From ’70s NYC Icons to Noble Animals: Peter Hujar’s Poetic Portraits and Sweeping Cityscapes

Peter Hujar, known for his candid and intimate black-and-white portraits, photographed some of the most exciting minds and personalities of the 20th century. Peter Hujar: 21 Pictures, presented by Fraenkel Gallery from January 7 to March 5, 2016 (the fourth solo exhibition of Hujar’s work), will explore the artist’s 30-year career, including his less familiar photos of gritty city life in the ‘70s and ‘80s, seascapes, still lifes, and animals. Hujar’s erotic images and haunting photos of the Palermo catacombs in Sicily, which the artist first visited in the late 1950s and returned to in the ‘60s after receiving a Fulbright grant, will also be on display.

Hujar’s friends and admirers were often his subjects: the artist Paul Thek (Hujar’s lover and muse), Susan Sontag (she wrote the intro to his 1976 monograph Portraits in Life and Death), John Waters, Divine, Diana Vreeland, performance artist Ethyl Eichelberger, and other figures from the downtown New York art scene sat for him. He occasionally went before the camera, as he did for one of Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests.

Though his images were unflinching, confronting taboo subjects, they were also empathetic and moving. The emotional portrait of Warhol Superstar Candy Darling — in full makeup, lounging across her hospital deathbed before she passed of lymphoma — was taken by Hujar. On his own deathbed in 1987, Hujar’s lover, the artist David Wojnarowicz, made a series of 23 photos of Hujar’s body after the photographer died of AIDS complications. “Peter Hujar knows that portraits in life are always, also, portraits in death,” Sontag once wrote. “I am moved by the purity and delicacy of his intentions. If a free human being can afford to think nothing less than death, then these memento mori can exorcise morbidity as they evoke its sweet poetry and panic.”

See a preview of Peter Hujar: 21 Pictures in our gallery.