Monday, January 29, 2018

PETER HUJAR PHOTOGRAPY at the Morgan: Review by Polly Guerin

Peter Hujar, Self Portrait
Why does the photographer, Peter Hujar deserve the first full-scale retrospective of his work at The Morgan Library and Museum? 
      Good Question!  I'm glad you asked, because there is more merit in the exhibition, SPEED OF Life, than meets the eye. Through May 20, The Morgan presents one hundred and forty photographs of this influential artist.
      To understand Hujar one has to understand the man, the myth and the mystery surrounding Hujar's life (1934-1987). He was a fixture in the downtown New York scene during the 1970s and 1980s, in the East Village, where he lived and worked, at a time when it was a magnet for bohemians, artists, writers, drag queen performers, musicians and iconoclasts. Back in those days, the neighborhood was rough and raw, in perpetual state of poverty that bred the avant-garde. Into this milleu Huger's mature career paralleled the public unfolding of gay life between the Stonewall uprising in 1969 and the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.  Image: Peter Hujar, Self Portrait Jumping, Gelatin silver print, purchased on The Charina Endowment Fund. The Morgan Library and Museum, 2013. Peter Hujar Archive, LLC, courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francsico.
Susan Sontag 1975
INTO THIS MILLEU: Hugar began his career in the 1950s as a commercial photographer but soon left the market behind, preferring to focus on the creation of art.   In an era when cost of living was cheap he set up a studio in his Twelfth Street loft. 
       He created, in his words, and I quote, "uncomplicated, direct photographs and difficult subjects, immortalizing. moments, individuals and subculture passing at the speed of life"  Best known for his portraits of the most iconic figures of the time, from Susan Sontag, William S. Burroughs, and Gary Indiana to Cindy Darling, David
Wojnarowicz, and other notables, Hugar also created nudes, landscapes, cityscapes, photographs of animals, architectural images and documentary scenes.
Image: Susan Suntag, 1975, Gelatin silver print, purchased on The Charina Endownment Fund, 2013, (c) Peter Hujar Archive, LLC, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.
      Hujar met Sontag through their mutual friend, artist Paul Thek, in Sicily in 1963. Sontag later contributed to Hujar's 1976 monograph Portraits in Life and Death, which included his iconic reclining portrait of the writer.  The reclining portrait is a genre of photograph that Hujar made his own. He relied on it as a means of reaching something unique in every sitter. To face a camera lens from a reclining position was a provocative experience and evoked different responses. Especially skeptic was his close friend Fran Lebowitz. .  
Ethyl Eichelberger as Minnie the Maid, 1981
Hujar was not not one for self-promotion. It apparently did not suit him at all. Where others like Andy Warhol invented branding strategies way ahead of Madison Avenue, Hujar simply kept to himself doing his work. "One thing I won't answer is anything about why I do what I do,  Huger 
told David Wojnarowicz in 1983." 
      The most photographed person in his body of work, Ethyl Eichelberger, remains an instantly "double" subject, in whom neither actor nor role predominates. The subjects of his art Hujar wrote, were "those who push themselves to any extreme: and those who "cling to the freedom to be themselves." Image: Ethyl Eichelberger as Minnie the Maid, 1981, Gelatin silver print, purchased on The Charina Endowment Fund, The Morgan Library and Museum, 2013. (c) The Peter Hujar Archive, LLC, courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco. 
PUBLIC PROGRAMS visit For instance, An Evening with Fran Lebowitz: on Peter Hujar reflects candidly on the traits and joys of her close friendship with the artist. February 8, 6:30 pm, Tickets $15, $10 members. In addition to several other events the film, Pink Flamingo, is scheduled for March 2, at 7pm and Gallery Talks March 9, 6pm and April 27 at 1pm.
     Ta Ta Darlings!!! Speed of Life is a thought provoking experience. Be so warned: "This exhibition contains mature content and nudity. Parent/Guardian discretion is advised." Fan mail welcome at Visit Polly's Blogs on

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