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Oh, those blacks! Dense and secretive, they pull me headlong into Peter Hujar’s gritty, powerful photographs. With his portraits of East Village bohemians, the throbbing New York metropolis, domestic and farm animals, even the choppy surface of the Hudson River, Peter Hujar’s photographs embody the New York City of his short lifetime from 1943 to 1987. For the three decades preceding his death from AIDS, he captured a heady, dangerous era that saw the public emergence of gay life in searching, compassionate, and dramatic B&W photographs. The Morgan Library & Museum in NYC is celebrating its acquisition of the Peter Hujar photographic archive by mounting a spectacular retrospective, Speed of Life, on view through May 20th, 2018.
Peter Hujar described his work as “uncomplicated, direct photographs of complicated and difficult subjects…those who push themselves to any extreme and people who cling to the freedom to be themselves.” His fervor stemmed from an old, familiar story: the quest for self-acceptance. Hujar’s mother never recognized his homosexuality and with this nagging rejection, Hujar yearned to validate in his photographic subjects the fundamental humanity and uniqueness that eluded him. The axiom, “every portrait is a self-portrait” is an apt characterization for the acerbic, perceptive and daring Hujar who possessed a gift for tapping into the core of his subjects, imbedding pensive, reflective moments into the expressive blacks of his intense prints.
Hujar’s restless nature pervades his emotionally charged photographs, from the way he engaged his eccentric subjects in unexpected and dynamic compositions to his visceral, high-contrast printing style. For example, he often favored a reclining position for his subjects, a tactic that rendered them both relaxed and defenseless, exuding a guileless intimacy. In his studio, Hujar energized images with motion and side lighting that emphasized dimensionality, texture and mood. His electric, sexual images stirred discomfort and controversy, as in the goading “Daniel Schook Sucking Toe, 1981” and the famously erectile “Bruce de Ste. Croix, 1976.”
Hujar photographed broadly diverse topics with a signature “life during wartime” style. From journalistic shots of groups gathered for parades, parties, or street demonstrations, like “Gay Liberation Front Poster Image, 1969”, to animals, like “Dog, Westtown, New York, 1978”, to city buildings and spaces like “Mural at Piers, 1983” and more conceptual images like “Blanket in the Famous Chair, 1983”, Hujar’s images are at once brooding, empathetic and raw. A pervasive sense of melancholic longing is amplified by the way Hujar installed his exhibition prints, in long rows, two pictures high, with alternating subjects adjacent to one another – replicated along one wall in the Morgan exhibit. It brilliantly emphasizes the individuality of each image while eliciting relationships between compositions and mood. This is perhaps the best reason to see the exhibit in person, despite a truly magnificent exhibition catalog available through Aperture.
One more thing. During his lifetime, Hujar was often compared unfavorably to Robert Mapplethorpe, ten years his junior and part of the same artistic and sexual circles. Although Mapplethorpe rivaled Hujar in pornographic imagery, Mapplethorpe elevated his subject matter to an idealized elegance in sumptuous B&W prints. Mapplethorpe’s graceful style and classical compositions were aesthetic and titillating, making him the darling of collectors. Hujar’s comparatively visceral style left him relatively overlooked, a condition this exhibit should remedy.
For more information, go to: http://www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/peter-hujar
Feature image: “Self-portrait jumping (1), 1974” (Detail) ©The Peter Hujar Archive LLC (courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco).