth, and air. It contains natural, mythic, and symbolic sources of heat and energy, such as a volcano, Satan, and a heart. These are juxtaposed with the personal iconography that recurs throughout Wojnarowicz's work: snakes, a dung beetle, and the map and grocery store advertisements on the right panel—found paper onto which the other elements were collaged or painted. Wojnarowicz used Surrealist techniques, such as dramatic disparities of scale, with a combination of image and text to create contemporary statements that are both fantastical and disturbing.

Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights since 1980, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2007, p. 78.
Acrylic and cut-and-pasted paper on wood, two panels
6 x 8' (182.9 x 243.8 cm)
Gift of Agnes Gund and Barbara Jakobson Fund
Object number
© 2024 Estate of David Wojnarowicz
Painting and Sculpture

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