The life and art of Peter Hujar (1934–1987) were rooted in downtown New York. Private by nature, combative in manner, well-read, and widely connected, Hujar inhabited a world of avant-garde dance, music, art, and drag performance. His mature career paralleled the public unfolding of gay life between the Stonewall uprising in 1969 and the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.
In his loft studio in the East Village, Hujar focused on those who followed their creative instincts and shunned mainstream success. He made, in his words, “uncomplicated, direct photographs of complicated and difficult subjects,” immortalizing moments, individuals, and subcultures passing at the speed of life.
Peter Hujar: Speed of Life was on view at the Morgan Library through May 20, 2018.
For a 1966-67 workshop led by Richard Avedon and art director Marvin Israel, Hujar turned in an uncharacteristic series of nude, running self-portraits made with a flash unit in the studio of his employer. In a conscious echo of Avedon’s manner, the images emphasize action, vivid gesture and empty space- sensational effects calculated to hold a magazine page. Over the next couple of years, during Hujar’s brief pursuit of a career in fashion, the two photographers had frequent late-night phonecalls. Avedon wrote to him in 1979, ”if you ever have new work that you’re interested in selling, please call me as I am your collector.”
In September 1973, transgender Warhol Superstar Candy Darling (born James Lawrence Slattery) was hospitalized for lymphoma. She asked Hujar to make a portrait of her ”as a farewell to my fans.” Out of several dozen exposures, Hujar chose to print this languorous pose. As rendered in the print, Candy’s banal, fluorescent-lit hospital room looks as elegant as the studio props in a Hollywood starlet’s portrait. Hujar later wrote that his style cues came from Candy, who was ”playing every death scene from every movie.”
The image, first seen in print in the New York Post after Candy’s death six months later, became the most widely reproduced of Hujar’s works during his lifetime.
Hujar photographed his mother and her second husband, Ed ”Snookie” Murphy, on a rare occasion when they visited his loft. Obliged at age eleven to move into their one-bedroom apartment on E 32nd St., Hujar had moved out at sixteen. In adulthood, he maintained a protective distance, consistently referring to Rose Murphy by her full, unrelated-sounding name. Rose Murphy never reconciled herself to her son’s homosexuality, nor did he forgive her rejection.
When invited to a friend’s for dinner, Hujar often gave his host a recent photograph printed at a modest scale. No other print of this image is known.
May 20th, 2018