[viewing of assorted gelatin silver prints by Peter Hujar at Matthew Marks]
It has been just over three years since P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center presented its comprehensive and haunting exhibition of works by Peter Hujar (1934-1987) curated by that institution’s Bob Nickas—the first American museum exhibition devoted to Hujar since 1990. An important adjunct to that exhibition has been offered by Matthew Marks with “Peter Hujar: Photographs 1956-1958,” its current exhibition at the 526 West 22nd Street gallery. Running through October 24, these 25 vintage, gelatin-silver prints—nearly all exhibited for the first time—were made when Hujar was aged 22 to 24 years old.
Coming from four different series in as many locations (New York City, Key West, Southbury, and Florence), one finds various themes that would remain constant in Hujar’s work in the following decades. In them we find the landscapes, empty city streets, animal portraits, and empathic depictions of children. In the Southbury and Florence locations, Hujar spent time in homes for developmentally disabled children: Photographs made in those settings radiate his own prescient sensibility and are recognized as his first mature works. Other well-known photographers would not approach such subject matter for another decade.
Even in these Eisenhower-era works—Hujar’s earliest prints—one sees exquisite black-and-white tonalities marking him as a consummate technician. Highly emotional while stripped of excess, Hujar’s photographs already found beauty and power in the unconventional—and unselfconscious. These early photographs set the tableau and weltanschauung for Hujar’s work according to Hujar’s friend, the writer Stephen Koch who wrote in “DoubleTake”: “Peter believed that there are in the world certain exceptionally favored people who live entirely in the present—unlike himself, unlike most of us, but perhaps like these children. Emotionally, in their essential being, they never absent themselves; they are always fully here. They are present for everything. Peter took the interplay of presence and absence as one of the most essential human truths, and he viewed the mingling of immediacy and inner distance as a quality uniquely visible to the camera.”
Peter Hujar died of AIDS in 1987 leaving a complex and profound body of work. He was a seminal figure in the group of artists, musicians, writers, and performers in New York’s “downtown” cultural vanguard in the 70s and early 80s—a time the city oozed cultural riches as it teetered on the financial precipice. Uncompromising toward his work and milieu, Hujar’s black-and-white portraits of the city’s demimonde and cultural stars ranged from Divine and Candy Darling to Susan Sontag and (one-time partner) David Wojnarowicz. Indeed, Hujar “paid his dues” in the commercial photography of magazines, fashion, and advertising: While his portraits (of both subculture and intelligentsia figures) always reflected his work in fashion photography, the pathos of his portraits, nudes, animal portraits, and scenes of “street scatologia” transcended that background. He always found a way back to his powerful voice of focus and directness, so purged of superfluous elements. In these black-and-white gelatin prints, we glimpse documented images of certain childhoods and societal fabrics as lost to us as Hujar’s scene portraits of streets, architecture, and nightlife in New York decades later.
A mentor, friend, and lover to Wojnarowicz, Hujar’s work—so imbued with detail, feel for light, inherent texture, depth of soul, sense of mortality, and awareness of life’s fragility—went on to influence the emotionally perceptive and viscerally wrought work of Nan Goldin and Robert Mapplethorpe. Yet one can see—in these early photographs by Hujar at Matthew Marks—the impetus of Eugène Atget (1857–1927) and Brassaï (1899–1984) in their light, ambiance, and savvy. At the same time we must remember that Hujar was a contemporary and friend of Diane Arbus (1923 – 1971), and both were admirers of Weegee (1899-1968)—sharing his dark vision in pursuit of their perspectives of naturalness and now archetypal ennui.
Besides the aforementioned exhibit at Long Island City’s P.S.1, Hujar’s work as been shown internationally in one-person shows at such venues as Grey Art Gallery (New York), Kunsthalle Basel, the Stedelijk (Amsterdam), and ICA (London).
Peter Hujar: Photographs 1956-1958
Through October 24, 2009
@ Matthew Marks Gallery
526 West 22nd Street, NYC 10011