David Wojnarowicz’s essay “Post Cards from America: X-Rays from Hell” appears in the catalog Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, which accompanied the 1989 Artists Space AIDS exhibition curated by Nan Goldin.
Woven into this essay is David’s deeply personal feeling of alienation from Reagan-era America, from nature, from his own failing body:
“When I went out West this summer standing in the mountains of a small city in New Mexico I got a sudden and intense feeling of rage looking at those postcard-perfect slopes and clouds. For all I knew I was the only person for miles and all alone and I didn’t trust that fucking mountain’s serenity. I mean, it was just bullshit. I couldn’t buy the con of nature’s beauty; all I could see was death.”
In the essay, David recalls an intimate kitchen-table conversation with a friend who is lamenting his slow death from HIV/AIDS—a discussion that prompts David himself to think back on the death of his mentor, photographer Peter Hujar, his own recent HIV diagnosis, and the cruel indifference of society.
He goes on to call out public figures and institutions (“this fat cannibal” Cardinal O’Connor, “the foot-dragging FDA,” “the repulsive senator from zombieland” Jesse Helms) for their inaction during the AIDS epidemic ravaging his community, and foropposing AIDS-prevention measures such as condom distribution and public service announcements. David’s candor prompted National Endowment for the Arts chairman John Frohnmayer to threaten the withdrawal of funding on the basis that the exhibition was “too political”—following similar threats against exhibitions featuring Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe, who David also references in this piece.
In the Valley of the Shadow, by Nan Goldin; Et Tu Brute?, by Linda Yablonsky; and A Last Letter, by Cookie Mueller, accompany David’s essay. In the catalog acknowledgements, Artists Space executive director Susan Wyatt thanks David and the other writers, explaining, “Their words add a great deal to our experience of viewing the exhibition and potently express the loss and rage many feel as they face AIDS. Though strong language and opinions which may be offensive to some are expressed, we at ARTISTS SPACE believe that not only do these views have a right to be heard, but that also they act as a powerful accompaniment to the visual works.”
Similarly, an L.A, Times review of the exhibit, by Suzanne Muchnic, suggests that “the best aspect of “Witnesses” is that it presents AIDS as a complex issue that elicits a wide range of responses. Rage, denial, grief and transcendence are all filtered through the artists’ perceptions and made visual.”
Additional resources re: David Wojnarowicz, “Post Cards from America: X-Rays from Hell.” In Nan Goldin, David Armstrong, et al., Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing. Exhibition Catalogue. New York: Artists Space, 1989.