by Robert Atkins
Some photographers are so closely identified with their moment and milieu that their pictures have become emblems of a particular time and place. It is difficult to think of 19th century Paris, for instance, without visualizing Atget’s photographic momento mori of a pre-industrial past, or the U.S. heartland of the 1950s without seeing it through the ironic gaze of the Swiss photographer Robert Frank. Yet their photographs could hardly be further from anybody’s notion of documentary “objectivity.” So it is with Peter Hujar, whose retrospective, Speed of Life, evokes his East Village of the 1970s and 1980s. The show, organized by the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, is on view at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive through November 18.
Hujar is best known for his black-and-white portraits of of artists and writers, drag performers and boyfriends. Although less romanticized than other representations of the downtown scene such as Jonathan Larson’s rock-musical Rent (1994), Hujar’s pictures share with Larson’s pop-cultural product a retrospective vision of a Bohemian paradise lost. (The iconic musical is currently on a nationwide tour marking the 20th anniversary of its Broadway debut.) An occasional photograph of Hujar’s, such as Girl in my Hallway — of a passed-out derelict on the photographer’s doorstep — does capture the grittiness of the East Village of that day. With the onset of AIDS a few years later, widespread misery reached epic proportions in Lower Manhattan, and in 1987 it claimed Hujar.
Born in 1934, Hujar died shortly after the heyday of the East Village scene. (Many observers pronounced its demise as early as 1983, when Pat Hearn’s posh gallery opened on out-of-the way Avenue B.) For newcomers, the decaying neighborhood seemed an alternative to the conservative juggernaut that gained momentum after Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, after which followed an upward redistribution of wealth (Reagonomics), the rise of the religious right (the culture wars), and a public health crisis stemming from New York’s do-nothing response to AIDS. As the epicenter of the previous decade’s hippie influx, the East Village continued to offer relatively cheap rents to a youthful populous bent on re-invention and acting out in public. Drug use was ubiquitous, just as it was on cocaine-fueled Wall Street. A paradoxical mix of community and narcissism seemed to animate this neighborhood bounded by NYU and the East River, Houston and 14th Streets.
Like his ostensible rival, Robert Mapplethorpe, Hujar was by no means a photographic pioneer. Despite his unconventional treatment of some portrait subjects, he possessed a fashion-inflected, essentially conservative sensibility. He also produced self-portraits, images of dogs, cows and sheep, abstract views of Manhattan architecture, infants breast-feeding, pictures of twins, and even subjects’ legs, seen from knee to foot. A quick turn around the show reveals his
second best selling photograph after Candy Darling on her Deathbed. For this portrait of the transsexual actress and Warhol superstar, Hujar dramatically lit the picture’s hospital room setting and placed the subject’s pale face at the center of the composition. Heavily made up, the actress surveys us–and, seemingly, impending death—with both toughness and vulnerability from behind a whitened mask.
Hujar’s crowning achievement was his extensive series of portraits of the actor and playwright Ethyl Eichelberger. An influential figure on the downtown scene, he performed in and out of drag in more than 30 plays, often based on historical figures or classic works including Lucrezia Borgia, all of the characters conflated for his version of King Lear; Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln; and Klytemnestra (with Accordion). Hujar’s portrait, Ethyl Eichelberger as Minnie the Maid, presents the performer in signature stilletos, as a giddy blond on a chair, off which she seems to levitate, feet tucked under her. Like so many of Eichlberger’s characters — and Hujar’s portraits—it is drawn with wit.
Hujar also created striking portraits of the performers Tomata du Plenty, nude and spiky-haired, looking as if he’d leapt from an Egon Schiele canvas, and John Hays, seen in John Hays with Orange Breasts, clad in male street clothes, save for protruding, citrus-fruit falsies. Unfortunately, the show provides too little information about many of the public figures depicted in his commercial commissions and his art.
Hujar’s work seems untouched by the media, both in the sense of the mass media and its growing influence on contemporary society, and in the sense of the medium of film, newly popular in the downtown art world thanks to filmmakers such as Jack Smith and Andy Warhol. In fact, filmmaking was of considerable interest to him. He spent a year in Italy studying it on a Fulbright grant, but the collaborative process proved an obstacle. He did photograph Warhol but chose not to include the picture in his book, Portraits in Life and Death (1976), fearing Warhol’s fame would overpower that of less-renowned subjects. Many of them — such as the humorist Fran Lebowitz and cultural critic Susan Sontag — were not the household names they would soon become.
