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Peter Hujar: Speed of Life

by our Editors in Theatre, Art & Expo , 06 april 2018

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar
Length: 5 minutes

The life and art of Peter Hujar (1934–1987) 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.

Peter Hujar, ‘Self-Portrait Jumping,’ 1974In his loft studio in the East Village, Hujar focused on those who followed their creative instincts and shunned mainstream success. He made, in his words, “uncomplicated, direct photographs of complicated and difficult subjects,” immortalizing moments, individuals, and subcultures passing at the speed of life.

The exhibition “Peter Hujar: Speed of Life,” currently on view at the The Morgan Library & Museum in New York, presents one hundred and forty photographs by this enormously important and influential artist. The show follows Hujar from his beginnings in the mid-1950s to his central role in the East Village art scene three decades later.

“Speed of Life” adopts the form of a traditional retrospective while staying true to how Hujar wanted his work to be exhibited. In his gallery shows, Hujar displayed prints either in isolation or in large groupings that flirted with disorder. He fine-tuned the layout of his final gallery show (1986) until no one type of image (portrait, nude, animal, still life, landscape, cityscape) appeared twice consecutively.

Hujar was easy to meet but difficult to know closely. He participated in a dizzying array of social scenes and subcultures without becoming a part of them. For him, the camera provided a means of creating a relationship between author and subject founded on intimacy, silence, and trust.

Hujar met the author Susan Sontag through their mutual friend, artist Paul Thek, in Sicily in 1963. Sontag later contributed the introduction to Hujar’s 1976 monograph “Portraits in Life and Death.” It included his iconic reclining portrait of the writer.

The reclining portrait is a genre of photograph Hujar made his own. He relied on it as a means of reaching something unique in every sitter. To face a camera lens from a reclining position is an unfamiliar and provoking experience. It stirred a distinct reaction from everyone who experienced it.

Hujar’s Social and Political World

Pter Hujar, ‘Gay Liberation Front Poster Image,’ 1969In the mid-1960s, as several of Hujar’s artist friends found success, he remained at the periphery of the art world. He lacked an outlet for his work, but photographed crowds at events such as parades and anti-war rallies. In 1969, when he was working for fashion and music magazines, he at last put his art to explicit political use. In late June, a police raid inspired fierce resistance from the patrons of the Stonewall Inn, in the West Village.

Hujar’s boyfriend at the time, Jim Fouratt, arrived on the scene to organize for the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), the first political group to cite homosexuality in its name. Hujar agreed to make a photograph for a GLF poster.

The poster, portraying a jubilant group of GLF members under the slogan COME OUT!!, appeared in late spring 1970 in advance of the gay liberation march that marked the first anniversary of Stonewall.

The Christopher Street Pier, on the Hudson River at West Tenth Street, was known familiarly in the 1970s as “the sex pier.” A place to see others displayed and to display oneself, it was also a site where a photographer could work openly. The pier is an idyll in Hujar’s photographs. Despite its extralegal, outsider status, it exists under broad sunlight, seamlessly a part of city life. During a heat wave on Easter weekend in 1976, Hujar photographed a man framed by his crossed legs on the pier’s wooden ledge. The place and the mood are instantly recognizable in the image, which later appeared on the cover of an issue of “The Village Voice” celebrating gay life on the tenth anniversary of Stonewall.

In the early 1970s Hujar consciously turned his back on the commercial mainstream, deciding that the hustle of fashion and music photography “wasn’t right for me.” Moving into a loft above a theater at Twelfth Street and Second Avenue in 1973, he pursued a bohemian life of poverty, taking paying jobs only when necessary and focusing on the subjects that compelled him. The crumbling East Village, increasingly crime-ridden and arson-prone, was a place where artists could live without thinking much about money. It was also the right place and time to catch the first prefigurations of punk emerging in music, art, and fashion. Hujar was led that way by his instincts, his rock-journalist contacts, and his interest in absurdist drag and performance.

Peter Hujar, ‘Christopher Street Pier (2)’ 1976
In 1981, a brief affair between the photographer and 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 Wojnarowicz’s dark vision of Reagan-era America. In his final seven years, he continued chronicling a creative downtown subculture that was running out of time in a fast-changing city. Peter Hujar died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1987.

Thirty years after his death, Hujar’s photographs are more widely known than they were in his lifetime. They come across as more empathetic than those of an older artist, Diane Arbus, and more soulful and psychological than those of a younger one, Robert Mapplethorpe. It was beauty that moved him to make photographs. Hujar admired the present-mindedness of his contemporary, Andy Warhol, but felt closer to nineteenth-century forebears like Julia Margaret Cameron and Mathew Brady. Like them, he wrote, “I compose the picture in the camera. I make the print. It has to be beautiful.”

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalog, published by Aperture. This hardcover book features full-page reproductions of one hundred and sixty photographs, essays by curator Joel Smith, Philip Gefter, and Steve Turtell, and the first fully researched chronology, exhibition history, and bibliography to be published on Hujar.

 The exhibition can be visited until May 20, 2018, at The Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016, USA. See for more information.



published Mar 2015       

published May 2017       

published Oct 2018        Length: 7 minutes

published Apr 2014        Length: 5 minutes


In the New Issue of Gay News, 332, April 2019

July 27- August 4, 2019

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