Moyra Davey/Peter Hujar, The Shabbiness of Beauty

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by MACK Books (here). Embossed and printed hardcover (17 x 24 cm), 128 pages, with 52 monochrome and 3 color reproductions. Includes the reproduction of a letter by Peter Hujar, and texts by Eileen Myles, Moyra Davey, and Stephen Koch. Design by Morgan Crowcroft-Brown. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: “I curated myself with Peter Hujar; a risky act, but it was an invitation that I could not resist,” writes Moyra Davey at the end of The Shabbiness of Beauty. For her latest photobook (and its preceding exhibition Moyra Davey – Peter Hujar at Galerie Buchholz in Berlin, in February 2020), Davey delved into the archives of the late American photographer and emerged with a fascinating series that pairs her photographs with his. Considering the iconic status of Hujar’s work, it is easy to understand the risk of this endeavor. What is most remarkable about its result is how seamlessly and intuitively intimate these two sets of images, and their underlying visions, dance with one another across the pages. Even after going through the book several times, it is (delightfully) confusing to determine which artist took which picture. And while an index at the end solves the mystery (if you are willing to flip back and forth), the magic of this symbiotic yet diverging pas de deux does not cease to surprise.

This is partly because Davey didn’t compile a “best-of-Hujar” or adhere to one-to-one comparison with her work. Instead, she carefully selected images by him that she knew she could be in conversation with, many of which had rarely, if ever, been shown before. Davey began her visual research into Hujar’s archive by listing categories she wanted to see: “animals, water, young men, body parts, NYC, babies,” she describes – and responded in thematic likeness, but sequenced their photographs (at times one, at others two, to a double-page) by formal resonance. Among these categories, which provide the recurring motives and subjects of The Shabbiness of Beauty, the photographs of animals most tenderly reveal the two artists’ shared interests and sensibilities, and their distinct ways of capturing and expressing them.

Davey and Hujar converge in their attentive, considered gaze: one that takes a wondrous pleasure in truly looking at animals, in regarding their existence. A gaze that gravitates towards the small details, such as movements and features, surroundings and light, and in doing so, reveals and distills their dignity – whether it is a group of unruly chickens scurrying through a garden or nestled against each other; the almost aristocratic demeanor of a white turkey; or the evident pleasure a dog can take from bathing in the warm light of a sunny afternoon.

“Everyone agrees Hujar was unrivaled when it came to photographing animals,” Davey so rightly states. “His horses and cows and dogs peer into the lens as though hypnotized, sometimes in pairs, and there is an immobility to these images that is truly novel, as animals don’t hold still, except for Hujar, who talked to them.” I would argue that Davey talks to them, too, albeit in a different language. This is, perhaps, most tangible in their photographs of horses – Davey’s self-declared attempt “to channel Hujar.”

Take, for instance, his Horse, Warwick, R.I., 1979 and Davey’s Cisco (Flies)2019. Both photographs are portraits captured in profile (although Hujar’s turns more towards the camera). His horse is black, with an unruly mane, and persistently gnawing on a wooden pole (perhaps part of a fence?); hers a dapple-grey, its fur echoing the patterns of the surrounding trees, gently squinting. Neither of the two horses looks at its photographer, and even if it seems impossible to fully grasp their differing gaze or the atmosphere emanating from these two photographs, there is something about Hujar’s that utters protest, while Davey’s feels grounded in a more perspicacious observation. The poet Eileen Myles, whose text opens the book, describes this reoccurring impression as Hujar “making a record of his senses,” while Davey’s work is “always relational.” What an unassumingly poignant way to put it. As if to confirm Myles’s thoughtful insight, Davey shaped the book’s title around Hujar’s Warwick horse and the poet’s description thereof: “Peter’s horse speaks for the shabbiness of beauty.”

For Davey, Hujar speaks most through his photographs of the Hudson River. “How to describe the effect of these photographs?” she asks. “Each image seems to have its own personality, and we sense Hujar’s presence as well, a man standing on a pier, with all the connotations of that locale, looking out and taking in the river at his feet.” It is these images of water (not only of the Hudson), both Hujar’s and Davey’s rippling through this beautifully enigmatic sequence, that accentuate the tidal tension at work between these two photographers. Hujar’s surfaces are dark and dense, often impenetrable and almost threating corporal, then sensual and voluptuous. Davey’s calm and hazy, simmering, more “painterly” and “immersive,” as Myles describes them.

There is something reciprocal about the time (its quality) that Myles spent with these images. And just like them, her text moves, it undulates from the present to past decades and back again, meandering between memories, eclectic associations, and the kind of knowledge that doesn’t come with books, but lived experience. Hujar and Davey made these experiences in different worlds at different times, but in the same place – New York City. Towards the final third of the book, the reproduction of a letter that Hujar addressed to his former lover, close friend, and fellow artist David Wojnarowicz on New Year’s Day of 1984, allows us to glimpse into his (and the wonderfully contextualizing note by Stephen Koch from The Peter Hujar Archive helps to fully appreciate it). Davey came to the city in 1988; a year after Hujar had died from AIDS-related pneumonia. This, in-and-of itself, tells you enough about the insurmountable gaps between “living woman” and “the dead man,” as Myles piercingly describes them. But there is a profoundly conceptual one, too.

Referring to the generation of artists which Davey is part of, she writes: “[We] all came of age artistically in the post-modern era; we are all self-consciously trying to signal that what’s going on behind the camera – the emotional register, the labor register, the thinking register, the risk factor. […] Hujar was the opposite. Without self-regard, he gifted it all to the subject and the image through patience, framing, razor-sharp focus, and crystalline lighting,” Davey continues. “He apparently gave no direction and spoke very little to the human subjects in his studio. He waited for them to give him whatever it was they were going to give, and then he took it – and after the wizardry of the darkroom, gave it back.”

The Shabbiness of Beauty is remarkable in many ways, and there is nothing I can really compare it to (which I treasure). Among the things I treasure the most are the care and respect that went into this project – and that reverberate from the selection of the images, the accompanying words, to the white space of the pages surrounding Davey’s astounding edit. There is a dedication and honesty to this book that feels special and increasingly rare. They persist throughout the final suite of images – a cusp of color photographs that Hujar took of another loved-one, the artist Paul Thek. My notebook tells me that Thek somewhere, sometime said, “Feelings are things.” Just like words and images, they take time to sink in. And in doing so, they all take a life of their own – as everyday records, memories, perhaps talismans.

Collector’s POV: Moyra Davey is represented by Galerie Buchholz in Cologne, Berlin, and New York (here) and Experimenter in Kolkata (here). Davey’s work has little consistent secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up. The estate of Peter Hujar is represented by Pace Gallery in New York (here) and Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco (here). Hujar’s work has become more available in the secondary markets in the past few years; recent prices have generally ranged between roughly $3000 and $95000.

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