An Art Historian in the Archive

Maria Bastos-Stanek 
Art History and Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies Major, UMass Amherst

“Congratulations, Mr. Peter Hujar you have just won one million dollars!” read the first scrap of paper I encountered as I opened my first archival folder at the New York University Fales Library and Special Collections. This semester I had the chance to research the papers of the artist David Wojnarowicz for my art history honors thesis on HIV/AIDS art and activism. Wojnarowicz’s work spans multiple mediums – painting, photography, collage, installation, and performance – not to mention an impressive corpus of writing. His work concerns his involvement in the so-called “downtown scene” of the New York neighborhoods of SoHo and the Lower East Side during the 1970s and throughout the early 1990s, as well as his political activism during the HIV/AIDS crisis. His work takes on various affective dimensions as well, which is best described through the language of destruction. Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, Bush Fires in the Social Landscape and Fever are all titles taken from his books and exhibitions.

As an art historian, researching in the archive presents its own set of challenges and possibilities. Unlike historians who construct history through documents, art historians write history through images. We take material objects, whether it is a painting, photograph, collage, installation or decorative object as our primary source material. An image rarely exists in an archive but rather in comparable spaces like museums, galleries, or private collections. Similarly, an image does not spell things out so clearly like a document. Images require careful examination and close inspection. They require looking for long periods, a familiarity with the artist’s hand, and dealing with the affective responses elicited by the images themselves.


View of my workspace while researching the David Wojnarowicz Papers. Photographed and included with permission from the New York University Fales Library and Special Collections.

Wojnarowicz’s papers contain these challenges and perhaps even magnify them owing to his rather perilous personal history as a gay man living with AIDS in New York City during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Only by reading through his “dateline,” an autobiographical document written by Wojnarowicz did I begin to understand what is at stake in preserving his papers. Much of his life can be organized through a series of calculated risks. When describing an early period of his life in rural Michigan, for example, Wojnarowicz writes “me and another kid would lie down on the long sloping highway outside our doors to make the enormous trucks that came barreling over the hill hit their brakes. At the last second, we’d jump up and run into the woods.” These lines reveal a queer performance of childhood that in some ways outlines the trajectory of much of his adult life. More importantly, these documents preserve the life of a person who seems never meant to have survived as long as he did, much less thrive.

My goal as an interdisciplinary art historian working with archival materials is to reconstruct what José Esteban Muñoz calls the “structure of feeling,” or the process of relating interconnected social formations and networks embedded into the context and physical qualities of a work of art.[1] Munoz positions this type of ephemera, or “traces of lived experience and performances of lived experience” in opposition to a positivist reliance on empirical evidence. Indeed, it is precisely Wojnarowicz’s resistance to specializing in any one medium or genre, frequently combining multiple mediums through collage, that challenges any positivist attempt to classify his work. Therefore, an ephemeral approach better facilitates what archivist Ben Power Alwin calls the “possibility of discovery” in the archive. [2]


Contact sheet from the archival binder containing rows of negatives from a roll of film from the David Wojnarowicz Papers Collection. Photographed and included with permission from the New York University Fales Library and Special Collections.

One of the first archival folders handed to me by the archivist contained a collection of Wojnarowicz’s medical bills. The documents were unexpected but not unwelcome, so I read the stack of notices that ranged from mild to alarming in tone, warning of ominous “actions” that would be taken if Wojnarowicz did not pay his bills. Later the archivist announced that she had accidently handed me the wrong folder. The mix-up proved extremely productive, because it forced me to recognize the utility of alterior documents in art historical study. Wojnarowicz experienced modest commercial success in the 1980s and 1990s, with prices ranging from $4000 and $5500 at the Hal Bromm Gallery in 1984. Yet it seems Wojnarowicz, like so many others, struggled to pay his medical bills under the silent and inactive Reagan administration. I realize now that this was exactly the “process of discovery,” or a queering of conventional archival practices, I had hoped to engage in. Indeed, only through such a mix-up was I able to access those materials. Better yet, only through that process was I able to realize the necessity of such materials in the first place.

While Wojnarowicz’s medical bills provided a rare perspective from which to glimpse the ephemeral traces of his creative life, not all of my discoveries were quite so illuminating. In a folder titled “Bio-Wojnarowicz family,” I had expected to find various biographical documents about the lives of his immediate family, but instead encountered a single piece of junk mail marketing a book with the history of the Wojnarowicz name – for the small price of $19.99.

Tracking down source material from binders full of contact sheets of photographs, lined in several rows along the paper, the size of thumbnails required a practice in close looking. The images, though, did not lend themselves to easy interpretation. The sheets contained several disparate subjects, styles, and genres, making it hard to know what to make of the images as a whole. Some images included fossils from the Museum of Natural History, Wojnarowicz smoking a cigarette next to a field of cows, or graffiti on the Berlin Wall. Others stuck with me, like the discarded pieces from a color contact sheet, which Wojnarowicz used to cut out the silhouette in his “Untitled” image of two men kissing in an embrace from 1988. While it remains to be seen how such an ephemeral object can be understood within my larger project, it sure feels satisfying to trace the mark of the artist’s hand. I have certainly only begun my ascent into archival research, and I’m grateful to report the warm reception felt and productive time spent researching in the Fales Library and Special Collections.

[1] José Esteban Muñoz. “Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts,” Woman & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory. 8:2 (1996): 10.

[2] K.J. Rawson. “Accessing Transgender // Desiring Queer(er?) Archival Logics,” Archivaria. 68 (2010): 137.

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