Peter Hujar: Speed of Life @Morgan Library

JTF (just the facts): A total of 143 black-and-white photographs exhibited against a dark gray background. All the prints are gelatin silver, matted and framed, and hung on all four walls of the West gallery and on both sides of four partitions. Two vitrines at the outside entrance of the gallery contain archival materials, including snapshots, contact sheets, magazine pages and newspaper items. (Installation shots below.)

A catalog of this exhibition has been co-published by Aperture and Fundación MAPFRE (here). Hardcover, $50, 9 ¾ x 11 ¼ inches, 248 pages, 160 black-and-white photographic reproductions, with essays by the curator Joel Smith, Philip Gefter, and Steve Turtell.

The Morgan Library is the third of four stops for the traveling show, which opened in 2017 at the Fondación MAPFRE in Barcelona, continued to the Fotomuseum den Haag in the Hague and will conclude later this year at the Berkeley Art Museum in Berkeley, CA.

Comments/Context: When I joined Da Capo Press in 1980 as an editor, one of the titles I discovered in our eminently odd back list was Peter Hujar’s Portraits in Life and Death. Both he and it were then unfamiliar to me. The only book of his to be released in his lifetime (1934-1987), published four years previous, it had a striking austerity. The slim collection of 40 square-format black-and-white images were printed one per two-page spread, on cream paper. The first section featured 29 seated and recumbent portraits of friends and acquaintances he knew or had met in 1974-75 in the demi-monde of downtown New York. In the second section were 11 skeletons that he had photographed in the catacombs of Palermo, Sicily during visits in 1963. Many of the fleshless corpses wore hats and dresses. A large skull with mouth agape, as if guffawing uproariously, looked out from the shadow-laced cover.

To pair the living and the dead was audacious—too much so, in my mind. The shock tactic seemed like a smoke screen to distract us from studying the pictures. What’s more, Hujar’s posing his subjects on their backs was like Penn’s forcing his subjects into a corner or Halsman’s asking them to jump in the air or Avedon’s fixing them against white seamless: a gimmick. And although his friends (Susan Sontag, William S. Burroughs, Fran Lebowitz, John Waters, Robert Wilson, Anne Waldman, John Ashbery, Edwin Denby) provided more stimulating company than the typical movie or sports stars found in mainstream portrait books, Hujar had nonetheless relied on their cultish notoriety to certify his unproven photographic credentials. Sontag’s introduction was another hook, and probably necessary to sell this non-commercial project to Da Capo’s editors.

Only after his death did I see enough other work that I could appreciate Hujar and his classical temper. The Scalo catalog for the 1994 retrospective (mounted by the Fotomuseum in Winterthur and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam) introduced me to his barnyard animal portraits, while shows such as Peter Hujar: Night, as well as the books Love & Lust and Peter Hujar: Lost Downtown revealed how craftily and lovingly he had portrayed the inhabitants of New York’s gay community. He shared its cultured insularity and practice of sexual libertinism at a time when a blithe disregard for middle-class norms was dangerous. Gay men were still persecuted and subject to arrest in 1970s and ‘80s NYC, despite the 1969 Stonewall riots. The small world of the East Village and Fire Island was his comfort zone and satisfied almost all of his needs as a photographer. He moved with utmost confidence from his studio, where writers and dancers and drag queens regularly dropped by, to after-dark cruising sites on the Lower East Side and along the Hudson River piers, to farms in New Jersey and upstate New York.

With his latest retrospective, Speed of Life, Hujar is receiving the serious artistic treatment he never had when alive, and the institutional support he fervently believed he deserved but probably didn’t dare think he would ever receive.

The curator Joel Smith has installed the photographs with a plain solemnity at the Morgan Library that highlights Hujar’s strengths and disguises his weaknesses. The gray walls and black frames create an elegiac atmosphere, altogether fitting for an artist who documented—and represented—a gay New York bohemia that is gone and that in some ways died with him during the scourge of AIDS.

Hujar observed his companions in this outlaw life with what might be called warm objectivity. Whatever the portrait subject—doll maker and transgender pioneer Greer Lankton, model Bruce St. Croix sitting naked on a chair and handling his huge erection, Warhol superstar Candy Darling on her death bed, or a pair of cows in a muddy field—he photographed them directly with his 2 1/4, often at close range, without props or gauzy lighting. Unlike his friend Nan Goldin, he didn’t rely on soft focus, blur, layered depth of field or other romantic mood enhancers.

