Exhibition Review - Peter Hujar: Speed of Life
Review by: Billy Anania
Peter Hujar is an underground legend in downtown New York counterculture. His photographs of friends, artists and performers correspond with an integral era for the advancement of gay rights, particularly between the Stonewall uprising of 1969 and the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.
Hujar lived in a loft studio in the East Village during this time, and it was in and around this space that he captured the zeitgeist of the neighborhood’s arts scene. Through portraits, street scenes and abstractions, Hujar developed a unique visual sensibility that would help define the Lower East Side’s social discourse.
A new retrospective exhibition celebrates this late photographer’s diverse oeuvre. Peter Hujar: Speed of Life is currently on display at the Morgan Library & Museum until late May. The show features 160 photographs from multiple collections and spans three decades.
Over the years, Hujar became a documentarian of creative people whose idiosyncratic passions dominated any desire for mainstream attention. In his own words, he took “uncomplicated, direct photographs of complicated and difficult subjects.” These subjects included but were not limited to avant-garde artists, dancers, photographers, musicians, drag performers, and writers. In capturing a wide spectrum of individual identities, the photographer immortalized generations of cultural diversity in New York.
Much of Hujar’s work touches on themes of mortality, catharsis, empowerment and introspection. In “Candy Darling on her Deathbed,” Hujar captures the transgender Warhol superstar in a hospital surrounded by flowers, shortly before she died of lymphoma. “Boy on Raft” from 1978 shows the title subject floating among rippling waves beside a jetty. Hujar achieves an even balance of tranquility and peril as the young man steadies himself atop the inflated vessel.
The artist’s portraits of Gary Schneider and Susan Sontag differ in style but compare in substance. Schneider is shown in the nude, peering straight at the camera while his body contorts in a strange position. Sontag reclines on a bed with her eyes pointing toward the ceiling, seemingly deep in thought. These are fitting representations for the photographer and writer, who were respectively defined by their corporeal and cerebral natures.
Hujar died of AIDS in 1987, leaving behind a diverse catalogue of monochromatic images. His focus on eccentricity and vulnerability proved that each of his subjects–whether they be person, place or thing–was uniquely individual in his eyes.
Peter Hujar: Speed of Life is on display until May 20 at 225 Madison Ave. For more information, visit www.themorgan.org or call 212-685-0008.