The sense of the person behind the camera in a photograph is perhaps more palpable and mysterious than artists who work in other media. Through a photo, we can feel like we are more directly privy to an artist's perspective. Think about Diane Arbus and the complicated oft-psychologized conflation of her personal life and choice of images -- there's more than one salacious biography, along with a peculiar film, Fur, with Nicole Kidman in the role of the artist during her formative years. Then there is the more complicated case of the deceased artist who was not well recognized in his or her lifetime -- consider SFMOMA's 2011 Francesca Woodman exhibition, which told a story as informed by the artist's tragic suicide as the numerous self-portraits on view. A mythology emerges from the idea that we are seeing the same perspective of the artist's self, alone in her studio. In actuality, these narratives are fascinating fictions regarding the role of the photographer's relationship to the self and others.
How we imagine these artists in some ways is akin to a photograph they take of us. How fitting it is that photographer Nan Goldin called her 1996 mid-career survey I'll Be Your Mirror, after a Velvet Underground song. Goldin, a widely known photographer whose most classic pictures chronicle a community lost to AIDS and addiction, and frequently involve self-portraiture, is the subject of one of a pair of exhibitions currently at Fraenkel Gallery. The other show, titled Love & Lust, is a collection of photographs by Peter Hujar. While not exactly unknown, his career was erratic and cut short by an untimely death in 1987 due to complications from AIDS, one of many artists whose lives were lost to this health crisis. He was an important figure in the New York art scene in the 1970s and '80s, yet not so widely exhibited. You might know his iconic photograph Candy Darling on Her Deathbed, 1974 or be aware that he was the lover and mentor of artist and writer David Wojnarowicz -- these details, at least, have floated into a compact Wikipedia entry.
Peter Hujar, David Wojnarowicz Reclining (II), 1981; c. The Estate of Peter Hujar, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
Many more details surfaced in an intimate gallery conversation between Goldin and New Yorker photography critic Vince Aletti, who was close friends with Hujar. Moderated by Fraenkel, Goldin and Aletti told tales of Hujar, whose nude self-portrait in a gay bathhouse cubicle hung in the next room. That seemingly fully revealing image was enhanced by recollections of his surviving friends: Hujar was handsome, difficult and magnetic, and an aesthetically sensitive artist more gifted than schooled. But what was most striking about the conversation was the way a more fleshed-out image of the man emerged like an exposed photo in a tray of developer.
Fraenkel introduced Goldin, whose now-classic photographs of her circle of friends generated a cinematic aura around their very real lives, as an artist who has had enormous influence on other artists. "Something you can't fake," Fraenkel said. She in turn described how Hujar was a formative influence, particularly for his uncompromising commitment to his work. "Which is why he had such a small career," she said wryly. As a contrast, Fraenkel invoked what he called "the M-Word," Robert Mapplethorpe, a much more successful contemporary of Hujar's. There are definite parallels; they both mined aspects of gay culture to different degrees of popular success. "You'd never see one of Peter's pictures on a T-shirt," Goldin countered, generating laughter from the invitation-only audience of collectors and photo professionals.
Peter Hujar, Orgasmic Man (I, II & III), 1969; c. The Estate of Peter Hujar, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
For Aletti, thoughtful in a manner befitting his profession, Hujar provided lessons in seeing. "He got me to understand the difficulty of photography, the struggle that goes into making a good picture," he said. He also recalled that everyone who knew Hujar seemed to fall in love with him, at least initially. Both Goldin and Aletti noted that at the funeral everyone seemed to feel like they were Hujar's best friend, yet none of them had met each other before.
The discussion was hagiographic, tempered and perhaps enhanced by frequent revelations of Hujar's prickliness (more on that in a fascinating 1989 interview with Fran Liebowitz reprinted in the exhibition catalog). On a practical level, this conversation was much about bolstering an artist's legacy, positioning his posthumous work to an audience who might not be so open to, say, a graphic image of an ejaculating penis. Fraenkel admitted one of his collectors described the photographs as "gross," suggesting there was risk involved in collecting explicit images in the current show.
And yet hearing Goldin and Aletti offer astute, heartfelt appreciations of Hujar, it was difficult not to wonder what kind of a man could make such an indelible impression. We had to take their word for it, and in a way this event was a storytelling session in which a persona was happily conjured. They were there in the service of legacy: Goldin admitted that one of her recent self-portraits, in which she stands in bra and denim, hands tucked in her waistband, was made in response to the announcement image of the Hujar show, a 1980 self-portrait in a jock strap. Aletti committed further insights to a video on the gallery website.
Of course, the speakers are of some note and maintain their own personas. I was scheduled to interview Goldin the next afternoon, though was warned of her mercurial nature. I spotted her in the hallway a bit after the appointed time. She seemed a bit hobbled but still mischievous as she asked if anyone at the gallery could commandeer a boat for an impromptu jaunt to Alcatraz. She said we'd sit down to chat after she had a quick cigarette and some vegan food, then ambled out, never to return. Aletti was more available and focused to talk more about Hujar, pondering the idea of there being a filmed version of his life. While he felt the narrative was more literary, he could see the appeal. "I think so many artists' lives are fascinating, and more fascinating when they are difficult and unhappy and unsuccessful," he said. What becomes a legend most?
Peter Hujar: Love & Lust and Nan Goldin: Nine Self-Portraits are on view through March 8, 2014 at Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco. For more information visit fraenkelgallery.com.