Peter Hujar’s unsung genius on full display
in overdue Berkeley photo exhibit
By Lou Fancher
In a frieze created with 24 black-and-white images by American photographer Peter Hujar, a glamorous but edgy portrait of Peggy Lee is paired with an astonishingly tender photo of a cow’s head that is “severed,” according to its title.
To a viewer, Lee and cow appear poised to speak, perhaps to share dark, awkward secrets. Nearby, Hujar’s camera has captured a bold, beguiling goose that expands its chest and towers above a photo of a diminutive, top-heavy cherry tree in a rural landscape. Their shapes contrast as humorous, upside-down versions of exaggerated bloom.
Evocative pairings and mercurial moods are indicative of the life and work of Hujar, represented by 150 photos in the Bay Area Museum and Pacific Archive’s one-gallery exhibition, “Peter Hujar: The Speed of Life.” Calling long overdue attention to the artist, the retrospective pays tribute to Hujar’s career and a broad artistic range that includes incisive portraits (many of famous writers, performers and drag artists), nudes, landscapes, cityscapes, animals and self-portraiture. Many consider his photography most notable for chronicling the emergence of New York City’s queer culture after the Stonewall uprising of 1969 and through the 1970s to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Hujar died in 1987 at age 53 of AIDS-related pneumonia.
A keep-worthy catalog offered in conjunction with BAMPFA’s exhibit includes 160 images and previously unseen materials with essays that describe Hujar’s prickly personality and provocative lifestyle — and why these factors left him largely in the shadow of better-known predecessors such as Richard Avedon or his peers, Robert Mapplethorpe and Nan Goldin, among others. Hujar’s 1969 photograph of the Gay Liberation Front, taken ostensibly after the Stonewall police raid fired his interest in photographing the underrepresented LGBTQ community, became an iconic image and poster. Even so, Hujar was 42 when his first solo gallery exhibition was held in 1976.
He chose to live in poverty, rejecting commercialism, and was a perfectionist to an extreme that dictated no two photographs of the same theme could be displayed side-by-side. Opening his home studio for the viewing of a single photograph to achieve maximum attention, he was, it seemed, an artist who made a hard job harder.
So it’s a surprising, uplifting joy to view the photographs organized by Apsara DiQuinzio, curator of modern and contemporary art at BAMPFA. Drawing from the larger exhibition previously curated and presented by the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, and Fundación MAPFRE, Madrid, DiQuinzio applies Hujar’s preferred display principles with respect but not didacticism.
The result is wonderful lyricism and spontaneity in six walls of pictures with themes that are clear, but imaginatively expressed. Juxtaposed pairings have a ball bounced by a child caught in midflight in one photo matched with a close-up of an infant breast feeding. The rounded shapes of ball and breast suggest life and kinesthetic energy. Steps away, a snake’s textured skin, coiled curvature and viperous reputation provoke interesting associations when displayed above an image of Beat Generation writer William Burroughs. Reclining slinkily in a patterned houndstooth jacket, he has an unsmiling expression that suggests hidden fangs.
Deep in the exhibit, the photo “Bruce de Ste. Croix” shows the dancer’s nude, lithe physique interrupted, startlingly, by casual contemplation of his erection. Across from it, a collection of portraits under the theme “veiled” have a man’s head suffocatingly wrapped in a sequined, see-through scarf, a male nude with back turned to the camera and chicken wire stuffed with fake $10 bills obscuring a city scene. Whether you are repulsed or intrigued, it’s impossible to separate personal or political reaction from the images’ compositional and technical elegance.
DiQuinzio appreciates Hujar’s animal photography especially. “He grew up in rural New Jersey with his grandparents,” the curator notes. “He was taking photos of cats in the ’50s. Then he started (on) donkeys, cows, sheep, geese. He humanizes them. A friend of his said he would talk to the animals while photographing them, speaking like he would speak to a person. This attempt to equalize things is an important aspect of his photographs.”
Dualities seen in Hujar’s theatrical, angular use of light and shadow are also evident in intuitive moments heightened by stillness within movement, like a cartoon leap caught midair in “Self-Portrait Jumping (1).” Another aspect, decay coexisting with decadence or excess, prevails in the most memorable portraits and haunting photos of ruins, piers, catacombs and street scenes. Despite the dichotomy of the formal qualities and over-the-top polka-dot sheets and wallpaper in “Fran Lebowitz at Home in Morristown New Jersey,” it is the somehow injured, direct gaze of the famous author that is striking. “There’s vulnerability in the portraits,” says DiQuinzio, “even if they’re camping it up.” Similarly, the swaddled skeletons and disintegrated skulls of monks in “Palermo Catacombs #11” transmit an irresistible blend of beauty, care, tragedy and horror.
Fittingly, Hujar shot most of his images with a twin-lens reflex camera. Throughout his career, high art and hard lives found and shared a home in his photographs. Imperfect halves paired and made perfectly whole could be Hujar’s epigraph.