Rimbaud in New York
21 April – 20 May 2006
“In 1978 and 1979, David Wojnarowicz took a series of photographs of a man wearing a paper mask bearing the visage of Arthur Rimbaud, the French poet equally known for his fervid verse and dramatic life. Apparently, Wojnarowicz used a 35mm camera that he’d stolen from an older man who had wronged him (by accusing him of stealing). It was an utterly appropriate acquisition, put to perfectly apposite use, for Rimbaud was the instantiation, and perhaps the inventor, of the idea of the young gay hustler of genius.
Rimbaud abandoned literature almost immediately after beginning to write it, disappearing into the European underworld and leaving behind two indelible volumes of poetry, all of it composed before he was 20 years old. Wojnarowicz was 24 or so when he shot most of the Rimbaud in New York series, and the artist’s identification with the poet was no doubt a matter of wishfulness based on affinity. Still, it’s not clear who the person wearing the mask in these pictures is, whether it’s Wojnarowicz himself, or a friend or lover, or even if it's one protagonist rather than a series of interchangeable ones.
The figures are posed, on the fly and in verité style, in various situations of public and semi-private urban life. They represent a very specific moment in history, a brief period of both innocence and raunch – the city after Stonewall but before AIDS, a wonderland of sex and drugs, of art and love, of material poverty and overwhelming emotional richness. That was the world Wojnarowicz was formed in and as we know too well, it was followed by an era almost opposite in every regard, years when Manhattan became dominated by money and death, a sleek wealthy city rising, while an entire generation of gay men, drug users and others were being buried.
A few of the pictures from the Rimbaud In New York series were published in the Soho Weekly News in June of 1980. They were the first of Wojnarowicz’s works to make it out into the world, but of course not the last. Thereafter he led an increasingly public life, as an artist, a writer, and as the AIDS epidemic widened and the numbers of its dead grew, as an activist. It should be said that he probably would not, himself, have distinguished between these activities, these roles: they were all necessary and equal facets of one life, one extended effort cohering in a broad but unified body of work.”
From: Rimbaud in New York. Published by Andrew Roth. © 2004, PPP Editions.