During an eight-month stay in Paris when he was 24, David Wojnarowicz embarked on his first serious love affair and began to take himself seriously as a visual artist. The full significance of these changes became apparent after he returned to New York in June 1979, once he uncorked a flood of fervent letters to his lover, Jean Pierre Delage, and included drawings, photographs and other works of art.
This epistolary record, supplemented by related paintings by Wojnarowicz, is the subject of “Dear Jean Pierre: The Correspondence of David Wojnarowicz,” an exhibition at PPOW Gallery through April 23.
Although biographical films and articles that accompany Wojnarowicz’s posthumous fame pay more attention to his deep friendship with photographer Peter Hujar and the six-year relationship with Tom Rauffenbart, which lasted until Wojnarowicz’s death. of AIDS in 1992, Delage played an important, less understood role. He had to be cajoled to allow the intimate relics of their romance to become public. Still a little uncertain, he said in an interview shortly before the show opened late last month, “I think it might be too much.”
They met on November 1, 1978, in the shrubbery of a Parisian park, the Tuileries Garden, a place of nocturnal cruising for homosexuals. “David was right there behind the bushes,” Delage recalled. “He stood up and I saw his face. I tried to touch him. He said, ‘Okay.’ We started kissing, and already something is happening. I said, ‘We can’t do it here. You can come back to my place.’ And he did.
Thus begins a love story that will last three and a half years. Delage worked as a hairdresser in a trendy and expensive Parisian salon. In less than a week, Wojnarowicz (pronounced voyna-ROH-vitch) moved into his apartment, a top-floor maid’s room in an affluent neighborhood near the Eiffel Tower.
Although he left indefinitely, Wojnarowicz struggled to find employment. “He said he was very sad, it was difficult for him, he wanted to work in Paris but he didn’t speak French, what could he do,” Delage said. “I tried to convince him to keep doing art and writing. I said, ‘I’ll give you some money.’ Delage provided him with the financial support that enabled him to create artistically.
“David considered himself a writer and wrote every day in Paris,” said Cynthia Carr, who wrote “Fire in the Belly,” an authoritative biography of Wojnarowicz, and curated the PPOW exhibit with director Anneliis Beadnell. and gallery archivist. . “When he returned to New York, the art is all about his literary heroes,” she observed.
Just as he constructed in his imagination a life story to attach to each of his anonymous sexual partners, Wojnarowicz arrived in Paris with a preconceived idea of the city, shaped by the books of two outlaw gay writers, Arthur Rimbaud and Jean Genet. “The day I was with him in Beaubourg, he took a picture of a guy with a tattoo,” Delage said. “He was thinking of Genet.
Surprisingly young and unquestionably a genius, the transgressor Rimbaud in particular represented an ideal for Wojnarowicz (and for many of his peers). At the time in Paris, the artist Ernest Pignon-Ernest pasted life-size posters on the walls which grafted the iconic photographic portrait, taken in Paris by Étienne Carjat when Rimbaud was 17, onto a male body in a uniform. worker. Delage remembers seeing them with Wojnarowicz near the Louvre.
In New York in June 1979, Wojnarowicz fashioned a mask from a photocopied portrait of Rimbaud and posed friends wearing it in recognizable New York landmarks for his camera. He sent several of these photographs to Delage. He also composed a collage, situating a famous photographic likeness of Genet by Brassaï in a bombed-out church and placing above the altar an image of Jesus injecting himself with a syringe. (A lithograph of it appears in the show.)
Over the next few years, Delage made several trips to New York, and Wojnarowicz visited him in Paris. Wojnarowicz posed Delage wearing Rimbaud’s mask in Times Square and Coney Island, then in Paris near the Eiffel Tower. Delage also accompanied him on nighttime forays, as Wojnarowicz spray-painted his stencil of a burning house onto the walls of the Bowery.
When they were separated, Wojnarowicz’s letters (Delage’s have not survived) contain unusually effusive declarations of love which, Carr noted, he did not make during his later relationship with Rauffenbart. In June 1980, Wojnarowicz sent out eight postcards in sequence, one a day, which spelled out, in whimsical and elegant hand-drawn letters, “J’aime toi” – or “I love you”, in ungrammatical French. “Little things like that made the feeling really strong,” Delage said.
The affair ended abruptly in May 1982. Delage gives two reasons for the split. It was partly their geographic separation that made it difficult to maintain their bond. “He was working very hard in New York and he was sailing very hard,” Delage said. But the immediate cause was Delage’s admission, as he was about to catch a flight back to Paris, that he had slept with a friend of Wojnarowicz’s who had visited him there. Writing to her three weeks later, Wojnarowicz told her it was a betrayal that “caused me to consider what our relationship is”. A friendship lasted, but the romance was over.
Seven years older than Wojnarowicz, who died at 37, Delage is now 76. Having prospered through property investments, an antiques business and a family heirloom, he reflects on preserving that legacy. “I promised David to keep the job safe,” he said. “I keep it as sacred things. I trust his creativity so much. I knew that one day he would succeed.
The sequence of letters provides a record of Wojnarowicz’s daily life during those years, supplementing the diaries which mostly recount sexual liaisons and dreams. “The point of the show is to place the letters,” Carr said. “I don’t think I could have written the biography without them, because they tell what happened in David’s life during those years.”
The art that Wojnarowicz sent to his lover is also for sale. And some of them – like Rimbaud’s photographs, which are smaller than later prints because the indigent artist could not afford larger paper – are particularly rare.
Still unsure of his prowess as a draughtsman, Wojnarowicz relied on collage, stencils and photography at this point in his career. But his artistic sensibility and his talent for composition are already evident in the early works.
“In memory of David, I hope to make a lot of money,” Delage said. ” I do not need it. I am quite rich. It is a symbol. If I get a lot of money for David, it’s a success for him, and for me.