His friendship with Sontag — who was a lover of the artist Paul Thek, the most important of Hujar’s romantic relationships — resulted in the brilliant portrait of the writer photographed in profile, reclining in calculated reverie that seems to attest to their collaboration in the portrait’s production. The reclining pose became a signature of Hujar’s photographs. We see it in portraits of the Beat writer William Burroughs and the gallerist Dean Savard, among many others. Sontag wrote the introduction to Portraits in Life and Death (1976), one of only two books devoted to Hujar’s work published during his lifetime. (The other was as was an exhibition catalog published in 1981 in Germany.) Portraits in Life and Death appeared shortly before the publication of Sontag’s seminal collection, On Photography (1978), which ensured her place as one of the preeminent photo-theorists of the late 20th century. Despite this renown by association, Hujar was reportedly piqued that she never mentioned him by name in her essay, instead philosophizing about the relationship of photography and death.
During his lifetime his work appeared in more than three dozen group and solo shows in the U.S. and Europe, many of them at the Marcuse Pfeifer Gallery and the gay-oriented Robert Samuel Gallery, two pioneering photography venues, and at the hip Gracie Mansion Gallery, the East Village venue that showed art in all media. He was the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship and several NEA fellowships. He was less successful in his own eyes, though. Fran Lebowitz’s description of him (“One of the most difficult [and angry] people in the world… He could never sell himself”) was shared by many. But despite his bitterness and relative poverty, he was hardly a tortured outcast.
In 1980, he embarked on a complicated relationship with the artist David Wojnarowicz. The two met in 1980 at “the Bar”— an unnamed gay hangout on Second Avenue— and it began with a brief romantic fling which was less essential to their friendship than their similar upbringings in emotionally abusive households in New Jersey. The conventional wisdom about their relationship exaggerates its importance to their work. It suggests that Hujar mentored Wojnarowicz, who was 20 years his junior. Wojnarowicz — whom I knew —was single-mindedly dedicated to his art, supported by well-placed admirers and en route to professional success. Hujar mattered deeply to Wojnarowicz, as evidenced by his statement that “Everything I made, I made for Peter,” as well as by the pictures he took of the just-deceased photographer on his deathbed. But the emotionally labile Wojnarowicz was also subject to infatuations, omissions and obfuscations. Many of the activists and artists who attended his funeral in 1992, for instance, were surprised to learn of the existence of Wojnarowicz’s lover, the social worker Tom Rauffenbart, attesting to the artist’s extraordinary capacity for compartmentalization.
Hujar, in turn, was too old to have his work much affected by the younger artist’s post-modern outlook. Wojnarowicz’s most tangible effect on Hujar’s art was their collaboration in helping organize many of Hujar’s genre-defying installations, a sample of which opens this exhibition. Twenty or so prints are arranged in two, horizontal rows that feature unrelated, adjacent subjects, e.g. an animal, a portrait of a performer, a building, a view of paired legs in heels. From this arrangement emerges a syncopated visual composition.
Whatever Hujar’s psychology, though, the sociological character of 20th century New York was fixed: It enshrined the East Village as the latest creative hub in a line extending back to pre-World War I Greenwich Village, on to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, and on through the post-war Beats. Each of these moments was promoted in the romanticized, century-old, ideological terms of a beleaguered avant-gardism. The East Village differed in at least one, crucial way: The shocking, near simultaneous deaths of so many artists, writers and curators during a single decade. It also coincided with the demise of the 20th century, modernist photographic tradition of which Hujar was an exemplar, doomed in part for its inability to depict AIDS, a syndrome without visual signs. The brilliant artistic production inspired by the plague fails to compensate, of course, for the heartbreak that accompanied it. Hujar’s work brings it into sharper focus.
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“Peter Hujar: Speed of Life” @ BAMPFA through November 18, 2018.
New Yorker photography critic Vince Aletti, who was Peter Hujar’s East Village neighbor and friend, and Joel Smith, curator of photography at the Morgan Library and Museum and organizer of Peter Hujar: Speed of Life, talk about Hujar at BAMPFA October 27.
About the author:
Robert Atkins is presently at work on a volume of his collected writings, The Eternal Frame: Sex and & Politics in Recent American Art, and is co-directing with Betti-Sue Hertz, On Susan Sontag: Media, Modernity & Morality, a city-wide project slated for fall 2019 sponsored by the San Francisco Art Institute.