Appreciating the late great Peter Hujar

  • by Sura Wood
  • Wednesday July 18, 2018
Share this Post:
"Self-Portrait Jumping" (1), (1974), gelatin silver print, Peter Hujar Archive, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, NY, and Fraenkel Gallery, SF. Photo: Peter Hujar
"Self-Portrait Jumping" (1), (1974), gelatin silver print, Peter Hujar Archive, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, NY, and Fraenkel Gallery, SF. Photo: Peter Hujar

Peter Hujar, now considered one of the greatest American photographers of the late 20th century, was living in poverty at the time of his death in 1987 from complications of AIDS, never having achieved the recognition he craved or deserved. He was 53. A quintessential New Yorker of a certain era and milieu, adventurously pursuing controversial LGBTQ subject matter in his work, he was a well-connected denizen and chronicler of the Lower East Side cultural scene of the 1970s and early 80s. He photographed the underground literati, predominantly male, usually nude, friends and lovers such as David Wojnarowicz, a younger artist and former hustler who was his partner for a spell, then a mentee and fast friend towards the end of Hujar's life. Holding a lit cigarette, his gaunt, weary face and ancient eyes soberly regarding the camera in a spectral 1981 portrait, Wojnarowicz would die from AIDS a little more than a decade later.

Eleven years younger than Avedon, his mentor, ardent supporter and collector; nearly two decades senior to the more popular, better-known Nan Goldin; and a dozen years older than the subversive Mapplethorpe, a competitor whose aptitude for self-promotion and mining of a similar though different vein of boho gay life overshadowed his own, Hujar was notoriously difficult and professionally his own worst enemy. His good friend Fran Lebowitz, who posed for an early 1974 portrait in her bed, recalled that he hung up on "every important photography dealer in the Western world." No wonder, then, he had only eight solo exhibitions in his lifetime. In what might be viewed as a corrective or perhaps a resurrection, the Morgan Library & Museum, a rather stodgy institution not readily associated with radical, risk-taking exhibitions, organized "Peter Hujar: Speed of Life," a major touring retrospective of over 150 black & white photographs, currently at BAMPFA.

Gary Indiana Veiled (1981), gelatin silver print, Peter Hujar Archive, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, NY, and Fraenkel Gallery, SF. Photo: Peter Hujar  

The show's introductory section features his earliest-known exhibition print, "Daisy Aldan" (1973), the lesbian poet and sweet-faced high school teacher who nurtured his nascent talent; a deathly still image of long-departed residents of the Palermo Catacombs; and an exuberant Gay Liberation Front poster (1969). Hujar's only overtly political picture, it was taken as the group ran toward him on 19th and Broadway after the Stonewall riots. Aside from this cluster, the BAMPFA presentation is structured neither chronologically nor thematically, an approach that leaves visitors to make connections on their own. Though the curatorial reasoning behind some combos is elusive, others are right on the money, like the striking 1985 picture of a snake dangling from a tree installed above a 1975 portrait of louche author William S. Burroughs in a checkered jacket: Enough said.

The product of a father who fled the scene before he was born and an alcoholic mother, Hujar left home at 16, getting his start in his chosen field as an assistant to commercial photographers and a contributor to glossy magazines. He soon realized fashion was not his jam, and by 1973 had changed course, committing to the art photography at which he would excel. Often using a medium format, twin lens reflex camera, he toiled in his darkroom, turning out the technically proficient, velvety black-and-mid-tone-gray prints assembled here. His oeuvre ranged from ruined buildings and landscapes to members of the animal kingdom, an empathetic throwback to his companions on the New Jersey farm where, raised by his grandparents, he spent part of his childhood. It's hard to match the majesty of the imperious Great Dane with the chilly hauteur holding court, alert and motionless, in a 1981 photograph, or the heartbreak of a dead seagull in rigor, alone on a deserted beach. But Hujar is most identified with portraits of avant-garde artists, dancers, musicians, writers and transgressive figures in his East Village orbit. Some of them, like the reclining, turtleneck-clad Susan Sontag, weren't as recognizable then as they are today. He shot transgender Warhol Factory star Candy Darling (1973) under harsh fluorescent light on her deathbed in the hospital, when she was in the last stages of lymphoma. In this farewell to fans, she vamps like a Hollywood star of the Golden Age, performing to the end, which came a few months after this picture, the most widely reproduced of Hujar's career, was taken. A devotee of Camp, gravitating toward sitters who, he said, "push themselves to any extreme" and are "chic, but in a dark kind of way," he explored a spectrum of gay desire and gender non-conformity. His specialty was drag performers such as Ethyl Eichelberger, his most frequently photographed personage, who appeared as Nefertiti, Medusa, Jocasta, Auntie Bellum, and here as "Minnie the Maid" (1981), flirtatiously curled on a chair in fishnets, high heels and a blond fright-wig. (Hujar himself once dressed up as Mother Goose.) He shot 50 rolls of film of the Cockettes when they were in New York circa 1971, represented in the show by a demure John Rothermel in jeweled, elbow-length black gloves.

Hujar's homoerotic male nudes made for some of his most provocative, discomfiting work. Bruce de St. Croix, a Merce Cunningham dancer whom Hujar met at a local laundromat, posed for an infamous 1976 picture in which he's seated naked on a chair in an empty studio, his hand nursing his erect penis. The image caused such a sensation when it appeared in The Village Voice, Avedon reportedly dashed to the gallery, double-parked his car outside, and paid cash for a print.

In an anteroom next to the main gallery is a frieze of pictures of uniform size, displayed in two parallel rows of disconcerting, vertical pairings, i.e., Peggy Lee presiding over an image of a dead cow; sexy legs above a photograph of a trashed car, etc. It's a smaller version from Hujar's successful 1986 show at the Gracie Mansion Gallery, which turned out to be the last hurrah for an artist whose life was cut short the following year. Who knows what he might have accomplished if he'd had the chance?

Through Nov. 18;