Peter Hujar: Portraits in Life and Death | Istituto Santa Maria della Pietà, Venice, Italy

BY David E. Little, July 1, 2024

Organized by Grace Deveney, the David C. and Sarajean Ruttenberg Associate Curator of Photography and Media at the Art Institute of Chicago, with the Peter Hujar Foundation, this exhibition was one of 30-plus collateral events surrounding the 60th Venice Biennale. Drawn from the only photography book published during the artist’s lifetime, Portraits in Life and Death (Da Capo Press, 1976), these 41 photographs juxtapose two groups of images created a decade apart: mummified bodies from the Palermo Catacombs, photographed in 1963 when Hujar traveled to Italy on a Fulbright grant, and his better-known portraits of artists, writers, and performers photographed in New York in the early 1970s. On view through November 24, the exhibition is installed in four human-size rooms connected to the Istituto Santa Maria della Pietà, a 14th-century church near San Marco.

The first room is dedicated to Hujar’s photographs from the catacombs. The mummies, photographed in coffins and outside of them, are eerie and vulnerable. Hujar orients viewers close up, then farther out, and from different angles to animate the dead. One skeletal figure, wearing a hat, photographed from above, appears about to get up; two children stand side-by-side in nightgowns in Palermo Catacombs (#7), as if to go to bed; another shows a group of cloaked adult skeletons who could be gathering for an important meeting.  

Peter Hujar, Palermo Catacombs #6, 1963. ©The Peter Hujar Archives / Artists Rights Society (ARS)

Three rooms of portraits follow, in which the compositions occasionally echo those found in the catacomb photographs. In Self-Portrait Lying Down, Hujar himself reclines in nearly the same position as the figure in Palermo Catacombs (#10), a haunting picture of a mummy with its head on a pillow, seeming to stare with intensity through hollow eye sockets. Hujar’s eyes have a similar penetrating effect. 

Set in lived spaces – kitchens, dining and living rooms, alcoves and bedrooms – Hujar’s portraits are personal and intimate. He treats these seemingly casual domestic settings with the same care and control of a formal portrait studio. Artist Paul Thek’s head aligns perfectly with a vertical line on a wall behind him; critic Vince Aletti sits in front of a splash of light; and abstract shades of white and grey serve as the backdrop to theater director Robert Wilson. In one of the most remarkable photographs, drag queen Divine is portrayed out of character, wearing a white top with tights and little makeup. Reclining, with her hands tucked behind her head, she is “offstage” in a moment of thought. 

Peter Hujar, William Burroughs (I), 1975. ©The Peter Hujar Archive / Artists Rights Society (ARS)

Hujar, who was friends with many of his subjects, put them at ease, a quality that is often revealed in his subject’s eyes. Edwin Denby is meditating with eyes closed; poet John Ashbury glances off camera; and cult filmmaker John Waters looks up slyly at the camera like a co-conspirator. 

Hujar’s approach to photography is in line with general visual-arts movements of the time, particularly conceptual and minimalist art’s deadpan aesthetic and a performance sensibility. Deveney smartly follows suit with a no-fuss approach to the installation, hanging the photographs with a simplicity that creates the sense of flipping through pages. There are no forced pairings or fancy design arrangements. The photographs are given the space they need, and they speak for themselves.  

In the introduction to Portraits in Life and Death, Hujar’s friend Susan Sontag wrote, “Photography … converts the whole world into a cemetery. Photographers, connoisseurs of beauty, are also – wittingly or unwittingly – the recording-angels of death.” While death visits everyone, the majority of Hujar’s subjects died long before one might have expected or hoped, including Hujar himself, who died of AIDS in 1987 at the age of 53. Looking at these photographs now, they seem unbound by the trappings of specificity and elongated through time. They feel alive in the present, making a case for Hujar as a recording angel of life or lives creatively lived.