Show of Show-Offs: Peter Hujar at BAMPFA

Three decades after his death from an AIDS-related illness, the ‘totally unreachable’ photographer first career retrospective, 'Peter Hujar: Speed of Life' comes to the Bay Area.

Peter Hujar: Fran Lebowitz at Home in Morristown, New Jersey, 1974. Š 1974 Peter Hujar Archive LLC. Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York, and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

Anyone who was great friends with Peter Hujar, and that includes writer Fran Lebowitz, encountered the complicated layers that made him such a brilliant and exasperating photographer. Hujar, who died in 1987 of AIDS-related pneumonia, was adventurous, dogged, confident, sensitive, charming, flamboyant, and funny — but prone to fits of anger and insecure about his place in photography. Hujar ridiculed curators who tried to get him shows and snubbed photographers who tried to connect with him. Lebowitz was one of the close friends who stayed uninterrupted in Hujar’s orbit — who never really clashed with him — and she says the reason was simple.

“My theory is that I believe I was the only person who ever met Peter who wasn’t in love with him,” Lebowitz says in a phone interview. “Since everyone else was in love with him — naturally, that was a complicated thing. Nothing is less complicated than not being in love. This made my relationship with Peter very simple. Every straight woman fell in love with Peter. Every gay man fell in love with Peter. Even maybe some straight men. Peter was incredibly handsome. But he was totally unreachable. Which is, of course, why everyone was in love with him.”

For emphasis, Lebowitz adds this: “He was a very difficult person. Very complicated. I’d [tell him], ‘Peter, if you really want to have a show, it’s better that you don’t threaten the gallery owners.’ When I’ve discussed my relationship with Peter with tons of people — people who were very close to him, people I’ve known for a long time — I know that everyone had problems with him. I never did.”

Lebowitz is the subject of one of 150 photographs in “Peter Hujar: Speed of Life,” Hujar’s first retrospective, which has landed at BAMPFA after a run at New York’s Morgan Library & Museum (the exhibit’s co-organizer). Hujar himself is on display in “Speed of Life” — as in the 1966-67 work Nude Self-Portrait, Running, which Hujar made while taking a workshop from Richard Avedon, the iconic fashion photographer who was one of his biggest collectors. Male nudity became one of Hujar’s best-known motifs. More than fellow New Yorker Robert Mapplethorpe, who began photographing a decade after Hujar, he established an early precedent for fine-art male nudes — although it was Mapplethorpe who became better known. Hujar was contemptuous of Mapplethorpe’s images, calling them calculated and saying, “Well, it looks like art.”

There’s no question about the artistic foundation of Hujar’s nudes or any of the works on display at BAMPFA. Even a 1976 work like Bruce de Ste. Croix, where the subject sits nude on a chair and holds his large, erect penis, has the artistic sensibilities of other Hujar images, which means a minimalist set-up, curious angles, absorbing black-and-white textures, and an intimacy that is personal and complex. Hujar’s lens revealed his subjects’ inner intensity as much as their exteriority.

One of Hujar’s best-known images — a clothed, reclining Susan Sontag from 1975 — embodied this approach. Like Bruce de Ste. Croix, Susan Sontag has the subject looking away from the camera, with her elbow (of all things) directing the viewer’s focus inward, and her body intersected from behind by a line that bisects the panorama into distinct shapes.

Sontag isn’t smiling. Neither is Bruce de Ste. Croix. And neither is Hujar is his self-portrait. They’re not showing off — at least, not consciously.

Hujar hated show-offs. Or rather, he loved show-offs who were naturally that way. He hated phonies and anyone who tried to ingratiate or be overly solicitous. That’s why he loved Lebowitz, the New Jersey-born humorist and raconteur, and Sontag, a good friend who wrote the introduction to his 1976 book, Portraits in Life and Death.

But that’s why Hujar had such a hard time embracing the art world during his lifetime. He undermined his own career even as many figures wanted to embrace him full-throttle, says Stephen Koch, executor of Hujar’s estate. Koch says Hujar’s difficult childhood, leaving home at age 16 under the strain of an abusive, alcoholic mother, had a permanent imprint on his personality. Koch adds that in spite of his confidence and achievements — including a Fulbright fellowship and early success as a fashion photographer for publications like Harper’s Bazaar — Hujar was insecure about his education. Self-taught, he never attended college for a degree.

“He knew he was good, but he knew that he stood in the way. That was the painful part of it,” Koch says by phone from New York. “He thought he was self-defeating. He said, ‘I’ve got to understand why I can’t let [success] happen.’ We spent hours and hours discussing it. I know that when you got very close to him, his vulnerability overwhelmed him. And he would go nuts. I’ve never seen anyone in fits of rage more extreme than him.

“He once told me when he was in a depression, ‘When I die, I want two graves: One for my body, and the other for all my work. I’m not going to let them get it after I’ve gone,’ ” Koch adds. “When he died, I really had trouble getting phone calls returned. One very distinguished dealer said, ‘Well, he’s obviously very impressive but I have to warn you that I don’t think you have any hope of success other than a small coterie of homosexual collectors.’ ”

Times have changed. Three decades after Hujar’s death, the art world — curators, museum directors, critics, and others — now claim him as one of the 20th century’s great photographers. Hujar dreamed of that reputation while he was alive — and he predicted he would be better known in death, says Koch, who has played a prominent role in the art world’s embrace of Hujar’s work.

