David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992)
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Property from a Private Collection
David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992)

Science Lesson

David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992)
Science Lesson
signed, inscribed and dated 'WOJNAROWICZ NYC 1982-3' (on the reverse of the upper right panel)
acrylic, spray enamel and photographs mounted on four Masonite panels
overall: 96 x 144 in. (243.8 x 365.7 cm.)
Executed in 1982-1983.
Gracie Mansion Gallery, New York
Josef Mittlemann, New York, circa 1983
Acquired from the above by the present owner
K. Larson, "The Bad-News Bearers," New York Magazine, 08 April 1985, p. 72 (illustrated).
D. Cameron, "A Whitney Wonderland," Arts Magazine, vol. 59, no. 10, Summer 1985, p. 66 (illustrated).
E. Axelson-Kumlin, "New Yorks moderna museer," Paletten, 1/86, p. 20 (illustrated).
P. Frank and M. McKenzie, New, Used & Improved Art for the 80's, New York, 1987, p. 9 (illustrated).
Fever: The Art of David Wojnarowicz, exh. cat., New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, 1998, p. 8.
C. Carr, Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz, New York, 2012, p. 204 and 215.
M. Harris, ed., David Wojnarowicz: Brush Fires in the Social Landscape, New York, 2015, pp. 38-39 (illustrated in color).
New York, Civilian Warfare Studio, Hit and Run Art, September 1982.
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1985 Biennial, March-June 1985, p. 118 (illustrated).
Normal, University Galleries of Illinois State University; Santa Monica Museum of Art; New York, Exit Art; Philadelphia, Temple Gallery & Tyler Gallery, Tyler School of Art, David Wojnarowicz: Tongues of Flame, January 1990-March 1991, frontispiece and p. 126 (illustrated in color).
Providence, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Crisis Response, November 2002-January 2003.

Lot Essay

Painter, writer, filmmaker—David Wojnarowicz was one of the most important artists to emerge from the East Village art boom of the 1980s. Best known for his trenchant and image-packed paintings, such as Science Lesson, 1982-1983, Wojnarowicz’s artwork is a fluent combination of the vitalities of neo-expressionism and the political sensibilities of Pop Art. Often political and explicit in his narratives, Wojnarowicz pushed the boundaries of expression and artistic activism until his death from AIDS in 1992, and his work continues to be at the forefront of controversy today. With examples of his work residing in the permanent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago; Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Broad, Los Angeles; and a forthcoming retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Wojnarowicz is being reevaluated for his enduring legacy as one of America’s most outspoken artistic voices from the second half of the 20th century.

Science Lesson is one the artist’s largest and most important artworks from the early-1980s. This vibrant and haunting painting includes many of the Wojnarowicz’s trademark motifs, such as the stenciled houses, multi-colored cows and marching army men that populate his most recognizable creations. It is rivaled in size only by major works such as Invasion of the Alien Minds, 1985 (Tel Aviv Museum of Art), and Late Afternoon in the Forest, 1986, (The Broad, Los Angeles). First shown at the Civilian Warfare gallery in New York’s East Village in September 1982, Science Lesson depicts the disastrous results of an allegorical future in which the earth is in flames and the flotsam of civilization is floating aimlessly through space. Whether the drifting bodies and houses are the remains of a lunar colonization, or have been jettisoned from earth is unclear, but the title of the painting gives clarity to the painting’s narrative: these are the victims of catastrophe and possibly experimentation, a ‘lesson’ for future generations to study and learn from, albeit at the cost of those who perished. Like most of Wojnarowicz’s art, Science Lesson focuses on the castoff and the dispossessed. The artist’s connection with the floating bodies in Science Lesson is his identification with the outsider, one who is misused and forsaken by society and science, left to float away in a symbolic mode of disintegration that is representative of the poverty, drug abuse and disease that Wojnarowicz saw ravaging his community in the 1980s.

Rendered across four panels in Wojnarowicz’s distinctive mixed-media style, Science Lesson layers acrylic and stenciled, spray-painted images on top of an enlarged photo-collage of the moon’s surface, with the earth rising in the background. Wojnarowicz perfected his distinctive collage aesthetic across different media, employing the technique throughout his paintings, films and in his writing, often layering images in order to synthesize the personal with the historical. “Collage made it possible for him to suggest a multiplicity of voices, faces, stories, and conditions in combination with the singularity of his own. Wojnarowicz’s disparate source materials—from popular culture memorabilia to images drawn from history, science, and reference books—helped him represent the pervasiveness of the pre-invented world. … It combined microscopic views with vast expanses of space and merged the artist’s stock footage from memory, dreams, and popular culture with observed reality” (M. Rizk, “Reinventing the Pre-invented World, in A. Scholder (ed.), Fever: The Art of David Wojnarowicz, exh.cat., New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, 1999, p. 50).

The artist’s earliest foray into painting was with stencils, which he used to produce graffiti advertisements on the streets of New York City for his band, 3 Teens Kill 4—No Motive. He transitioned to painting on found objects, such as trash-can lids and advertising posters, while at the same time producing large-scale, site-specific murals around the city, notably in the dilapidated Hudson River piers. Like his contemporaries, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Wojnarowicz’s painting practice quickly graduated from the streets to the studio, where he embarked on more technically and visually sophisticated paintings, such as Science Lesson.
The artist’s street sensibility and gritty iconography is partially derived from his traumatic experiences as a child and young adult. Raised in a dysfunctional family, Wojnarowicz’s parents divorced when he was the age of 2. He lived with his violent alcoholic father until the age of 9, at which point he looked up his mother in a Manhattan phonebook and moved into her cramped Hell’s Kitchen apartment. He lived on the streets as a runaway and underage prostitute during his teenage years, hustling his body and often traveling around the United States. He managed to attend the prestigious High School of Music and Art in Manhattan, although he never graduated.

Known for his large body of writing, photography and film, as much as for his impressive paintings, Wojnarowicz did not shy away from political and explicit subject matter in his artwork. He gained national attention in 1989 when the National Endowment for the Arts revoked funding for an exhibition organized by Nan Goldin because of an essay that Wojnarowicz wrote for the exhibition catalogue. He later won a lawsuit against the conservative Christian American Family Foundation for misrepresenting his artwork after the foundation illegally copied and excerpted images of his paintings in a pamphlet attacking the National Endowment of the Arts and their support of artwork that was perceived as ‘pornographic’ and ‘blasphemous’. Although the artist was successful in the court case, he was awarded only $1 in damages. As recently as 2010, the National Portrait Gallery removed a video of Wojnarowicz’s from an exhibition due to pressure from Congress, though protest and uproar quickly followed in defense of the artwork. The video went viral on YouTube, and his artwork was exposed to untold numbers of new viewers.

The common thread in Wojnarowicz’s practice is the unrelenting and unwavering commitment to making challenging and provocative artwork. Science Lesson is evidence of that, in both its subject matter and narrative as well its massive scale and vibrant color. The largest painting that Wojnarowicz had made at that point in his career, it represents an important moment of development in his artistic practice as well as his ability as a narrator. As art critic John Carlin wrote, “Wojnarowicz was one of the most ambitious and self-confident artists imaginable. He had no desire to decorate” (J. Carlin, “Angel With a Gun: David Wojnarowicz,” in A. Scholder (ed.), ibid, p. 95).

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