NEW YORK, NY.-
The life and art of Peter Hujar (19341987) were rooted in downtown New York. Private by nature, combative in manner, well-read, and widely connected, Hujar inhabited a world of avant-garde dance, music, art, and drag performance. His mature career paralleled the public unfolding of gay life between the Stonewall uprising in 1969 and the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.
In his loft studio in the East Village, Hujar focused on those who followed their creative instincts and shunned mainstream success. He made, in his words, uncomplicated, direct photographs of complicated and difficult subjects, immortalizing moments, individuals, and subcultures passing at the speed of life.
Peter Hujar: Speed of Lifeon view at the Morgan
from January 26 through May 20presents one hundred and forty photographs by this enormously important and influential artist. Drawn from the extensive holdings of his work at the Morgan and from nine other collections, the show and its catalog follow Hujar from his beginnings in the mid-1950s to his central role in the East Village art scene three decades later. The catalog features full-page reproductions of one hundred and sixty photographs, essays by curator Joel Smith, Philip Gefter, and Steve Turtell, and the first fully researched chronology, exhibition history, and bibliography to be published on Hujar.
The exhibition was organized by the Morgan and Fundación MAPFRE, Madrid. After opening at Fundación MAPFRE in Barcelona, Spain, it traveled to the Fotomuseum, The Hague, the Netherlands. Following its Morgan showing, it will be exhibited at the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive later in 2018.
Peter Hujar published only one monograph in his lifetime and did not have his first solo gallery show until he was forty-two, said Colin B. Bailey, director of the Morgan Library & Museum. Yet, today, critical appreciation of the full scope of his work is at an all-time high. Best known for the searching intimacy of his photographic portraits, he also distinctively explored landscapes, architecture, and the nocturnal city in works of stark beauty. The downtown New York he captured is a small, intensely creative world that no longer exists, which helps explain why his work is so resonant for young artists today. The Morgan is delighted to present the first in-depth look at this remarkable artist.
Speed of Life adopts the form of a traditional retrospective while staying true to how Hujar wanted his work to be exhibited. In his gallery shows, Hujar displayed prints either in isolation or in large groupings that flirted with disorder. He fine-tuned the layout of his final gallery show (1986) until no one type of image (portrait, nude, animal, still life, landscape, cityscape) appeared twice consecutively. Each of his subjects thus held to its own identity, rather than illustrating an imposed theme. The arrangement also emphasized his inventive range, proposing echoes among seemingly unrelated images and highlighting preoccupations that united his entire career.
Hujar was easy to meet but difficult to know closely. He participated in a dizzying array of social scenes and subcultures without becoming a part of them. For him, the camera provided a means of creating a relationship between author and subject founded on intimacy, silence, and trust.
His earliest known exhibition print portrays his former high school English teacher (Daisy Aldan, June 18, 1955), posing in the midtown photography studio where Hujar worked as an assistant after graduating from high school in 1953. The portrait, reflecting the lively and gentle humor they shared, foreshadows the simplicity Hujar would cultivate in his portraiture. Daisy Aldan (19182001) was the first adult to encourage him to pursue photography and art. A former child radio actor and a lesbian who was a translator, poet, and editor, in 1953 she founded the small literary magazine Folder, which published a roster of rising New York talent, including John Ashbery, one of Hujars future subjects.
Hujar met Susan Sontag through their mutual friend, artist Paul Thek, in Sicily in 1963. Sontag later contributed the introduction to Hujars 1976 monograph Portraits in Life and Death. It included his iconic reclining portrait of the writer. At the time, The New York Review of Books had begun publishing the six essays that would be collected in her book On Photography (1977).
The reclining portrait is a genre of photograph Hujar made his own. He relied on it as a means of reaching something unique in every sitter. To face a camera lens from a reclining position is an unfamiliar and provoking experience. It stirred a distinct reaction from everyone who experienced it, from playwright Charles Ludlams shy deflection to the quizzical skepticism of Hujars close friend Fran Lebowitz.
Hujars Social and Political World
In the mid-1960s, as several of Hujars artist friends found success, he remained at the periphery of the art world. He lacked an outlet for his work, but photographed crowds at events such as parades and antiwar rallies. In 1969, when he was working for fashion and music magazines, he at last put his art to explicit political use. In late June, a police raid inspired fierce resistance from the patrons of the Stonewall Inn, in the West Village. Hujars boyfriend at the time, Jim Fouratt, arrived on the scene to organize for the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), the first political group to cite homosexuality in its name. Hujar agreed to make a photograph for a GLF poster. The poster, portraying a jubilant group of GLF members under the slogan COME OUT!!, appeared in late spring 1970 in advance of the gay liberation march that marked the first anniversary of Stonewall.
