Two and a half years ago, I saw a very personally meaningful presentation on my campus by Ramzi Fawaz. Fawaz has contributed to modern writings on the 1970 queer ‘classic’ film The Boys in the Band, and is the author of The New Mutants, a work of nonfiction on political radicalism and queer representation in superhero comics. He spoke about the art of Queer Formalism through the works of two graphic artists from the mid-to-late 20th century, Joe Brainard and David Wojnarowicz, gay men that died of AIDS less than two years apart. The formalism movement as defined by Fawaz’s body of work is “the study of art by analyzing and comparing form and style via the way objects are made and their purely visual aspects. Formalism “emphasizes compositional elements such as color, line, shape, texture, and other perceptual aspects rather than iconography or the historical and social context.” The Queer Formalist movement modifies this concept while operating in conjunction with, but not within, the pop art of the era and the broader post-modernism that pop art was a part of. The notion of the context for the work, including the reason for its creation, the historical background, and the life of the artist, that is, its conceptual aspect being of secondary importance, cannot function within the works of Joe Brainard and David Wojnarowicz that Fawaz highlighted.
Wojnarowicz’s 7 Miles a Second is simultaneously severely abstract and also rather autobiographical, with the abstract expression as a visual conveyance of the emotional state and larger sociocultural atmosphere being experienced by a young gay man and hustler in the midst of the AIDS crisis and the larger condition of 1980s society. It was originally published by DC of all companies, under the Vertigo imprint in 1996. It can be understood within the canon of graphic autobiography from Bechdel to Crumb, and yet it largely stands apart from what is largely celebrated and brought into the mainstream in this field, as, in the words of Noah Berlatsky here, it does not stylistically keep the volume down. It is a confrontation.
Brainard’s work compiled in The Nancy Book, though it’s a series of unconnected single panels, is just as personal in more complex ways, being extensively informed by a specific outside context of queer subculture, artistic movements, childhood attachments, ideas of gender presentation, etc. Brainard brought all of this to his reclamation of childhood newspaper comic iconography through single panels of art unto itself such as “If Nancy Was a Boy” and “If Nancy Knew What Wearing Green and Yellow on Thursdays Meant”. Fawaz uses the theories of formalism to analyze the style employed by Brainard and Wojnarowicz in these works, and the exploration of mid-20th Century queer identity and struggle by these particular personas.
The story of LGBTQ people in the 20th century was community brought together by wide-scale devastation, and that devastation magnified by negligence of authority. That is reflected in the Nazi persecution of gay men among other undesirables, and the disregarded for the survivors’ suffering in the decades afterward. It is equally apparent in the first decades of the AIDS crisis. It was what Brainard and Wojnarowicz were a part of and were expressing their struggle to navigate through in their artwork, and it is difficult to shake the sense that I am in at least some of the same place in these trying times, as trans women of color die every day, and the most powerful men in the country believe queer and trans people ought to be tortured in order to fix who we are. A gay man seeks a position of high power, but he is one whose career and policy from the ground up hinges on disregarding and hurting all of us ‘like’ him.
Wojnarowicz voiced many of the same powerful emotional sensations as can be seen from many others in the same position and same era in documentaries such as Sex in an Epidemic: there was a need to find every last other queer person in sight and hold onto them tightly, to be close with and protect each other because who else was going to protect you or them. And this need was seemingly punished by the sudden and constant ripping away of these people from their lives, every death guaranteed to be someone you knew. Everyone faced by this crisis knew each other. And those many living with AIDS today, the majority that are marginalized and thus still limited in the resources they can use, are largely more interconnected than ever with the modern internet.
The death of AIDS activist Mark Lowe Fisher in late 1992 is briefly expressed by the aforementioned documentary, with video of his public funeral procession, in which his coffin was carried in front of the Republican Headquarters in New York City the day before the presidential election, while his surviving brothers and sisters bore a banner stating: Murdered by President George H.W. Bush. Fisher had written a passage entitled “Bury Me Furiously” about his then-upcoming death, in all its apparent inevitability. In that work, he cited the writing of David Wojnarowicz, who died earlier that same year.
These two men brought into my queer and trans life decades later through separate records and means, they knew each other, because they had to. It was Wojnarowicz’ writing that Fisher cited as the inspiration for how he dictated his funeral, how it needed to be a public political statement showing the reality of what they were facing. On that day years ago, and again on this day now, I repeat the words of Mark Lowe Fisher. I want my death to be as strong a statement as my life continues to be. I want my own funeral to be fierce and defiant. When it happens, my siblings will be taking that action out of love and rage. Bury Me Furiously.
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