Untitled (Genet, After Brassai) 1978-79 is one of David Wojnarowicz’s most infamous works. Due to Wojnarowicz’s use of radical and brutally honest subject matter, his work was never far from controversy. However, Untitled (Genet, After Brassai) attracted national attention after becoming the center of the American Family Association’s smear campaign against the use of National Endowment for the Arts funding for Wojnarowicz’s 1990 retrospective and catalogue, Tongues of Flame. The American Family Association, headed by Reverend Donald Wildmon, was in strict opposition to the use of federal funding for artwork that they deemed to be of lewd and offensive nature. In a mailing to every member of the United States Congress, Wildmon cropped “obscene” images from Wojanarowicz’s work, including the image of Christ shooting up in the upper right hand corner of Untitled (Genet, After Brassai), in an attempt to discredit David Wojnarowicz’s creative expression and the National Endowment for the Art. After learning of the mailing, Wojnarowicz sued Wildmon and the American Family Association for violation of the New York State Artists’ Authorship Act. In regards to his inclusion of an image of Christ with a hypodermic needle, shooting up, Wojnarowicz explained the image in relation to his perception of Christianity and suffering. He said,
I thought about what I had been taught about Jesus Christ when I was young and how he took on the suffering of all people in the world, and I wanted to create a modern image that, if he were alive before me at that time in 1979 when I made this , if he were physically alive before me in the streets of the Lower East Side, I wanted to make a model that would show that he would take on the suffering of the vast amounts of addiction that I saw on the streets.”
Wojnarowicz first became acquainted with the writings of Jean Genet in 1973 when he returned to school and was able to come off the streets. In 1979, just as David Wojnarowicz was solidifying the style and subject matter of his artistic practice, he began work on what, in his notes, he referred to as a “Saint Genet” collage. The original sketch was set at a waterfront with images of the Madonna and child surrounding the central figure of Genet. The final Untitled (Genet, After Brassai) is set in a war-torn church, reminding the viewer of Genet’s grief for his partner who was killed during the Second World War. On the left side of the work, angels are juxtaposed with comic machine-gunner, to re-appear throughout Wojnarowicz’s oeuvre, firing bullets into the heavens. Genet, the exalted “criminal” stands at the center of the work, while the “junkie” Christ, in the upper left-hand corner, takes on the suffering of mankind in the form of addiction. The original work is an 8 ½ x 11 inches photocopied collage. The work on view is a large lithograph created by Wojnarowicz in 1990 for his final show at P.P.O.W.
David Wojnarowicz won the court case against Donald Wildmon and the American Family Association. The judge barred Wildmon from distributing any additional copies of the mailing and required that he send out corrective mailings to everyone who had already received the pamphlet. Wojnarowicz also requested damages for the harm done to his artistic reputation, but the judge only awarded him one dollar. Wojnarowicz insisted on receiving payment in the form a signed one-dollar check from Wildmon, with plans to incorporate the check into a future work. Unfortunately, it is unclear whether or not Wildmon’s check ever made it into a Wojnarowicz.