Printer Friendly

The Waterfront Journals.

The Waterfront Journals dates from the late '70s through the early '80s, in other words from several years before the East Village art scene would provide a context for David Wojnarowicz's intense paintings and sculptures, making him enough of an art star that he could give up dope and hustling. At the time he was still the mystery man who snuck around New York stenciling an image of a barring cow's head onto sidewalks and walls, and whose spray-painted, Rimbaudian slogans befuddled denizens of the now demolished sex pier near the end of Christopher Street. He also traveled around the US, and The Waterfront Journals is ostensibly the transcriptions of forty-five one-sided conversations he had with fellow drifters, hustlers, druggies, and lost souls along the way.

Actually the book is almost certainly a work of fiction, or, as its jacket copy coyly has it, of "autobiographical fiction." Not that it really matters, but the characters' voices are somewhat uniform in their diction, and Wojnarowicz's device of subdividing monologues with Celine-like dot-dot-dots seems more the kind of trick writers use to give fiction an authentic sting than a natural flaw of inarticulate speech. The point would be moot except that The Waterfront Journals is far more interesting as an early example of the artist's brilliant prose and sensibility than as a slightly precious document of disenfranchised voices.

Wojnarowicz's protagonists have shorthand identities, specifying their location, gender, and a generalized indication of their age - "Boy in Horn & Hardart's on Forty-Second Street," "Man Lying Back on a Couch in 90-Degree Weather," "Girl Sitting on Pavement in Front of Coffee Shop." Each tells a personal story, usually involving some hopeful situation that gets hopelessly fucked up through no fault of the speaker's own and requires a narrow escape. Since most of the characters are hustlers, their stories often involve johns who go psycho mid-sex, or who renege on an agreed-on payment. Anyone who's spent time with hustlers knows these kinds of (probably tall) tales - part brag, part convoluted cry of pain, part flirtation - and the best thing about The Waterfront Journals is Wojnarowicz's precise, respectful recreations. The general tendency when fictionalizing these sorts of people is to tweak the pathos, making them seem like hardened children who can't grasp the sadness of their own lives and who accidentally and unself-consciously say tragic things. But Wojnarowicz's flattened renditions downplay drama, and emphasize the ambience of these rambling voices. There are no payoffs, no sentimental epiphanies. The pieces are affectless, excited language drifts in which the speaker is never completely exposed. They function doubly as terse prose poems and as beautifully frustrating displays of linguistic strength by characters who can speak of almost nothing except their own exploitation.

From "Young Boy in Times Square 4:00 A.M.": "It's okay down here . . . I got lots of friends lots of people watchin out for me . . . a couple of prostitutes are like my second parents . . . they give me money for coffee or cigarettes when things are tight . . . I let em know when I see the vans comin around . . . I tell ya I learned more down here about real people in a year than the last seven years in school. Tell me what the fuck Lewis and Clark would do if they sailed down the Hudson and got off at Forty-Second Street and they didn't have no money to get somethin to eat . . . I could hook em up with a guy who'd put both of em in soft fuck films in a second . . . ha ha . . . no no, really I do okay down here . . . there's a weirdo once in a while but most of the guys are nice . . . ya learn to pick em out by the way they move . . . if a man's crazy you can pick it up in his eyes in a second. . . ."

There are arguments to be made either way, but I think Wojnarowicz was a great writer and merely an interesting artist. Close to the Knives, his 1991 collection of autobiographical writings, is one of the most extraordinary books of the last ten years or so. From its ferocious poetic style, to the grand and devastating life it describes, to its fierce intelligence, Close to the Knives is a profound work. Wojnarowicz's visual art, on the other hand, may have strengthened steadily (from the stagy, sincere paintings and installations he made before testing HIV+ to his later, meditative sculptures and jarring photomontages), but never quite transcended the status of souvenirs of a controversial sensibility. It's as though he saw art as fundamentally agitprop, a context in which his own concerns were less important than those of the various minorities to whom he felt responsible. His visual art is full of aesthetic skirmishes that seem to result from his discomfort at being the middleman between his true comrades, who didn't know from art galleries, and the art-world constituency that generally considered him a talented outsider. Writing, a form as available to street hustlers as to moneyed collectors, seems to have been his real comfort zone. The Waterfront Journals, though relatively slight next to Close to the Knives, is nevertheless an uncompromised chunk of Wojnarowicz's vast talent.

Dennis Cooper is a writer based in Los Angeles. His novel Horror Hospital Unplugged appeared this fall from Juno Books.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Artforum International Magazine, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:BookForum
Author:Cooper, Dennis
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1996
Previous Article:Jasper Johns: Privileged Information.
Next Article:Keith Haring Journals.

Related Articles
Coming year may yield surprises in NJ office market.
Life on New Jersey waterfront for commercial property remains active.
This Place Called Absence. (Book review: four women, 100 years).
The Darkest Jungle: the Tree Story of the Darien Expedition and America's Ill-Fated Race to Connect the Seas.
Firms build medical 'miracle'.
SSJ Development unveils plan for Sheepshead Bay.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters