David Wojnarowicz, the artist whose video was removed from the Smithsonian because it featured ants crawling over a crucifix, identified his own hard-knock life with that of Rimbaud, and created some artworks in which Rimbaud serves as a kind of doppelganger for the poverty-stricken artist in 70s New York. The Millions reports on the similarities between the two lives, including early transience and abuse, a romance with violence, and an early death. But the superficial similarities of the biographies wouldn’t resonate without a body of work that conjures such resonances, and reinserts them into the context of the social and historical:

In the late ‘70s, the young Wojnarowicz photographed a series of portraits of a man–a friend, perhaps–wearing a paper cut-out mask of Rimbaud’s face. This Rimbaud skulks through the settings of Wojnarowicz’s New York, alone. He sits in a graffiti-covered subway car, loiters outside movie houses, wanders under piers and through abandoned buildings, with a needle in his arm, with a gun to his head, in a passionate embrace, pissing in a toilet. Wojnarowicz’s photo series Rimbaud in New York 1978-9 distills the rawness, pain, and deprivation of living on the street to a beauty of mythic proportions. The youthful delicacy of this body is surrounded by weary decay and distanced by the mask, in what could otherwise appear a living hell.

Originally Published: February 1st, 2011