The Christopher Street Pier, on the Hudson River at West Tenth Street, was known familiarly in the 1970s as the sex pier. A place to see others displayed and to display oneself, it was also a site where a photographer could work openly. The pier is an idyll in Hujars photographs. Despite its extralegal, outsider status, it exists under broad sunlight, seamlessly a part of city life. During a heat wave on Easter weekend in 1976, Hujar photographed a man framed by his crossed legs on the piers wooden ledge. The place and the mood are instantly recognizable in the image, which later appeared on the cover of an issue of The Village Voice celebrating gay life on the tenth anniversary of Stonewall.
In the early 1970s Hujar consciously turned his back on the commercial mainstream, deciding that the hustle of fashion and music photography wasnt right for me. Moving into a loft above a theater at Twelfth Street and Second Avenue in 1973, he pursued a bohemian life of poverty, taking paying jobs only when necessary and focusing on the subjects that compelled him. The crumbling East Village, increasingly crime-ridden and arson-prone, was a place where artists could live without thinking much about money. It was also the right place and time to catch the first prefigurations of punk emerging in music, art, and fashion. Hujar was led that way by his instincts, his rock-journalist contacts, and his interest in absurdist drag and performance.
In September 1973, transgender Warhol Superstar Candy Darling (born James Lawrence Slattery) was hospitalized for lymphoma. She asked Hujar to make a portrait of her as a farewell to my fans. Out of several dozen exposures, Hujar chose to print a languorous pose in which Candys banal, fluorescent-lit hospital room looks as elegant as the studio props in a Hollywood starlets portrait. Hujar later wrote that his style cues came from Candy, who was playing every death scene from every movie. The image became the most widely reproduced of Hujars works during his lifetime.
The subjects of his art, Hujar wrote, were those who push themselves to any extreme and those who cling to the freedom to be themselves. He lavished a portraitists attention on subjects who defied it in some way, such as drag performer Ethyl Eichelberger. The most photographed person in his body of work, Ethyl remains an insistently double subject, in whom neither actor nor role predominates. From 1978 to 1984, Hujar photographed Ethyl for flyers advertising the stage personae Nefertiti, Auntie Bellum, Medusa, Jocasta, Carlota Empress of Mexico, Hamlette, and a dozen more.
Diverse Motifs in Hujars Work
The exhibition features suites of photographs that highlight recurring themes in Hujars art.
On his contact sheets, he often marked images in which a linear element guides the eye from the top left to the bottom right of the frame, as seen in his study of dancer Sheryl Sutton (1977). The motif, for which he offered no interpretation, is suggestive but ambiguous; it could be a diagram of decline, a gesture of self-cancellation, or perhaps something else entirely.
Portraiture of bodies is another preoccupation in Hujars last decade of work. Bodies, he proposed, might be read as freely as faces for character, emotion, or life story. He photographed bodies in the extremes of youth and old age, bodies displaying unique features, and bodies in transient states, notably pregnancy and arousal. A pair of photographs depicts photographer Gary Schneider in contorted positions. Hujar declined to direct him in any explicit way. After a long period of false starts, Schneider says, my defenses were dropped and I became comfortable, and then there was a very strong communication between us. An interest in the interiority of his subject is characteristic of Hujars work.
With the same sensitivity that he brought to human subjects, Hujar made portraits of closedoff entities such as skyscrapers, bodies of water, and animals. When photographing dogs, livestock, or even snakes, he would speak to them in a constant, ordinary conversational tone. Hujars animals often appear to be holding a pose, as if they were people who, understanding what a camera does, arrange themselves like a photograph.
In 1981, a brief affair between the photographer and the young artist David Wojnarowicz evolved into a mentoring bond that changed both their lives. On their excursions to blighted areas around New York, Hujar crafted the portrait of a city in free fall, complementing Wojnarowiczs dark vision of Reagan-era America. In his final seven years, he continued chronicling a creative downtown subculture that was running out of time in a fast-changing city. Peter Hujar died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1987.
Thirty years after his death, Hujars photographs are more widely known than they were in his lifetime. They come across as more empathetic than those of an older artist, Diane Arbus, and more soulful and psychological than those of a younger one, Robert Mapplethorpe. It was beauty that moved him to make photographs. Hujar admired the present-mindedness of his contemporary, Andy Warhol, but felt closer to nineteenth-century forebears like Julia Margaret Cameron and Mathew Brady. Like them, he wrote, I compose the picture in the camera. I make the print. It has to be beautiful.
The Peter Hujar Collection at the Morgan
The Morgan owns the most comprehensive public collection of Peter Hujars work. In addition to over one hundred photographic prints dating from 1955 to 1985, the collection includes more than 5,700 contact sheets, representing nearly every black-and-white exposure made by the photographer. It also contains his job books and print inventories, correspondence, snapshots by and of Hujar and his friends, and tear sheets from features he published in periodicals such as Harpers Bazaar, GQ, and The Village Voice.