By the time Peter Hujar died in 1987, ten months after being diagnosed with AIDS, he didn’t have many gallery showings, rarely got lucrative commissions, and had just one publication to his name: Portraits in Life and Death. That book was a selection of 40 photographs — 29 of them portraits of friends, including photos of Susan Sontag and William Burroughs, the remaining 11 taken on a Fulbright in the Capuchin catacombs of Palermo over a decade prior. The choice to combine in a single volume his sharp photographs of friends — who, if not necessarily young in age, all exuded smartness, juvenescence, and vitality — and macabre photographs of skeletons — some erect in a row and others supine — was certainly an odd choice.
But that penchant for morbidity wasn’t even the reason why Hujar didn’t attain fame for his body of work, technically masterful and poignant as it was, during his lifetime. “Peter Hujar has hung up on every important photography dealer in the Western world,” author Fran Lebowitz, a close friend, said by way of explanation at his funeral. He blew off artists like Cecil Beaton and Peter Max at parties, and reportedly once swung a bar stool at two gallery owners who met with him to explore the possibility of showing his work. He was irreverent to those in the art world whom he did not respect, and as such, Hujar remains less well-known than contemporaries such as Nan Goldin, a good friend, and Robert Mapplethorpe, an artistic rival. Hujar was an embodiment, in some ways, of Mapplethorpe’s aesthetic opposite: Where Mapplethorpe’s portraits appeared as classical figures, naked and highly choreographed idealizations of the human form, Hujar’s portraits seemed to convey something direct about the subject and their character, even inasmuch as they were putting on a performance for the camera, too.
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At his last show at the Gracie Mansion Gallery in 1986, Hujar showed 100 photographs that he priced at $600 apiece. Only two sold. Now, four of his photographs made between 1973 and 1984 will be auctioned at Swann Auction Galleries in August as part of its fourth annual LGBTQ+ Art, Material Culture, and History sale.
Today, approximately a half-century after Hujar took some of his most well-regarded photographs, his renown is growing, something the artist seemed to suspect might happen after his death. His prints are appreciating in price, and his out-of-print Portraits in Life and Death is now something of a coveted collector’s item, a reflection perhaps of piquing interest in the Lower East Side bohemian art scene of the 1970s. His most recognizable photograph today might be “Orgasmic Man” (1969), the cover of Hanya Yanagihara’s sensational, bestselling 2015 novel A Little Life, ambiguous in its depiction of pleasure and pain. Hujar was an apt artist for the novel, its exploration of themes of abuse, trauma, and desire sharing uncanny resonance with Hujar’s own biography. Hujar was abandoned in early childhood, suffered verbal and physical abuse from his mother, and moved out at the age of 14 to his own apartment in the West Village. “Peter had a kind of fundamental isolation that he could never escape,” Hujar’s friend Steve Turtell once commented. “And he knew it. It was the source of his suffering. It was also the source of his art and his insight.”
“Torso (Keith Cameron),” which carries the highest estimate of the four works offered by Swann ($15,000 to $25,000), captures the trunk of an attractive male subject whom Hujar took several other portraits of in 1981. Those other portraits are characteristically seductive, portraying the melodrama of handsome looks and good physique under chiaroscuro studio lighting. In one, Cameron looks at the camera sidelong, his jeans half-shed around his calves and his briefs deliberately lowered beneath his pelvis in a suggestively partial state of undress. In another, his clothing, maybe a sweater and a shirt, are being taken off, wrapped around his arms, giving Cameron a look of comparative vulnerability. In the next, Cameron is completely nude, one half of his body lit and the other obscure, his stance powerful and his gaze direct. A final photograph shows Cameron seated recumbent on a chair, his eyes trained to the ground a distance away melancholically.
“Torso (Keith Cameron)” is a departure from these other works. It cuts off before his chin and his navel, depersonalizing his body and erasing some of his disheveled emotional intensity. It evokes classical marble sculptures that have become severed from their heads, arms, and legs. The topography of his abdomen reveals the kind of nuance that we forget exists within our own bodies, and the hairs on his chest and in his armpits render his body less Platonic and more banal. But the intentional choice to disembody Cameron’s torso inflects the photograph with a sense of alienation and unease.
Hujar’s portrait of Sarah Jenkins, in contrast, is a serene photograph of what looks like a woman sitting at a dining table in the morning. On the table rests the daily paper and a ceramic mug that appears handmade. Jenkins looks just over Hujar’s right shoulder as if in mid-thought. Her lightly styled hair, casually tied scarf, and elbow pitched on the table emanate a daily elegance amidst humbly thin curtains and plain walls. That is a typical juxtaposition for Hujar, many of whose photographs were taken in the austerity of his apartment. For much of his life, Hujar lived in extreme poverty, washing his clothes in his kitchen sink to avoid visiting the laundromat, wiping down his windows with newspaper print, and eating at friends’ places. His photographs convey some of the possibilities of inner poise despite these material circumstances.
Though Jenkins gives a practical, straightforward impression in this photograph, Hujar’s other portraits of her show her performing wildly different personalities. In one, she is topless and peers at the head of “Skippy,” a snake that she’s wound between her fingers, transfixed as if she is about to cast a spell on him. Another plainly erotic one shows Skippy fully wrapped around her neck, her smoky eyes meeting the viewer’s with a hint of condescension. A separate series of portraits captures Jenkins wearing a tank top with a hollowed-out core, both sinister and playful at once. Jenkins’s shapeshifting character in these photographs prompts us to be a little less certain of who she is in this most seemingly straightforward print.
“I want to be discussed in hush tones,” Hujar apparently once said to Turtell. “When people talk about me, I want them to be whispering, ‘Peter Hujar.’” That moment, for Hujar, seems to be finally arriving.
This article, part of a series focused on LGBTQ+ artists and art movements, is supported by Swann Auction Galleries.
Swann’s upcoming sale “LGBTQ+ Art, Material Culture & History,” featuring works and material by Tom of Finland, Peter Hujar, Robert Mapplethorpe, Oscar Wilde, Andy Warhol, and many more will take place on August 18, 2022.