NYU’s Bobst Library is an empty cavern where fluorescent lights hang down like stalactites and lone students wing through the stacks like bats. My ears are straining to catch some sign of life when I hear the squawk of a recalcitrant brake as the librarian wheels a metal book cart my way. If my soul could salivate, I’d go wet inside. Saints’ relics, the shirt off Justin Bieber’s back, lost tapes showing what really happened that day in Dallas—I couldn’t give two shits about those curios. I’m about to hold David Wojnarowicz’s final secret: the Magic Box.
Through his art, Wojnarowicz gave voice to the unspeakable, be it the banal brutality of the suburbs, the roaring horror of AIDS, or the beauty of two faggots fucking on an abandoned pier in downtown Manhattan—all subjects he came by honestly. His father was violently abusive, alcoholic, and eventually killed himself; his mother was often absent and rarely parental. By the time he was a teenager, Wojnarowicz was hustling among the junkies and pimps in pre-Disney Times Square. Yet like an alchemist, he somehow distilled shit into gold, turning a painful childhood into powerful, layered artwork that was at once raw and intensely structured. His paintings, essays, and installations graced everything from the 1985 Whitney Biennial to ACT UP protest signs. If playwright Larry Kramer was the conscience of 1980s queer America, Wojnarowicz was the id—full of rage and lust, love and fear.
And he understood that that rage could be his weapon. In his essay “Do Not Doubt the Dangerousness of the 12-Inch-Tall Politician,” Wojnarowicz wrote that “to speak about the once unspeakable can make the INVISIBLE familiar if repeated often enough in clear and loud tones.” This was his central project, his central problem: how to make legible the queer outline of his life, which America would have rather seen destroyed, or, failing that, kept silent. Wojnarowicz believed that this articulation had the power to “shake the boundaries of the illusion of the ONE-TRIBE NATION,” his dismissive term for the false sense of shared experience that was at the heart of every two-and-a-half-child, three-car-garage, prefab, Norman Rockwell–style American dream. It was all part of the “pre-invented world”—the shit we are handed at birth, like language and capitalism—which was built to serve the needs of those in power and which Wojnarowicz rejected vocally and often.
The irony, of course, was that for all his articulate anger and eloquent lust, Wojnarowicz had fuck-all ability to talk about himself. Cynthia Carr’s biography of him, Fire in the Belly, recounts reams of journal pages filled with admissions he never made. He seemed to speak the hidden desires of every fag in America save one—himself.
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According to the finding aid, 58 objects compose the Magic Box. Fifty-nine if you include the box itself—plain pine, with a logo for “Indian River Citrus” bursting across the top like juice from a ripe orange. Wojnarowicz would have been 59 this year. As I slide the top off, I find myself wondering whether this is a sign. Spend too much time around magic, and you start to see it everywhere.
Among the things inside the box are a cowboy action figure, a quartz crystal the size of a small fist, two globes, a rat’s nest of beaded necklaces, a miniature handmade mask with the lips sewn shut, a toy Santa, a dime-store bag of plastic insects, and a variety of prayer cards and photos of gurus. If you’ve spent time staring at Wojnarowicz’s work, you might feel a prickle of déjà vu: There’s a frog like in Water, a crucifix that could have come straight from Why the Church Can’t/Won’t Be Separated from the State. It looks like a young boy tried to re-create Wojnarowicz’s oeuvre using only what he had in his pockets.
The prayer cards surrounded the bed of Peter Hujar, Wojnarowicz’s mentor and soul brother, when he died of AIDS in 1987. Carr suspects the orange crate belonged to Hujar too. If anyone knew of the Magic Box, she says, Hujar did. Certainly neither Wojnarowicz’s collaborators nor his boyfriend Tom Rauffenbart knew of its existence. It was under Wojnarowicz’s bed when he died—in 1992, also of AIDS—with the words magic box written on a wide strip of masking tape in his block letters. Among Wojnarowicz’s papers, Carr found only one reference to the box, in an undated list from a 1988 journal: “Put Magic Box in installation.” But Wojnarowicz didn’t create any installations in 1988. For at least four years, until his death, Wojnarowicz kept the Magic Box as his own private, portable world.
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That’s the question I keep returning to. Why keep the box at all, and why keep it a secret? I believe the answers are intimately related.
Wojnarowicz understood the power of resonance, the way all things emit meaning like photons streaming from the sun, and how proximity affects understanding. In “Do Not Doubt…” he said of his work, “Photographs are like words and I generally will place many photographs together or print them one inside the other in order to construct a free-floating sentence that speaks about the world I witness.” English couldn’t be trusted for this kind of delicate operation, because language exists as part of the pre-invented world. Wojnarowicz wanted to express the dreams and nightmares that English would not allow by creating his own private language—and every language needs a dictionary.
We will never conclusively know what the box meant to him, but I see it as Wojnarowicz’s dictionary, his image bank, his refuge and release. Inside its 8-by-17-by-12.625-inch walls, Wojnarowicz kept a private universe, the one that inspired all his art. In a letter to his friend Philip Zimmerman, which Carr recounted in her biography, Wojnarowicz wrote, “I feel kind of satisfied in mapping down my interior world with each thing I make. I’m realizing that there is something elementally important in bringing what is deep inside to light… It can ease the pressure of being alien in the visible structure that we had no hands in creating.”
His final secret? Feeling like an alien, Wojnarowicz created a home planet, which he populated with stones and bones and feathers, toys from the innocent childhood he never had, and remembrances of the things he loved, because at the core of all his anger was a desire for a better world, where beauty reigned and no boy ever turned tricks in Times Square, for food or money or just to be held.