The life and art of Peter Hujar (19341987) were rooted in downtown New York. Private by nature, combative in manner, well-read, and widely connected, Hujar inhabited a world of avant-garde dance, music, art, and drag performance. His mature career paralleled the public unfolding of gay life between the Stonewall uprising* in 1969 and the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.
After graduating from high school in 1953, Hujar worked as an assistant to commercial photographers until 1968. Five years of contributing features to mass-market magazines convinced him that a fashion career wasnt right for me and in 1973 he opted for an autonomous, near-penniless life as an artist.
In his loft studio above a theater in the East Village, Hujar focused on those who obeyed their creative instincts and shunned mainstream success.
At age forty-two, he published his only monograph, Portraits in Life and Death, and opened his first solo gallery show. The searching intimacy he achieved as a portraitist carried over into unsentimental photographs of animals and plants, landscapes, buildings, and the unique features of nude bodies.
Hujars brief affair in 1981 with the young artist David Wojnarowicz evolved into a mentoring bond that changed both their lives. On their excursions to blighted areas around New York, Hujar crafted the portrait of a city in free fall, complementing Wojnarowiczs dark vision of Reagan-era America. Peter Hujar died of AIDS-related pneumonia in November 1987.
Jeu de Paume
presents a selection of 150 photographs of this singular artist from October 15th, 2019 to January 19th, 2020.
The exhibition follows Hujars work from the beginnings mid 1950 until the 1980s, shaping a portrait of the underground New York City.
In 1953, Peter Hujar finished high school in Manhattan, where he had studied photography. He then worked for some fifteen years as an assistant to commercial photographers. Punctuating those years were two long periods in Italy, buoyed by scholarshipsa first one that was obtained by a boyfriend (19581959) and then his own (19621963).
From 1968 to 1972, he tried to make it as a freelancer in the mass-market world of fashion, music, and advertising photography. The hustle wasnt right for me, and he turned his back on the commercial mainstream. From this time on he lived on almost nothing, squeaking by on small jobs, taking paying jobs only when necessary and focusing on the subjects he found compelling. In 1973, he moved to the crumbling East Village, into a loft that would become the setting for his mature studio work, most notably the vast majority of his portraits.
Portraiture was central to Hujars practice. The subjects of his art, Hujar wrote, were those who push themselves to any extreme and those who cling to the freedom to be themselves. In a sense, I am still a fashion photographer. These people are chic but in a dark kind of way. Most of them are unknown or maybe known to just a few, but they have all been creative adventurers and possess a certain spirit.
Most of his portraits were posed, but Hujar often expected his models to perform in front of the camera, which made many of the shoots truly collaborative ventures. Disguises and props were often incorporated, and his subjects were sometimes veiled, simultaneously revealing and masking themselves.
The reclining portrait is a photographic genre Hujar made his own. The pose features extensively in his 1976 monograph Portraits in Life and Death, and he continued to rely on it as a means of capturing something unique in his sitter: to face a camera lens from a reclining position is an unfamiliar and provoking experience.
The happiest times with Peter, when he wasnt photographing, were walking around Manhattan, looking at the crowns of buildings, and the fantasies about living there, remembers Gary Schneider, one of his close friends.
Born in New Jersey, Hujar spent all his life in New York, and more specifically in Manhattan, whose buildings, streets, and piers he started photographing more extensively in the second half of the 1970s. Divided between Downtowns derelict areas and Midtowns skyscrapers, Hujars New York is often a nocturnal city: a place of abandoned structures, night-time cruising, and early-dawn vistas. A few journeys outside New York, during the summer months, to the beaches of Fire Island in the Hamptons, and, in the early 1980s, to the countryside around Germantown, forty miles north of New York, along the Hudson River, offer other glimpses of Peter Hujars personal geography, testifying to the variety of subjects that he found worth photographing.
Portraiture of bodies was another focal point of Hujars last decade of work. In 1978, some of his works were included in The Male Nude: A photographic Survey at the Marcuse Pfeifer Gallery in New York. Bodies, he suggested, could be read as freely as faces for character, emotion, or life story. He photographed bodies in the extremes of youth and old age, bodies displaying unique features, and bodies in transient states, notably pregnancy and arousal. Whether photographing faces or bodies, Hujar was attentive to the characteristics conferred by time and experience, such as Manny Vasquezs spinal tap scar and the imprint left by socks on Randy Gilbertis ankles. I want people to feel the picture and smell it, he said of his nudes, which he contrasted to the idealized bodies in Robert Mapplethorpes work.
GRACIE MANSION GALLERY, 1986
When exhibiting his work, Hujar employed two distinct methods. He displayed prints either in isolation (notably in his loft, where just one photograph at a time was on view) or in large groupings, two images high, as on this wall. For the last exhibition during his lifetime, in January 1986 in New York, Hujar covered the walls of the Gracie Mansion Gallery with a frieze of seventy photographs in no apparent order. He fine-tuned the layout for days until no one type of image (portrait, nude, animal, still life, landscape, cityscape) appeared twice consecutively. Each of his subjects thus preserved its own identity and singularity rather than serving as a variation on an imposed theme. The arrangement highlighted his inventive range, created echoes among seemingly unrelated images, and drew attention to preoccupations that had recurred throughout his career. The display in this room centers on images taken in the 1980s and is freely inspired by that 1986 exhibition.