Intimacy is the hallmark of the late Peter Hujar’s photographs, a quality that stems from his identity as well as his membership in a New York subculture of the 1970s and 80s. His iconic photograph Candy Darling on Her Deathbed, 1974 (not included in this show) could stem only from the access made possible by a close connection to his subject. But that notion of intimacy, in Hujar’s playbook, was also carnal in nature. Love and lust are useful curatorial frames for this show at Fraenkel Gallery through March 8, though in sheer numbers, lust predominates, albeit with a kind of psychological sensitivity that makes Hujar’s work simmer with humanity.
A sense of physical and emotional relatedness is expressed in works that range from the chaste, clothed portrait Merce Cunningham and John Cage Seated, 1986, which shows the famous couple with loose smiles, to warm rumpled images such as Lynn Davis, Nude with Pillow, 1985, and David Wojnarowicz Reclining (II), 1981, in which the sitters meet the eye of the photographer with calm directness. The subjects of the more explicitly sexual images are lesser known, and these men are shown lost in the reverie of arousal and release; their connection to the photographer shifts away—complicating the sexual charge of these works. They become more formal than erotic. These photographs—portraits of masturbating men—are about capturing physical experience.
But it’s the two self-portraits on view that place Hujar’s own identity at the conceptual heart of the show. Self-Portrait Standing, 1980, depicts the handsome artist posing in just a jock strap against a blank wall. Self-Portrait in the Baths, 1980, shows him nude in a sex club cubicle, slumped at the bottom of the frame, the dark wall of the small room looming above. His expression in both is more earnest than seductive, simultaneously guarded and available. According to a fascinating 1989 interview with Fran Lebowitz in the exhibition’s concise catalog, she describes her youthful shock at Hujar’s admission of scores of sex partners, but more surprising, she notes, is that he didn’t exactly enjoy them, rather, he said, it was his way of “being with people”. And in a sense, this intimacy was the way he made pictures, too.