His style was cool and refined without ossifying into frigid or precious. He treasured oversized, campy personalities but in portraying them preferred the blunt realism of hairy legs to elaborate artifice or obvious laughs. When he trained his lens on male dancers—one of his passions—he sometimes ignored their faces and isolated the foundations of their movement: legs and feet. Only rarely, as in a ghoulish 1980 portrait of the aged German screenwriter Lotte Eisner in Paris, does light in his handsome black-and-white prints fall harshly on someone. He preferred the middle range. He had unusual integrity for his time, or any time, in refusing to conform to what galleries expected from him i.e. could sell.

Smith has arranged the work as a loose chronology, allowing plenty of opportunities to stray from the narrow path. The earliest photographs are like snapshots. A cheerful 1955 portrait of his high school teacher, the poet and lesbian Daisy Aldan, introduces a section that includes a relaxed Paul Thek (one of his lovers) in Florida (1957) and a tense, watchful cat atop a cash register in a liquor store (1957).

Hujar has been accused of borrowing too freely from Diane Arbus, in everything from the printed black frame around the image to his affection for outcasts. She certainly regarded him as one of her imitators, which mortified him.

Smith doesn’t take sides. A pensive Peggy Lee in 1974, wearing a silk Chinese dress and a thick mask of make-up, exhibits the vulnerability that Arbus (and Avedon) looked for, although both would have probably framed the shot from further away. On the other hand, Hujar’s 1957 photographs of children at a Connecticut home for the developmentally disabled pre-date Arbus’ by more than a decade. He began as a street photographer, on the prowl for unrehearsed gestures, as can be seen in a 1958 picture in Italy of a well-dressed young man touching his thick coif of dark hair and standing next to a pudgy boy in a cap who has his hands in his pockets.

Along with Sander, Arbus, Avedon, Penn, and Weegee, several of the photographers who came to mind as I was passing through the gallery were British or Irish, notably Bill Brandt and Alen MacWeeney. Hujar upheld their conservative photographic values—he believed in the fine print as it was being scoffed at by many Conceptual artists—even if his lifestyle was anything but traditional.

The writing throughout the catalog is stylish and informed, and even has a touch of wit in its design. (The end papers are modeled on the cheesy psychedelic pattern of the ‘70s wallpaper that serves as the background for Hujar’s 1974 memorable portrait of his friend Fran Lebowitz, taken in her sister’s bedroom at their parents’ New Jersey suburban home.)

Smith locates Hujar within the East Village of the ‘60s-80s. It should be noted that the corner of it that he occupied, largely gay, did not overlap much with other scenes that have become historically prominent. You don’t see in his photographs the punk musicians who played at CBGBs or the black and Latino graffiti artists tagging subway cars and derelict buildings or any of the straight journalists who lived there in those years. Hujar wasn’t documenting a time so much as trying to make art out of the intimacy he found in his tight circle. He looked to achieve what Smith calls “singularity, the irreducible self of whatever or whoever he photographed.”

Philip Gefter’s essay describes the artist’s unique sexual allure, the aloof of mystery that he wore like a cloak on his tall, lean frame, while Steve Turtell candidly recalls Hujar’s rages and petulance on a trip to New Orleans. Frequent episodes of selfishness and bad behavior stretched the bonds of friendship at one time or another with almost everyone he knew. Most loved him regardless. (I don’t know that I’ve read a catalog for a retrospective that so frankly discusses an artist’s trying personality.)

Hujar endured a fatherless childhood in New Jersey and New York City and never recovered. He knew he was gay early on and suffered for it from kids in the neighborhood. A 1978 photograph of a white dog that looks as if it has spent most of its life outdoors—its fur is muddy, its eyes tired, as if expecting indifference or abuse—may well be a self-portrait. After graduating high school, he apprenticed himself with a commercial photographer and in 1967 enrolled in a class taught by Richard Avedon and Marvin Israel. A brief stint shooting for Condé Nast ended when he decided that “the hustle” was not for him. By 1975 he had chosen to support himself primarily as an artist, a poverty-stricken career path he followed until his death.

Comparisons with Mapplethorpe are inevitable. The two were rivals, with the older Hujar expressing undisguised contempt for the rising star’s commercial success and slick aesthetic. “He has got ‘art look’ down perfect,” he told his friend David Wojnarowicz in an interview circa 1983. “He can do his big dick pictures… and make them look… really nice, as if it’s an exotic flower….It would look nice in a living room. It’s not going to have any odor. It’s not going to have any temperature. It’s removed.”

