David Wojnarowicz

Dear Jean Pierre

392 Broadway
New York
Mar 25th — Apr 23rd

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In October 1981, the artist David Wojnarowicz, then 27, went to the countryside with his new friend and eventual lover, the photographer Peter Hujar. While there, he caught a snake. This fact is perfectly mundane, but it is rendered breathtaking at PPOW Gallery where you can read about the trip in Wojnarowicz’s handwritten postcard to his then-lover Jean-Pierre Delage and then look up from the glass case where the postcard lies to see a Hujar photo of the event: Wojnarowicz, shirtless in black and white, staring straight into the lens, exposing his two big front teeth in a smile while the snake hangs from his hand like an upside-down “J.”

PPOW’s “Dear Jean Pierre: The David Wojnarowicz Correspondence with Jean Pierre Delage, 1979–1982” is full of such moments. In one that starts off silly and ends heartbreaking, a doodle of a smiling cow sits in the corner of a postcard to Delage from February 1982. Then, hanging above the postcard is a small photograph of the same cow, now spray painted in the middle of a New York City intersection. As it turns out, Wojnarowicz frequently spray painted friendly cows at the intersection of E 12th Street and 2nd Avenue so Hujar could see them from his apartment window above the Village East Cinema. In an instant, that once silly cow becomes something like a totem of Wojnarowicz’s changing heart, for in February 1982 he was falling in love with Hujar and months away from breaking up with Delage, whom he had been dating for three years.

The show brims with a kind of cute palimpsest where text and image, art and ephemera interplay and interact. Most of the letters Wojnarowicz sent to Delage, who was living in France for the entirety of their relationship, are written on postcards and are cleverly displayed in a mirrored-bottom vitrine so that viewers can see the text on top and the image below. One letter is scrawled on the back of some packaging for brie, reminding me of Emily Dickinson’s poems on envelopes and other ephemera, which expressed coded intimacies and inside jokes. In one display, Wojnarowicz has spelled out “J’AIME TOI” (I LOVE YOU) across eight postcards to Delage, each one decorated with a single, cartoony letter. Six of the letters are on Robert Gibson postcards; I wonder what the photographer meant to the couple.

Queer specters haunt this show. Whenever Wojnarowicz writes about staying up late in parks or walking “by the river for a long time,” I felt sure he had been out cruising these historic sites of illicit sex. Every time he complains to Delage about being ill—a cold in June 1980, “le grippe again” in September, a flu in June 1981, and then a doctor’s visit in March 1982—I thought of the epidemic that had quietly just begun. HIV and AIDS—or “rare cancer” as The New York Times called the virus in July 1981—are not mentioned in Wojnarowicz’s letters. But in the final letter of the show from September 1991, a year before Wojnarowicz died, he writes, “this has been a bad year for me—a lot of different illnesses and I don’t have much energy,” and we know what he is talking about.

The most prominent feeling in the show is one of desire—first, Wojnarowicz’s desire to be with Delage, and then his desire to make a living as an artist. He was very poor throughout this period of his life: he sold his blood for money, moved apartments regularly and took exhausting jobs at new wave punk bars where he barely got paid. You can sense his joy when he finally sells a photograph or when someone compliments his work. Wojnarowicz’s longing goes deep; the letters tell us what he was dreaming. On December 19, 1979, he dreamt of Pier Paolo Pasolini. In October 1980, he dreamt he was James Dean. And what a rare gift to glimpse Wojnarowicz’s longing beside his dreaming. —Justin Linds

Photograph of Jean Pierre Delage courtesy PPOW