The first thing you notice about Peter Hujar’s photographs is their warmth, whether they capture his intimacy with friends, colleagues or lovers (often overlapping categories) from the downtown New York art scene between the 1950s and the 1980s; or his eye for romantically timeless animals; or the textures of nature or industry; or moody cityscapes; or gay life from before Stonewall through the height of the AIDS epidemic, from which Hujar died in 1987. The nearly 150 photos on view in “Peter Hujar: Speed of Life,” at The Morgan Library and Museum through May 20, demonstrate the richness of his connection to his community and the beauty he was able to coax out of a world in which he never quite thrived. Despite the verve animating his images, Hujar struggled to find personal contentment and professional, as well as financial, recognition for his body of work. It is a good sign, if too late for Hujar personally, that The Morgan, which has only focused seriously on the medium of photography since 2013, has made a strong commitment to the artist’s work, acquiring his extensive contact sheet archive as well as his correspondence and a selection of 100 lifetime prints. Hujar did all of his own darkroom work and judged the many, many artists who contracted out that part of the process.
Hujar was born in 1934 in New Jersey, and ended up in New York City at the end of his unstable and unhappy childhood. (“Speed of Life” includes a photo — one of the most conventional, and cold, portraits — of Hujar’s homophobic mother and stepfather that identifies them flatly by their full names and makes the distance between them and their son clear.) After two sojourns in Italy, the photographer became a fixture of the artistic community centered in the East Village, where he befriended and shot artists, actors, dancers, writers and other creative luminaries, including Susan Sontag, Fran Lebowitz, Paul Thek, Ethyl Eichelberger, Candy Darling, David Wojnarowicz, Charles Ludlum and on and on. A charming portrait of a favorite high school teacher and mentor, the poet Daisy Aldan, is Hujar’s earliest image in the exhibition; her character and wit, as well as the fond connection between them, shine through.
Hujar’s images have a depth and a humanism that are often missing from the work of his better known and more successful fellow postwar photographers, most famously artists like Robert Mapplethorpe and Nan Goldin. The show and catalogue perhaps dwell too much on the passive rivalry, especially, with Mapplethorpe, but the comparisons makes some of Hujar’s strengths more immediate. Whether shooting flawless flowers or flawless nudes, Mapplethorpe favored a hard-edged, icily stylized geometry of perfect surfaces and emotional alienation. In many ways, these images were better aligned with the aesthetic zeitgeist than Hujar’s: the “look” of the ‘80s easily evokes Mapplethorpe. But it also follows that today, Mapplethorpe’s retro-neo-classical look can feel dated and superficial. By contrast, Hujar’s style has a more timeless and earthy quality, a robust complexity, a quirky-but-confident point of view, a personality. Mapplethorpe’s Raymond, from 1985, is an abstract shape; Hujar’s Gary Schneider in Contortion (1), from 1979, is a person with whom we can empathize. And, despite neither Raymond nor Schneider having visible heads, Schneider has an obvious sense of humor while Raymond is an aesthetic lump.
Goldin is best known for her 1986 slideshow set to music, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, of which Brian on the Toilet, 1982, is part. But again, comparing Hujar’s toilet photo reveals an engaged human connection between photographer and subject. Goldin shoots in color and her images have an informal, snapshot aesthetic; Brian, her abusive boyfriend at the time, looks away, bored, distracted, as if caught unaware during an intimate moment; the edge of the photo casually crops his body. This, like many of Goldin’s photos that capture private, subcultural spaces and demimonde characters, feels exploitative, as if the artist and her friends were at a louche-but-discrete party, but then the indiscrete party pics end up published in catalogues and on the walls at MoMA, to only Goldin’s acclaim. Hujar’s John Flowers, c. 1974, on the other hand, feels much more like a collaboration. Flowers is mugging for the camera, his dress is hiked up to maximum comedic effect and the plastic horns and unsubtle makeup complete the playful, stagey look; the chomped cigarette in its holder and his expressively chipped tooth tip the image into magnificence. This is Hujar capturing Flowers in a moment of performance, playful, but respectful of Flowers’ autonomy. While Goldin violates Brian’s bodily integrity with the cropped edge of the image, Hujar uses the toilet stall as a framing device to focus the photo on Flowers’ deliberate pose and effervescent self-presentation.
I began by saying that Hujar never quite thrived in his contemporary art world, but what “Speed of Life” undeniably shows is that, certainly, he did thrive artistically. If he struggled to show or sell or publish his photos, that takes nothing away from the smoldering power of the images themselves. While it is a shame, if distressingly common, that Hujar did not live to see the reevaluation and widespread celebration of his œuvre, his determined confidence in the importance of his artistic vision has ultimately paid off in The Morgan’s acquisition of his archives and prints, no less than in this exhibition that gives the photos the space to make their own case for a new, prominent legacy.