Mapplethorpe strived to make his men and women appear flawless. Their blemishes were retouched by his printers until their bodies conformed to his icy—vapid, corny—ideals of beauty. The X portfolio is perhaps his finest work because for once he didn’t edit out the messiness of sex or the painful costs to the body of S&M.

Hujar did his own printing and he didn’t mind imperfections in his subjects, indeed his lens often brought them out. If Mapplethorpe had ever photographed Jerome Robbins, he would never have allowed himself to present the details that Hujar did when he photographed the choreographer on the beach at Bridgehampton, NY in 1977. Instead of the graceful and commanding leader of the New York City Ballet and Broadway musical theater, we see a middle-aged man dozing in his swimsuit, gray tufts of hair sprouting like crabgrass from his back.

Hujar’s portraits of barnyard animals—Smith has selected about half-a-dozen: sheep, cows, horses, a goose, a donkey (1969, 1978, 1984)—are among his sweetest and funniest. In their guileless naturalism, and empathy for the daily lives of creatures exposed to rain and cold, these photographs are the antithesis of camp, a term made famous by Sontag in a 1964 essay of which Smith quotes perhaps too reverently.

A couple of prints here indicate Hujar recognized the art history of photography and saw himself as belonging to it . For instance, in posing his fellow photographer, Gary Schneider, for what became Gary in Contortion I and II (1979), Hujar asked his friend to bend his naked body into a twisted ball, simulating one of Edward Weston’s peppers. Another friend was asked to lie on a sofa and scissor his legs together in an homage to André Kértesz’s Satiric Dancer.

Does this show prove that Hujar was “among the greatest of all American photographers,” as the critic Peter Schjeldahl recently declared in The New Yorker?

Not without debasing the gold standard of that adjective. Most readers of this website could readily name 50 photographers whose artistic success was/is superior. The material chosen by Smith to demonstrate Hujar’s range—the still-lifes, nature studies, landscapes, portraits of babies and children, Manhattan skyscrapers, examples from his brief commercial career (a bare-chested Isaac Hayes)—are unremarkable.

The uneven quality of Hujar’s oeuvre is brought into relief by the short film Immersion, which the Morgan has commissioned especially for this venue. (Screenings are irregular.) Set to the pulsing wave of a minimalist score, it has converted Hujar’s archive (without narration or captions) into a torrent of rapidly edited images. Along with thinking that he probably would have had a meltdown seeing his photographs treated Koyaanisqatsi-fashion—his art was about slowing down the world, not speeding it up —I saw nothing in the breakneck montage that prompted me to believe loads of treasure remain to be discovered.

This misfire doesn’t damage the achievement of the show or discount the supremely moving portraits in it: Edwin Denby seated on a bed with eyes closed, like an ordinary Buddha; Brion Gysin, eyes blazing and about to deliver another piercing observation; Malcolm Morley furiously sketching on a beach in winter; Gary Indiana wearing a sequined veil like a caul; a weary H.M. Koutoukas; John Rothermel, leader of the Cockettes, in a fashion pose; Ethyl Eichelberger as Minnie the Maid; and a gaunt and appraising Wojnarowicz smoking a mini-cigar, his hard gaze staring down Hujar’s camera, their exchange a kind of embrace.

Hujar was equally adept with couples. There are touching portraits of John Erdman and Gary Schneider at Mohonk Mountain House; the twins Zachy and Gamal Sherif with arms draped around each other; Jackie Curtis and Lance Loud curled up on a bed; Bill Rafford and Vince Aletti in summer dresses on Fire Island.

Hujar’s career was devoted to making a group portrait of this fragile and embattled but mutually supportive community. Smith puts it better than I could: “What is beautiful about his work is something in the air around his subjects—the forces pushing them into shape—and what is beautiful is their bearing up.”

Were this show to have happened at the Whitney or MoMA, it would probably find a larger audience. But within those factories of art history and their assembly lines of exhibitions, its impact would be diminished. Speed of Light puts the Morgan on the map as a destination for students and scholars of photography. It’s the first retrospective the Library has devoted to an artist under Smith, appointed its first photography curator in 2012.

If the high quality of this presentation is any clue of what’s in store, the Morgan’s investment in this not-so-ancient art, which some critics had doubted was wise, will have paid off to the benefit of everyone.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are, of course, no posted prices. The estate of Peter Hujar is represented by Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York (here) and Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco (here). Hujar’s work has only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in the past decade; recent prices have generally ranged between roughly $5000 and $50000.

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Read more about: Peter Hujar, The Morgan Library & Museum, Aperture, Fundación MAPFRE

One comment

  1. Marcus Bunyan /

    The exhibition is “Speed of Life” not Speed of Light

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