“Here’s a self-defining, fuck-you-for-asking response to the question ‘Why do you do what you do?’—“Peter Hujar makes uncomplicated, direct photographs of complicated and difficult subjects.”
Famously reticent, Hujar typed this on a stray piece of paper, a possible riposte to what one scholar called “an attempted interview” with his lover and mentee, the artist David Wojnarowicz.
The transcript is included in the exhibition catalogue accompanying the first full-scale retrospective of Hujar’s work, on show now at the Morgan Library & Museum. The exhibition, “Peter Hujar: Speed of Life”, is full of astoundingly frank—even shocking—revelations about the artist and others (until 20 May. It will then travel to the UC Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive later this year. Curated by Joel Smith, it opened at the Fundación MAPFRE in Barcelona in January 2017 and travelled to the Hague Museum of Photography before opening in New York).
Comprising 140 black and white portraits, nudes, still lives, landscapes and cityscapes, this is a much belated and posthumous exhibition (Hujar died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1987 aged 53. Wojnarowicz documented his death in film, photography and in writing).
The show stands as a monument to the artist’s lifelong campaign to avoid the sort of signature style that made the work of contemporaries such as Diane Arbus and Robert Mapplethorpe instantly recognizable. Not only did Hujar begrudge both photographers their success, he cussedly committed to his own anti-style, producing stand-alone images that were wholly concerned with the light and shadow that animated their subjects.
Hujar, in fact, developed into an expert portraitist of “all-in people”—those who wear their otherness very much on their sleeves. These included boldface names such as Susan Sontag and Fran Lebowitz, but also less well known characters who became famous in campier circles south of Union Square. If every fat person contains a thin person trying to get out, and every chunk of marble a piece of sculpture, it stands to reason that a taciturn gay artist like Hujar would be drawn, like a moth circling disco lights, to the demimonde of 1970s and ’80s New York.
Much like the novelist Joseph Conrad’s use of an alter ego in The Secret Sharer (1909), Hujar’s sitters frequently enact the role of the not-so-covert extrovert in lieu of the photographer’s own pinched gregariousness. Take the photo Randy Gilberti: High Heels, Halloween (1980). A headless “upskirt” portrait of a friend and frequent model that is all fishnet stockings, lace panties and hairy legs, the picture captures a raunchy, unapologetic celebration of homosexuality like few other photos from the era.
A view of 1970s New York as seen from between the legs of its gay downtown, this and other photographs in Hujar’s survey recall an especially memorable characterization of self-affirmation post-Stonewall: the scene came out the closet wearing the entire closet.