Peter Hujar @Pace/MacGill

JTF (just the facts): A total of 18 black and white photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against grey and white walls in the two room gallery space. All of the works are either vintage gelatin silver prints or posthumously printed digital pigment prints, made from negatives taken between 1973 and 1985. The individual prints range in size from 15×15 to 16×16 and there is one triptych. There is no edition information for the vintage prints; the digital pigment prints come in editions of 10. (No photography is allowed in the gallery, so the installation shots at right are via the Pace/MacGill website.)

Comments/Context: Pace/MacGill has recently taken over New York representation of the estate of Peter Hujar, so this show provides an introductory entry point for those who might be unfamiliar with the artist’s work. For the most part, it gathers together a selection of Hujar’s penetratingly spare portraits of 1970s/1980s downtown artists, writers, and other scene makers, with a few animals and nudes thrown in for good measure.

Hujar was particularly adept at taking a simple, straightforward, some might say classical, center-focused compositional style and infusing this approach with surprising intensity and personal connection. Regardless of whether his subject was a drag queen, a friend, or a famous name, he was consistently able to come away with portraits that were sharp and perceptive without sacrificing sensitivity. Candy Darling on her deathbed and the deadpan face of David Wojnarowicz will be familiar to many, but other lesser known figures peer out from subtle cones of light here as well and demand our respect and attention with equal force and presence.

While many of Hujar’s portraits are important both as documents and artworks, his trio of male nudes in the second room is to my eye a riskier and more durably original artistic expression. Not only are these three portraits full frontal male nudes, which by itself would be somewhat unusual, they boldly celebrate the male erection, a visual taboo for many even today. What is thought provoking about these photographs is not exactly that Hujar took forbidden pictures, but that he bypassed both a Modernist abstraction of the body into line and form and a campy beefcake style aimed at a queer audience and instead opted for a stripped bare structure, using a subject with a sinewy dancer’s body and posing him in an unadorned, featureless space. The effect is both quietly pure and extremely personal, the power of the experience reflected in each tensed muscle. The images are erotic to be sure, but taut and elemental rather than lightly titillating.

All in, this is a solid first-level sampler of the artist’s career. Go for the discerning parade of John Waters, Divine, Peggy Lee, William Burroughs, and others, but my guess is you will come away haunted by the unexpected intensity of the show-all male nudes.

Collector’s POV: The vintage prints in this show are priced at $20000 each, with a few marked “sold out” or “museum sale only”. The posthumous digital prints are $10000 each, with the triptych at $25000. Hujar’s work has not been consistently available at auction over the years; his prints do pop up from time to time, but not with any great regularity. Prices have generally ranged between $2000 and $25000.

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