Peter Hujar: Speed of Life, the elegantly staged photography retrospective recently landed in Berkeley, bears a poignant misnomer. For Hujar (1934-1987), portraying landscapes, animal studies and the personalities that lit up his professional and personal galaxy as they approached stardom was a way to slow, not accelerate, life’s heady pace amidst radical change in 1970s and '80s New York. On view through mid-November at its only West Coast venue, the exhibition speaks to the singularity of artistic vision and the power of institutional influence to make, or break, a career.
Descending the museum’s wooden platform steps, viewers encounter the first suite of Hujar’s black-and-white photographs. Two rows of 12 images each feature the subjects that shaped the artist’s body of work—landscapes and cityscapes, portraiture, nudes, animal studies and still lifes—and recreate Hujar’s 1986 installation at Gracie Mansion Gallery in New York, the last presented in his lifetime.
Dividing an exhibition in this way, especially on the museum’s lower level, is a risk. As audiences wander through the museum's rabbit-warren galleries, it's possible to lose the visual thread that is first introduced. Curator Apsara DiQuinzio’s choice to isolate the first 24 photographs, however, is strategic: It presents the work as the artist preferred it to be seen, and introduces sequence as the force that guides the exhibition throughout.
The span is engaging and daunting. What are we to make of a West Virginia draft horse paired with a portrait of photographer Lynn Davis, or an image of a severed bovine head coupled with an portrait of the late singer Peggy Lee? No discernible rhythm is evident, but a powerful sense of potential energy is.
Stepping into the primary installation, alternating grids and rows of images pick up the presentation scheme introduced in the museum’s atrium. Other than the labels that report basic information about each piece (title, date, dimensions, lending institution), there is little text provided. When it is present, often in the form of extended didactic labels, the text reveals important notes about Hujar’s practice.
In one example, DiQuinzio draws our attention to the artist's appreciation for diagonal (top left to bottom right corner) compositions in a four-image arrangement at the center of the gallery’s long left wall. Dancer Sheryl Sutton’s powerful forward pose resonates with an intimate portrait of David Levithan in bed and a mountainous landscape scene captured during his travels throughout Italy.
Along the gallery’s anterior wall, a group of six photographs convey Hujar’s attention to what is hidden, and what is revealed. Portraits of artists Gary Indiana and Stephen Varble, adorned respectively with a sheer sequined scarf and chicken wire laden with money, imperfectly obscure their identities. Simultaneously, these adornments expose the repressive cultural biases relating to gender and sexual identity that Hujar and fellow artists openly challenged in their work.
Encountered individually, each photograph in a respective groups stands on its own aesthetic merit. Seen in groupings, however, the images offer greater insight to Hujar’s compositional methodology and interests. If groupings and the attendant didactic labels were offered throughout the exhibition, there would be little for viewers to discover on their own in Hujar’s work. DiQuinzio’s economic use of supplemental text opens a door just wide enough for curious viewers to step into Hujar’s creative realm.
If you’re wondering why you don’t know more about Peter Hujar, you’re on the right track. Hujar came of age professionally at a pivotal point in his chosen medium's 20-century history. More than a century after the first photographic processes were invented, photography in the 1970s languished in the commercial art market as inferior to painting and sculpture. That status shifted just as Hujar hit his creative stride, when influential curators, art dealers and collectors advanced the medium’s cause through now-historic exhibitions and notable private and public sales.
This sea change ultimately elevated the work of Hujar’s contemporaries—Nan Goldin and Robert Mapplethorpe most notably—as the visual statements about life on the gritty and glorious edges of American society. During our interview, Apsara DiQuinzio noted that Hujar was notoriously combative, and shared writer Fran Lebowitz’s quote that the artist had “hung up on every important photography dealer in the western world.” Though the allure of institutional support and fame, not to mention financial stability, was potent, Hujar preferred to nurture on his own terms the creative fire that sustained him from the late 1950s on.
Rigorously researched and organized by the Morgan Library & Museum, Peter Hujar: The Speed of Life is a welcome and long overdue account of a life dedicated to the perfection of personal vision. Once appreciated only by photography devotees, this exhibition situates Hujar and his singular work in the creative milieu that left him behind four decades ago.
'Peter Hujar: The Speed of Life' is on view at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive through Nov. 18, 2018. Details here.