Hujar’s ability to create searing, multifaceted images went well beyond people. His photos of objects, animals, and nature are sublime. In fact, Hujar could make a women’s shoe — its curves, its shadows, its textures — look like the most incredible sight imaginable. His 1975 photo Trees: New Jersey (with flash), is a meditation on light and form, as is another image, taken that same year, of the Hudson River, which in Hujar’s eyeing becomes a painterly vision of rapturous movement. 

The BAMPFA exhibit differs slightly from the one at Barcelona’s Fundación MAPFRE (the exhibit’s other co-organizer) and the Morgan Library & Museum. Apsara DiQuinzio, BAMPFA’s curator of modern and contemporary art, worked with the same images but has connected photos differently while respecting Hujar’s long-held desire to avoid “didactic” themes and overt art guides. So DiQuinzio placed a photo of Hujar’s mother and her partner near an image of flowers on a gravesite. Hujar took both photos in 1977.

“It brings out that troubled family history a bit,” says DiQuinzio, whose other quasi-groupings include photos with similar angles, erotic photos, and photos that Hujar took of men in public on Christopher Street piers. “I tried to create these resonant pairings or groupings that aren’t necessarily overtly thematic but that show you all these ideas and motifs that he was working with.”

At the Morgan Library & Museum in February, when Lebowitz spoke about Hujar in an almost-hour-long talk, she had attendees laughing and applauding as she recalled their deep friendship. For decades, Hujar’s 1974 photo of Lebowitz was never really exhibited. Lebowitz only saw it about five years ago, after friends told her that actress Lena Dunham was promoting it from a New York gallery show. When Lebowitz visited the gallery and read the photo’s wall text — which said she was 21 years old and posing at her home in Morristown, N.J. — she flipped out. Lebowitz tells SF Weekly that the caption was wrong on both counts.

“I don’t have a computer or a phone or any of these modern devices that you have, and people started calling me to say that Lena Dunham was tweeting a photo of me that was in a small gallery in SoHo,” Lebowitz says. “I went to look at the photograph, and I’d never seen it before — but I instantly recognized the room, which was incorrectly captioned as being in my apartment. That was my sister’s bedroom in my parents’ house. That had been my bedroom when I lived in home, and my sister moved into it because it was bigger. That wallpaper and all that stuff — that was my sister’s choice. I want that on the record!”

Adds Lebowitz: “Peter went with me to my parents’ house several times, and he must have stayed overnight — which he did a couple of times — and I was sleeping and he must have knocked on the door and come into the bedroom and said, ‘Can I take your picture?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ Peter never didn’t have a camera with him. Friends of mine have said, ‘No way you look like that when you first wake up!’ And I say, ‘You do when you’re 24!’ ”

So Lebowitz has clarified and corrected the record about that image, just in time for a retrospective that elevates Hujar to a place where he’s being understood for who he really was. “Peter Hujar: Speed of Life” shows the artist’s work from the beginning — in 1955, when he was in his 20s and first starting out — into the 1980s. The exhibit’s accompanying book is even more revealing, with essays and photos that include details of Hujar’s last days. Hujar wasn’t afraid of death. He photographed animals that had passed and people who were on the verge of it, like his 1973 photo Candy Darling on Her Deathbed, which shows one of his favorite subjects in her hospital room. Darling, who died in 1974 at age 29, was a sensation during her lifetime — a transgender actress who hung out with Andy Warhol, appeared in movies and plays, and was celebrated for her bravado and her lyrical description in Lou Reed’s 1972 song “Walk on the Wild Side” (“but she never lost her head / Even when she was giving head”).

Unlike Darling, Hujar stayed relatively behind the scenes, even as his photos of New York’s underground scenes in the 1970s and ’80s peeked out in some mainstream corridors like The Village Voice. “Peter Hujar: Speed of Life” signifies the permanent arrival of Hujar’s mainstream recognition. The exhibit trumpets Hujar for audiences who may be familiar with Candy Darling and other similar figures but not the photographer who Lebowitz credits for helping change modern photography.

“People keep saying, ‘Would Peter have been surprised [by the new attention]. And I say, ‘Really in a way: Not,’ ” Lebowitz says. “Because one of things that Peter was angry about was his very profound belief that he’d become famous after he died. For me, Peter deserves this, for sure. He always did. This is the downside of being ahead of your time. To be successful in your lifetime is obviously more pleasurable for the artist. But Peter didn’t know how to work the world in the way that, say, Robert [Mapplethorpe] did. That was not Peter. And if that had been him, he wouldn’t have taken these photographs.”

“Peter Hujar: Speed of Life,” through Nov. 18 at BAMPFA, 2155 Center St., Berkeley. $11-$13, 510-642-0808 or bampfa.org

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