Peter Hujar: Echoes @125 Newbury

JTF (just the facts): A total of 44 black-and-white photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against white walls with brown craft paper striping in the main gallery space. (Installation shots below.)

The following works are included in the show:

  • 16 pigmented inkjet prints, 1974/posthumous, 1975/posthumous, 1976/posthumous, 1979/posthumous, 1980/posthumous, 1981/posthumous, 1982/posthumous, 1983/posthumous, sized roughly 14×14, 15×14, 15×15 inches, in editions of 10
  • 28 gelatin silver prints, 1963, 1966, 1973, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1981, 1983, 1984, 1985, n.d., sized roughly 8×8, 14×11, 14×14, 15×14 (or the reverse), 15×15, 17×13, 18×12, 19×15 inches

A free newspaper (48 pages) has been printed by the gallery to accompany the show. It includes essays by Arne Glimcher, Vince Aletti, Oliver Shultz, and Susan Sontag, and image reproductions. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: Art world reputations are strangely amorphous and fickle, subject to the ebbs and flows of forces both in and out of the control of the artist and his or her supporters. In the case of the photographer Peter Hujar, while Hujar was certainly well known in the downtown scene in New York in the 1970s and 1980s, his work was itself generally under appreciated when he was alive, perhaps overshadowed by that of some of his more visible contemporaries. But in the decades since his death in 1987, his star has continued to methodically rise, coalescing in an overdue institutional retrospective at the Morgan Library in 2018 (reviewed here).

This gallery show elegantly tightens back down after the breadth on display at that career survey, consolidating its energy around two essentially opposing bodies of work. One features male nudes and bodies photographed in the privacy of Hujar’s studio; the other moves out to the semi-public spaces of the ruined Christopher Street piers, where Hujar made both casual outdoor portraits and more intimate studies of the decaying, graffiti-covered rooms. The interplay of the two gives the exhibit its tension and friction, with Hujar’s consistent ability to see people (and places) with sensitivity on display in both subjects.

Hujar’s nudes balance precise formal rigor with atmospheric closeness, turning bodies into shapes and geometries, but also paying attention to fleeting moments of personal introspection. There is a performative playfulness to some of these setups, including Daniel Schook folded in on himself and sucking on his toe and Gary Schneider putting his leg over his shoulder and flipping over himself like a contortionist, where Hujar explores the extremes of how bodies can twist and turn. And a few images of legs and feet isolate these body parts further, as single legs and pairs, in high heels and stockings, turning them into pared down signifiers of personalities and identities. It is these kinds of images that inevitably brought about comparisons to the work of Robert Mapplethorpe (who was more than a decade younger), but as seen here, even the most elemental of Hujar’s images are steeped in rich layers of understated human personality, much more engaged and compassionate than many of Mapplethorpe’s more cooly clinical studies of bodies.

In fact, many more of Hujar’s nudes and portraits (of friends, lovers, New York icons, and anonymous acquaintances) merge his interest in formal arrangement with a quiet mood of delicacy. Darrel Ellis is folded (and somewhat hidden) within the classical angles of his upraised arms, while David Wojnarowicz reclines with his head on a pillow, the lines and bends of his arms gracefully intertwined. Rene Ricard sits in pensive pose with his knees up and his hand pressed against his forehead in something like weighty despair, while Dean Savard gently curls up with his arms around his head. And still others lie on the floor and smoke cigarettes, linger in beds with crumpled sheets, rest their heads on folded arms, or simply stare into space with meditative poise, the elemental purity (or implied desire) of these moments drawing us into their intimate exchanges. Even Hujar himself joins the action, in a nude self-portrait that captures the artist in a lyrical dance-like run through the studio.

Hujar’s images made on the piers have a different kind of immediacy, where the jostle of seeing and being seen are more overt. Men gather and socialize, hang out and drink beers, and generally revel in the performative strutting and posing going on all around. Hujar’s photographs capture the complexity of these encounters, of many glances and gestures taking place at once, for various watchers, where tenderness and raw attraction are both on display. Given the circumstances, his compositions are naturally much less formal and more improvised than his studio work, but his eye for controlled arrangement comes back through in a picture of crossed legs, where socks and boots set off the angles.

The jovial mood of cruising that Hujar documents out in the sunlight turns quite a bit darker when he moves inside the dilapidated piers and empty warehouses. He peers down dark shadowy hallways filled with debris, looks up grimy staircases, discovers rotting furniture and other discarded treasures, and stands at charred doorways leading further into the maze of rooms, the surfaces of the piers seen as textural ruins worthy of an archaeological dig. A grid of smaller prints gathers together his efforts to document the graffiti art strewn through the buildings, each figure, face, and decoration a message of presence that Hujar responds to with care and sensitivity. This grim sensuality is then matched by a few earlier pictures that Hujar made in the catacombs of Palermo (and one later image from a slaughterhouse) that bring death more provocatively to the forefront, the heady mixture of sexuality and mortality now seeming to ring through the grungy rooms of the piers.

While some of these photographs will now be familiar to many, the editing and curation here have been smartly executed, honing the experience into something clear, precise, and easily understood. As Hujar’s acclaim continues to gain momentum, it is shows like this one that will help tune the message, redirecting us toward his unique aesthetic mix of the controlled and the contemplative.

Collector’s POV: The posthumous prints in this show are priced at $14000 each, while the vintage prints range from roughly $30000 to $40000 each. Hujar’s work has become much more consistently available in the secondary markets in the past decade; recent prices have generally ranged between roughly $3000 and $158000.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Little Big Man Books (here). Softbound with dust jacket, 10 x 7 inches, 292 pages with numerous color photographs. Includes a text ... Read on.

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