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Portraits in Life and Death: Peter Hujar @ PS1

Posted Nov 11 2005 12:00am

via NYTimes
Agitprop to Arcadian: Gently Turning a Kaleidoscope of Visions

Reviews of Jon Kessler, Stephen Shore, Peter Hujar, "Day Labor," "The Painted World," Adrian Paci, Ari Marcopoulos and more.

Peter Hujar
October 23, 2005 - January 16, 2006
P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center
22-25 Jackson Ave at the intersection of 46th Ave in Long Island City, 11101

Peter Hujar

by Holland Cotter

Peter Hujar had been gone more than two years - he died of complications from AIDS in 1987 - when his first major show opened, at the Grey Art Gallery of New York University. He was a figure of acute interest to a small segment of the Manhattan art-literary-and-performance world, and unknown to practically everyone else

His one book, "Portraits in Life and Death," with an introduction by Susan Sontag, appeared in 1976. Alternating black-and-white photographs of desiccated corpses in Sicilian catacombs with studio portraits of New York's downtown demimonde, it was a gorgeous shocker. And its glamorizing morbidity - like a cocktail of Nadar, Weegee and Vogue - shaped the work of many younger photographers.

The few Hujar exhibitions since 1990 (the most recent was at Matthew Marks Gallery) have been surveyish samplings of his recurrent themes. There are the portraits of friends and celebrities, and the pictures of animals, which are his most self-revealing portraits. Landscapes and cityscapes are part of the mix, as are still lifes and erotica. Sensuality and mortality are the binders throughout, inseparable.

This show, organized by Bob Nickas, covers the same terrain, but unfolds yet more of it by introducing previously unseen pictures. Several are variants of Hujar's best-known subjects. In place of his much-published portrait of the Warhol superstar Candy Darling, dying of cancer but languorously stretched out on her hospital bed, we have another image taken during the same shoot. Here, viewed from overhead, a sheet pulled up across her chest, she looks like a preternaturally photogenic child being tucked in for the night.

It's also good to encounter less familiar subjects, like the pictures of circus performers, and the witty portraits of the San Francisco-based drag troupe called the Cockettes. In the work of Diane Arbus, whom Hujar admired, the freakish, however sympathetically viewed, remains freakish. In Hujar's photography there is no freak category; no me-them divide. Everybody, everything - a drag queen, a tree silhouetted against the sky, a self-portrait, a burned-out house, a pet dog, a contortionist lover, a dead body, light glancing off of water - is part of one classically beautiful, stunningly sad normality, one life. Now we need to see that life, as told in pictures, from beginning to end.

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