During an eight-month visit to 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 import of these changes became evident after his return to New York in June 1979, once he uncorked a stream of fervent letters to his lover, Jean Pierre Delage, and included drawings, photographs and other art work.
That epistolary record, complemented by related paintings by Wojnarowicz, is the subject of “Dear Jean Pierre: The David Wojnarowicz Correspondence,” an exhibition at PPOW gallery in TriBeCa through April 23.
Although the biographical films and articles that accompany Wojnarowicz’s posthumous fame give more attention to his deep friendship with the photographer Peter Hujar and to the six-year relationship with Tom Rauffenbart, which endured until Wojnarowicz’s death from AIDS in 1992, Delage played an important, less well understood role. He had to be cajoled into allowing the intimate relics of their romance to be made public. Still a little uncertain, he said in an interview, shortly before the show opened late last month, “I think maybe it is too much.”
They met on Nov. 1, 1978, in the shrubbery of a Paris park, the Tuileries gardens, a nighttime cruising spot for gay men. “David was just there behind the bushes,” Delage recalled. “He stood up and I saw his face. I tried to touch him. He said, ‘OK.’ We started to kiss, and already something happens. I said, ‘We can’t do it here. You can come back to my place.’” And he did.
So began a love affair that lasted three and a half years. Delage was working as a hairdresser in a trendy, expensive Paris salon. In less than a week, Wojnarowicz (pronounced voyna-ROH-vitch) moved into his apartment, a top-floor maid’s room in a wealthy neighborhood near the Eiffel Tower.
Although he went over for an indefinite stay, Wojnarowicz struggled to find a job. “He was saying he was very sad, it was difficult for him, he wanted to work in Paris but he couldn’t speak French, what could he do,” Delage said. “I tried to convince him to go on making art and writing. I said, ‘I would give you some money.’” Delage provided him with the financial support that allowed him to create artistically.
“David saw himself as a writer and wrote every day in Paris,” said Cynthia Carr, who wrote “Fire in the Belly,” an authoritative biography of Wojnarowicz, and organized the PPOW show with Anneliis Beadnell, a director and archivist at the gallery. “When he came back to New York, the art is all about his literary heroes,’’ she observed.
Much as he constructed in his imagination a life story to attach to each of his anonymous sex partners, Wojnarowicz arrived in Paris with a preconception of the city, shaped by the books of two homosexual outlaw writers, Arthur Rimbaud and Jean Genet. “The day I was with him in Beaubourg, he took a photo of a guy with a tattoo,” Delage said. “He was thinking of Genet.”
Startlingly young and indisputably a genius, the transgressive Rimbaud in particular represented an ideal for Wojnarowicz (and for many of his peers). At the time in Paris, the artist Ernest Pignon-Ernest was wheat-pasting on walls life-size posters that grafted the iconic photographic head shot, made in Paris by Étienne Carjat when Rimbaud was 17, onto a male body in workman’s garb. Delage recalled seeing them with Wojnarowicz near the Louvre.
In New York in June 1979, Wojnarowicz made a mask out of a photocopied Rimbaud portrait and posed friends wearing it in recognizable New York sites for his camera. He mailed many 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 the Rimbaud mask in Times Square and on Coney Island, and then in Paris by the Eiffel Tower. Delage also accompanied him on nocturnal forays, as Wojnarowicz spray-painted his stencil of a burning house on the walls of the Bowery.
When they were apart, the letters from Wojnarowicz (those by Delage have not survived) contain uncharacteristically effusive declarations of love that, Carr noted, he did not make during his later relationship with Rauffenbart. In June 1980, Wojnarowicz sent eight postcards in sequence, one a day, that spelled, in whimsical, elegant hand-drawn letters, “J’aime toi”— or, “I love you,” in ungrammatical French. “Tiny things like that made the feeling very strong,” Delage said.
The affair ended abruptly in May 1982. Delage points to two reasons for the split. Partly it was their geographical separation, which made it difficult to sustain their bond. “He was working very hard in New York and he was cruising very hard,” Delage said. But the immediate cause was Delage’s admission, as he was about to board a return flight to Paris, that he had slept with a friend of Wojnarowicz’s who had visited him there. Writing to him three weeks later, Wojnarowicz told him this was a betrayal that “caused me to examine what our relationship is.” A friendship endured, but the romance was over.
Seven years older than Wojnarowicz, who died at 37, Delage is now 76. Having prospered through real-estate investments, an antiques business and a family inheritance, he is thinking about the preservation of this legacy. “I promised David to keep the work safe,” he said. “I keep it like sacred things. I trust so much his creativity. I knew that one day he would be successful.”
The sequence of letters provides a record of Wojnarowicz’s day-to-day life in those years, supplementing the journals that mainly recount sexual liaisons and dreams. “The whole purpose of the show is to place the letters,” Carr said. “I don’t think that I could have written the biography without them, because they say what is happening in David’s life in those years.”
The art Wojnarowicz sent to his lover is also for sale. And some of it — such as the Rimbaud photographs, which are smaller than later prints because the indigent artist could not afford to buy larger paper — is especially rare.
Still unsure of his prowess as a draftsman, Wojnarowicz relied on collage, stencils and photography at this stage of his career. But his artistic sensibility and his talent for composition are already evident in the early work.
“In memory of David, I hope to get a lot of money,” Delage said. “I don’t need it. I am rich enough. It is a symbol. If I get a lot of money for David, it is a success for him, and for me.”