“Peter Hujar: Speed of Life,” now at the Morgan Library, is an overdue retrospective of the career of the East Village photographer. Hujar has never been underrated as an artist; it’s more accurate to say that he was overshadowed by his contemporary and peer Robert Mapplethorpe. It’s also safe to say that Hujar—more various in his subjects, more subtle and more visceral in his approach, and a far more generous mentor—was the better artist. Mapplethorpe had glamour; Hujar had vision.
Hujar (1934-1987) was a Manhattan native who spent his early career assisting commercial photographers. From 1968 to 1972, he worked as a freelance fashion, music, and advertising photographer, believing the most cutting-edge work happened in these fields, though hating the constant hustle and demeaning joust for work. In 1973, he moved into a loft on 12th Street and Second Avenue, where he lived and worked for the rest of his life. The East Village might have been seedy and crime-ridden, but it was also a magnet for young musicians, artists, writers, actors, and a broad cross-section of freaks and misfits. Avant-garde theater, drag cabarets, gay bars, and punk rock were everywhere, as were tie-dye, macrame, cheap homemade jewelry, and the smell of pot.
Hujar never became famous but was a known and well-liked East Village denizen, older and more stable than most. There, he found his milieu and his creative juice. Joel Smith, the Morgan show’s curator, elegantly describes Hujar’s gift. “What is brutal in his work is something in the air around his subjects—the forces pushing them into shape,” he writes in the excellent catalogue. “And what is beautiful is their bearing up.”
What strikes the viewer immediately is the beauty of Hujar’s prints. Unlike Mapplethorpe, Hujar did his own processing. He had years of experience, and it shows, along with an impressive sense of nuance and mood. Two cityscapes, San Gennaro Street Fair at Dawn from 1976 and Canal Street Pier from 1983, use pools of velvety black punctuated with shiny whites and countless middle tones to invest inelegant scenes empty of people with a powerful inner life. Hujar was a superb landscapist. His Manhattan skyline scenes are abstract geometries. He loved scenes with long roads; he likened them to the duration of lives, each as unique as it was finite.
Hujar was also an extraordinary portraitist. His photographs of animals will convince viewers that the ducks, cows, and dogs have the self-consciousness of a Broadway ingenue during an audition. Though Hujar was a gay man and lived in the East Coast center of Gay Liberation, his work is not preoccupied with hustlers and eye candy. Still, Boy on a Park Bench from 1981 is sexy and sweet, showing a young man with the cool look of an experienced rake. Zacky and Gamal Sherif (Twins) from 1985 depicts twin brothers in subtle, even light, one putting his arm around the other’s shoulder, one brother tenderly touching the other’s wrist. It has the stillness, intimacy, and dignity of northern Renaissance double-marriage portraits, but depicts siblings. Playing with the portrayal of affection and familiarity in a puzzling manner is a classic Hujarian trope.
A portrait of Hujar’s onetime boyfriend, David Wojnarowicz Reclining, from 1981, is sultry and frankly admiring. Hujar is a master of the recumbent figure. These are difficult portraits, defying basic conventions since the figure is neither sitting nor standing, but the more challenging compositions offer visual rewards. Wojnarowicz’s reclining pose reinforces his come-hither look. Often Hujar’s recumbent figures are in bed, allowing a degree of dishevelment not expected in a formal portrait. Hujar also shows us that bedtime attire can be much more interesting than street clothes.
The artist’s most famous photograph is probably Candy Darling on Her Deathbed from 1973. Though its subject lived for six more months, the cross-dressing star of Andy Warhol’s Factory took full advantage of the chance to condense “every death scene from every movie,” as Hujar described the moment. He captures her in sassy, brave defiance of her illness—the power of her self-representation transcending the utilitarian hospital bed, cheap vases, ratty flowers, and bad neon light.
There’s plenty of gender-bending in Hujar’s work. The weirdness of drag queens and their abundant decorative qualities were irresistible to him. He found glamour, humor, and poise, but also courage leavened by a measure of vulnerability. He picked subjects that provoked both eye and mind. The drag star Ethyl Eichelberger was a favorite; dressed as Minnie the Maid in a 1981 photograph, Eichelberger looks as diabolical as a B-movie killer clown: equal parts frightening and frightened. Another portrait of Eichelberger from 1981 shows him remarkably handsome, conservatively dressed to look like a Brooks Brothers model, evoking smarts, restraint, depth, and strength; he looks surprised that he’s pulled it off. Either way, he’s in disguise. In his inventory records, Hujar called the photograph Ethyl Eichelberger, Dressed as a Man.
Mapplethorpe and Hujar lived only blocks apart, wary competitors rather than friends. The show’s curator tackles the differences in their work, aptly describing Hujar’s photographs as “intimate and playful,” while Mapplethorpe’s are “impersonal, suffused with the arctic elegance of a pure formalist.” Mapplethorpe was the celebrity bad boy, while Hujar was everybody’s older brother and a homebody. Hujar didn’t cultivate dealers and collectors, and he certainly had no Sam Wagstaffs in his life. He did few male nudes while Mapplethorpe did many, the best-known and most controversial of black men. The conflation of race, nudity, and the white artist’s covetous, judgmental gaze ensured Mapplethorpe’s role in every college survey of American contemporary art. While the Morgan Library show correctly displays only Hujar’s work, the unavoidable comparison with Mapplethorpe in the catalogue is a testament to how artists become famous while others— from the same period and same place, working in the same medium and with broadly similar subjects—don’t.
Hujar died of AIDS in 1987, and critics and scholars have put him in the category of “AIDS art,” though his art didn’t treat the subject. The marketplace sometimes doesn’t work or think hard. Serious collectors have been more discerning, though, and prices for his prints are high.
The Morgan Library is to be commended for partnering with the Mapfre Foundation in organizing the Hujar exhibition. Based in Madrid, the foundation does shows of the highest quality funded in part by the insurance conglomerate. Often its shows are risky. In working with Mapfre on the Hujar show, the Morgan Library proves that it is willing to present elegance and integrity subjects that most museums would find too edgy.
All Photos Courtesy of the Morgan Library