The Quiet Dignity of Peter Hujar

Peter Hujar, “Candy Darling on Her Deathbed” (Collection of Ronay and Richard Menschel)

PARIS — In Peter Hujar’s “Bruce de Ste. Croix,” 1976, a thin man on a dining room chair studies his erect penis. Gripping it with his right hand as though setting down a glass, he rests his left palm on his obliques, his downturned face placid, remote. What is stunning about the tall penis in the center of the frame is how utterly unmonumental it appears, how affectless its owner. Immediately to the right, a black-and-white portrait of the same man depicts him leaning naked against a bare wall, his legs curled before him, his hand on his forehead, looking longingly, almost boyishly, at something (or someone) beyond the picture plane. “Which moment is more private?” the pair seems to ask. In which is this young man more exposed?

Such questions — probing the depths of intimacy, power, and vulnerability — are posed throughout Hujar’s retrospective Speed of Life, on view at Paris’s Jeu de Paume till January 19. They are addressed perhaps most tenderly in his later work dedicated to the erotic, often reclining, human form. Overshadowed by his contemporary Robert Mapplethorpe, whose nude Adonises compelled a late 20th-centuary reassessment of both kink and classical aesthetics, Hujar is well known for his brief, intense relationship with the late artist David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992), the subject of many of his most stirring portraits.

Peter Hujar, “David Wojnarowicz Reclining (2)” (1981), Gelatin silver print

In vibrant tension with Wojnarowicz’s harrowing images of Hujar’s face and body in the moments after his 1987 death from AIDS-related complications, Speed of Life celebrates the New York photographer’s sensitive, dynamic accounts of the everyday erotic and unabashedly eccentric. Eschewing pomp while honoring circumstance, Hujar’s portraits serve as cogent tributes to what may be called the pedestrian peculiar, or the quotidian queer. Leg hair, sock imprints, tan lines, and scars make Mapplethorpe’s nudes look airbrushed in comparison.

Peter Hujar, “Dana Reitz’s Legs, Walking” (1979), gelatin silver print

Traditional valuations of gendered beauty are likewise questioned. In “Pregnant Nude (Lynn Hodenfield)” (1978), the British fashion designer lies back against a pile of throw pillows on an unmade bed, her breasts and belly swollen before her, her kohl-lined eyes staring directly at the lens. In “Sarah Jenkins with Head Brace (3)” (1984), the performance artist’s frail, naked, braced torso contrasts with her steady, equanimous gaze to the right. The men on display often lack conspicuous musculature and tone — as, for instance, in “Nude Backstage (Ridiculous Theatre Company, Eunichs of the Forbidden City, Westbeth)” (1973), featuring a clown-faced man casually seated in what appears a messy greenroom, his chest narrow and penis limp; or “Robert Levithan on Bed” (1977), in which the body of Hujar’s then-lover/muse is pressed against a bare, flat-sheeted mattress, his left hand and wrist tucked underneath his stomach as though to keep warm.

Peter Hujar, “Reclining Nude on Couch [photograph]” (1978)

Hujar wrote (quoted on the wall texts) that his portrait subjects were “those who push themselves to any extreme” and those who “cling to the freedom to be themselves.” Among them, the most glamorous figures are undoubtedly the drag luminaries Candy Darling and Ethyl Eichelberger, the latter the most photographed person in Hujar’s oeuvre. Dressed in black velvet gloves, a hip-length petticoat, and bunched fishnets, her stilettos coquettishly impaling the air, Eichelberger playfully balances on a lone chair as “Minnie the Maid” (1981); contrasting Minnie’s lacquered, open-mouthed grin is the portrait “Ethyl Dressed as a Man,” a close-up of Eichelberger in a buzz cut and pin-striped suit jacket, looking plain-faced and introspective. Neither is a “truer” portrait of Eichelberger than the other. Similarly, in “Candy Darling on Her Deathbed” (1973), the banal institutional backdrop isn’t any more or less real than the Warhol Factory superstar’s irrepressible energy, as she poses dramatically on her side, surrounded by long-stemmed roses. Requesting that Hujar take her final portraits during her hospitalization for lymphoma, Darling made the act of dying itself a series of cinematic gestures — one over which she retained a performative agency despite the grim circumstances.

Peter Hujar, “Ethyl Eichelberger as Minnie the Maid” (1981), Gelatin silver print

In her 1977 study On Photography, Susan Sontag defines photography as “to participate in another person’s (or other thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability.” It feels fitting that one of the most iconic images in the exhibition, from 1976, depicts the philosopher lying on top of a blanketed mattress, braless in a dark, ribbed turtleneck, her hands behind her neck. As she stares contemplatively into what appears to be the unadorned space of a bedroom, she is at once relaxed and cerebral, wistful and removed. “I want people to feel the picture and smell it,” Hujar said of his work. In Speed of Life sexuality is neither spectacle nor shameful; it is simply human.

Peter Hujar, “Susan Sontag” (1975), Gelatin silver print

Peter Hujar: Speed of Life continues at Jeu de Paume (1, place de la Concorde, Paris, France) through January 19.

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