Speed of Life gives a fuller picture of the late photographer’s work.
Peter Hujar: Speed of Life, the Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, New York City, through May 20, 2018
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Peter Hujar’s photograph Candy Darling on her Deathbed (1973) depicts the Warhol superstar lounging glamorously in the hospital, not long before she would die of complications from lymphoma. In the picture, she poses with a sheet wrapped around her torso ball-gown fashion, gifts of flowers surrounding her on all four sides. On one wrist a shiny plastic ID band hangs like a silver bracelet. She stares out at us from the center of the photo, her face framed by arm, pillow, and tousled blonde hair—all smoky movie-star eyes against china-doll skin, painted lips reflecting a pinpoint glint from the fluorescent fixture above. Poised perfectly for the shot, Darling’s figure evokes both saintly repose and doomed-starlet languor, offering a twentieth-century mediatized take on the medieval ars moriendi. Through Hujar’s lens, Darling becomes an icon of death without abjection, a triumph of the durable image over the ephemeral body.
Darling is one of many luminaries captured by Hujar, and now affixed to the walls of the Morgan Library & Museum for the exhibition Peter Hujar: Speed of Life. Among the 140 works on view by the New York photographer, who died of AIDS in 1987, are many of his masterful portraits, striking exemplars of what Hujar described as his “uncomplicated, direct photographs of complicated and difficult subjects.” A few feature mass-market entertainers like Peggy Lee, whose stiff theatrical maquillage in her 1974 portrait suggests a woman wearing a Peggy Lee mask; comedienne Madeline Kahn appears in Fashion: Madeline Kahn (1981) resting against the back of a simple wooden chair that costars in many of Hujar’s other studio shots, her feathery outfit and pensive pose echoing her Marlene Dietrich homage as Lili Von Shtupp in Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles. But a good bulk of the portraits, like that of Darling, inventory Hujar’s downtown peers, friends, and lovers: haute-famous queers and other demi-mondaines, like writers Gary Indiana, Susan Sontag, Vince Aletti, and Fran Lebowitz; performers Ethyl Eichelberger and Cookie Mueller; artists Greer Lankton, Paul Thek, and David Wojnarowicz. Though the show intentionally stresses Hujar’s formal diversity by dispersing these images among Hujar’s oblique nudes, unkempt landscapes, and other photographic studies, the portraits nonetheless feel like the exhibition’s essential skeleton. They grant viewers the sensation of voyeuristically perusing a retrospective social network; in a differently composed show, their magnetic fields of renown might have warped Speed of Life into an Instagram-ready convocation of artifacts rescued from the ruins of Bad Old Authentic New York.
The Morgan presents Speed of Life in a small, narrowly constructed gallery where even a handful of museum-goers will find themselves intimately close to their fellow visitors. The walls are painted dark; the majority of photographs are square-format prints, around fifteen by fifteen inches, a shape that allows for their positioning into neat lines and discrete grid-clusters. This geometric possibility is used to pointed curatorial effect, proposing that we see Hujar the formalist as well as Hujar the portraitist. One quintet of photos showcases Hujar’s fascination with the central diagonal line, across such diverse works as Bouche Walker (Reggie’s Dog) (1981), Dana Reitz’s Legs, Walking (1979), and the leaning landscape of Stromboli (1963); another group conveys his penchant for photographing bodies placed on a horizontal axis, which became a signature move for his portraits. One of the most famous of these is his now-iconic 1975 image of his friend Sontag, lying face-up atop a thick blanket, staring intently upward, as if in reverie. In a vitrine of snapshots and ephemera, Hujar’s contact sheet for the Sontag image demonstrates how this shot was achieved through a process of relaxation; by asking even his most ego-forward comrades to lie down, Hujar tricked them into lowering their guard, as if a micro-dose of tranquilizer had been administered by the photographer, their inner selves revealed through a moment of comfort.
The largest such collection in Speed of Life is a forty-photo composition arranged according to the logic Hujar himself often imposed, two images high in an elongated rectangular layout, selected so that no two artistic genres of photo—landscapes, animals, nudes, etc.—appear side by side. This strategy functions to show off the range of his practice, but it also reinforces (perhaps contra the artist’s own intentions) that Hujar is essentially and most deeply a portraitist. A landscape like his Grass, Port Jefferson, New York (1984) reveals itself as a portrait of two plants, captured in their momentary individuality; Hujar grants such personal treatment to fragmented body parts, to sprightly dogs and a dead cat, to cows and sheep, to a bird covered in oil, to midtown skyscrapers, to a blanket piled upon that same wooden chair.
As curator Joel Smith notes in his catalogue essay, Hujar has often been compared to Diane Arbus and Robert Mapplethorpe, two more famous photographers whose careers bookended Hujar’s own, and with whom he felt a bitter rivalry. Like Arbus, Hujar became known for printing his photos uncropped, with their rough edges forming thin black borders, and sometimes delved into similarly Weegee-esque grotesquerie. The elder photographer seemed to think that Hujar verged on biting her style: in 1967, when the young photographer first met and introduced himself to Arbus, she coolly responded, “I know who you are,” and promptly turned her heel to walk away. Like Mapplethorpe, whose career exploded toward the end of Hujar’s life, Hujar mined his own sexual relationships and encounters with other men for subject matter, communicating an undistilled erotics in pictures like the invitingly ass-up Robert Levithan on Bed (1977) or the tumescent Bruce de Ste. Croix (1976). Even more alluring are Hujar’s portraits of anonymous men, like Untitled (Young Man) (n.d.) and Boy on a Park Bench (1981), smoldering with untold tales. One might also place Hujar somewhere between photographers James Van Der Zee and Nan Goldin, both precise documenters of their Manhattan social worlds, marrying Van Der Zee’s studio compositions to Goldin’s bohemian immediacy.
Another link to the Van Der Zee/Goldin comparison is how Hujar, resurrected for the twenty-first century, now allows us glimpses into a lost society. In her brief introduction to Portraits in Life and Death, the sole book that Hujar published during his lifetime, Sontag writes that “photographers, connoisseurs of beauty, are also—wittingly or unwittingly—the recording-angels of death.” This goes not only for the death of individuals, but the demise of whole communities, of ways of life, of modes of being. Hujar clearly understood this power, as evidenced by his 1963 images of catacombs in Palermo, depicting piles of long-dehydrated bodies. Perhaps Hujar perceived his aesthetic ancestors in the anonymous monks who embalmed their fellow friars and composed them for public view: the photographer as an arranger of relics, a curator of the posthumous.
Ed Halter is a founder and director of Light Industry, a venue for film and electronic art in Brooklyn, New York, and Critic in Residence at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. His collection From the Third Eye: The Evergreen Review Film Reader, co-edited with Barney Rosset, was recently published by Seven Stories Press.