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
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.
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.