Peter Hujar: Speed of Life at The Morgan Library

Art Scene

Peter Hujar: Speed of Life at The Morgan Library

A daring intimacy is one way to describe the oeuvre of American photographer Peter Hujar. Although he was underrecognized during his lifetime (1934-1987), Hujar’s photographic work has steadily grown in stature since his passing. His mature work, beginning in the 1970s, shares a resonance with the portraiture of Diane Arbus (1923-1971), the eroticism of Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), and the masterful expression of black and white photography by Richard Avedon (1923-2004).

Self-Portrait Jumping (1), 1974, gelatin silver print, purchased on e Charina Endowment Fund, e Morgan Library & Museum, 2013.108:1.37. © Peter Hujar Archive, LLC, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

In an exhibition at The Morgan Library, Peter Hujar: Speed of Life, an extensive display of Hujar’s depth and unique vision as a photographer is on view. Dozens of black and white, medium-scale images reveal his preference for portraiture, both human and animal, amidst a smattering of other subjects. A handful of photographs that may be recognizable to a swath of viewers include Susan Sontag, Gay Liberation Front Poster Image, and the image he became most famous for, Candy Darling on Her Deathbed.

Candy Darling on her Deathbed, 1973, gelatin silver print, collection of Ronay and Richard Menschel. © Peter Hujar Archive, LLC, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

Several images include an infamous chair that Hujar frequently used as a prop in the portraits he shot in his studio. In one stunning unpeopled portrait, the chair is animated by the sculpted placement of a blanket on it. Titled, Blanket in the Famous Chair(1983), the image’s back story reveals a close friendship Hujar shared with fellow American artist and downtown New York City stalwart, David Wojnarowicz. According to wall text in the exhibition, Wojnarowicz had wrapped himself in the blanket for another photograph of Hujar’s, and the subsequent positioning of it in the well-worn and well-loved chair contributed to the photograph’s sense of warmth and embodiment, so gorgeously captured by Hujar.

Ethyl Eichelberger as Minnie the Maid,1981, gelatin silver print, purchased on e Charina Endowment Fund, e Morgan Library & Museum, 2013.108:1.41. © Peter Hujar Archive, LLC, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

Hujar’s portraits seem to allow, and possibly encourage, his subjects/collaborators to express a rich and ambiguous personhood. They are undoubtedly beautiful, yet simultaneously challenging. It is not a simplistic or surface beauty, but an appreciation for the fullness and radiance that can be experienced in body and spirit. Several of the portraits feature contorted nude bodies that suggest an unplanned aspect dependent on mood that must have emerged quite often in Hujar’s portrait sessions.

Sheryl Sutton, 1977, gelatin silver print, purchased on e Charina Endowment Fund, e Morgan Library & Museum, 2013.108:1.46. © Peter Hujar Archive, LLC, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

Hujar’s unique vision was stimulated by his close connection to countercultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s. His images of New York City’s underground scene include cultural innovators such as Andy Warhol and William S. Burroughs, as well as countless unknown downtown New Yorkers. In a 1979 interview, quoted in the exhibition’s nearly 250-page catalog, Hujar comments on his evolution as an artist, stating, “I photograph those who push themselves to any extreme. That’s what interests me, and people who cling to the freedom to be themselves.”

Christopher Street Pier (2), 1976, gelatin silver print, purchased on e Charina Endowment Fund, e Morgan Library & Museum, 2013.108:1.84. © Peter Hujar Archive, LLC, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

Peter Hujar: Speed of Life is on view at The Morgan Library through May 20, 2018.