The calm, hands-on art of Peter Hujar

The calm, hands-on art of Peter Hujar | Pro Club Bd

When Peter Hujar died in 1987, ten months after being diagnosed with AIDS, he had not had many gallery shows, rarely received lucrative commissions and had only one publication under his name: Portraits in Life and Death. This book was a selection of 40 photographs – 29 of them portraits of friends, including photos of Susan Sontag and William Burroughs, the remaining 11 were taken on a Fulbright in Palermo’s Capuchin Catacombs over a decade ago. The decision to combine in a single volume his sharp photographs of friends – who, if not necessarily young, all exuded wisdom, youthfulness and vitality – and macabre photographs of skeletons – some upright in a row and others lying on their backs – was certainly a good choice strange choice.

But this propensity for morbidity was not even the reason why Hujar did not become famous for his technically masterful and poignant work in his lifetime. “Peter Hujar has been DJing at every major photo retailer in the western world,” said author Fran Lebowitz, a close friend, at his funeral. He threw off the likes of Cecil Beaton and Peter Max at parties and reportedly once swung a bar stool at two gallery owners who met with him to explore the possibility of showing his work. He was disrespectful of those in the art world he disrespected, and as such Hujar is less well known than contemporaries such as Nan Goldin, a good friend, and Robert Mapplethorpe, an artistic rival. In some ways, Hujar was an embodiment of Mapplethorpe’s aesthetic opposite: where Mapplethorpe’s portraits appeared as classical figures, nude and highly choreographed idealizations of the human form, Hujar’s portraits seemed to convey something direct about the subject and their character, even insofar as they were also giving a performance for the camera.

At his last show at the Gracie Mansion Gallery in 1986, Hujar showed 100 photographs, priced at $600 each. Only two sold. Now four of his photographs, taken between 1973 and 1984, will be auctioned at Swann Auction Galleries in August as part of their fourth annual LGBTQ+ Art, Material Culture and History auction.

Peter Hujar, “Clown” (1973), silver print

Today, roughly half a century after Hujar made some of his most respected photographs, his standing is growing, something the artist seemed to suspect might happen after his death. His prints are valued and his are out of print Portraits in Life and Death is now something of a coveted collector’s item, a reflection perhaps of the renewed interest in the bohemian Lower East Side art scene of the 1970s. His most famous photo today might be Orgasmic Man (1969), the cover of Hanya Yanagihara’s sensational best-selling 2015 novel a little life, ambiguous in its depiction of pleasure and pain. Hujar was an appropriate artist for the novel, whose exploration of themes of abuse, trauma, and desire shares an uncanny resonance with Hujar’s own biography. Abandoned at an early age and verbally and physically abused by his mother, Hujar moved out to his own apartment in the West Village at the age of 14. “Peter had a kind of fundamental isolation that he could never escape,” Hujar’s friend Steve Turtell once commented. “And he knew it. It was the source of his suffering. It was also the source of his art and his insight.”

Peter Hujar, “Torso (Keith Cameron)” (1981), silver print

Torso (Keith Cameron), which has the highest estimate of Swann’s four works ($15,000-$25,000), captures the torso of an attractive male subject of whom Hujar made several other portraits in 1981. These other portraits are characteristically seductive, depicting the melodrama of good-looking looks and good physique under chiaroscuro studio lighting. In one, Cameron looks sideways at the camera, his jeans halfway off around his calves and his panties deliberately lowered below his pelvis in a suggestively partially undressed state. In another, his clothes, perhaps a sweater and shirt, are removed and wrapped around his arms, giving Cameron a comparatively vulnerable expression. In the next, Cameron is completely naked, one half of his body lit and the other dark, his stance powerful and his gaze direct. A final photo shows Cameron reclining in a chair, eyes fixed melancholy on the floor.

“Torso (Keith Cameron)” is a departure from these other works. It cuts off in front of his chin and navel, depersonalizing his body and erasing some of his disheveled emotional intensity. It is reminiscent of classic marble sculptures with heads, arms and legs severed. The topography of his abdomen reveals the kind of nuance we forget exists in our own bodies, and the hairs on his chest and armpits make his body less platonic and more mundane. But the intentional decision to disembodied Cameron’s torso lends the photo a sense of alienation and uneasiness.

Peter Hujar, Portrait of Sarah Jenkins (1984), silver print

Hujar’s portrait of Sarah Jenkins, on the other hand, is a tranquil photograph of what appears to be a woman seated at a dining table in the morning. The daily newspaper and a ceramic mug that looks hand-made rest on the table. Jenkins is looking directly over Hujar’s right shoulder as if inside in the middle of the thought. Her lightly styled hair, casually tied scarf and elbow on the table exude a daily elegance amidst subdued thin drapes and plain walls. This is a typical juxtaposition for Hujar, of whom many photographs were taken in the sparseness of his apartment. Hujar lived in extreme poverty for much of his life, washing his clothes in his kitchen sink to avoid going to the laundromat, wiping his windows with newspaper print, and eating out at friends’ homes. His photographs convey some of the possibilities of inner balance despite these material circumstances.

Although Jenkins gives a practical, uncomplicated impression in this photo, Hujar’s other portraits of her show that she portrays completely different personalities. In one, she’s topless, staring intently at the head of “Skippy,” a snake she’s wrapped between her fingers, as if she’s about to cast a spell on him. Another clearly erotic image shows Skippy fully wrapped around her neck, her smoky eyes hitting the viewer with an air of condescension. A separate series of portraits features Jenkins in a hollow-core tank top that is simultaneously sinister and playful. Jenkins’ shape-shifting character in these photographs causes us to be a little less sure of who she is in this seemingly uncomplicated print.

“I would like to be discussed quietly,” Hujar is said to have once said to Turtell. “When people talk about me, I want them to whisper ‘Peter Hujar’.” That moment finally seems to have come for Hujar.

This article, part of a series focused on LGBTQ+ artists and art movements, is supported by Swann Auction Galleries.

Swann’s upcoming sale”LGBTQ+ Art, Material Culture & History’, featuring works and material by Tom of Finland, Peter Hujar, Robert Mapplethorpe, Oscar Wilde, Andy Warhol and many more, will take place on August 18, 2022.

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