Critics’ Picks

Peter Hujar, Fran Lebowitz [at Home in Morristown], 1974, vintage gelatin silver print, 17 x 13 1/2".

Peter Hujar, Fran Lebowitz [at Home in Morristown], 1974, vintage gelatin silver print, 17 x 13 1/2".

New York

Peter Hujar

Kasmin | 297 Tenth Avenue
297 Tenth Avenue
January 28–February 27, 2016

It’s been stamped on the collective retina: a reclining Susan Sontag, 1975, sheathed in a turtleneck, her hands stuffed in her hair, her face crowned with that smirk of effortless intellection. She looks like a sleek, belletristic otter floating on its back. This is Sontag as we’ve always thought of her—sly, a little wistful, possessed of a dark, delicate intelligence that pitches its gaze at something just beyond the frame. Embalmed in her persona, served like some pickled exotic fruit.

But that embalmment—the aspect that has haunted both the practice and the theory of photography—gathers a darkly literal force in this exhibition, “Lost Downtown” (which is being presented collaboratively with Pace/MacGill). What, precisely, has been lost? An entire way of life made possible by low rents, a pre-Giuliani tolerance for urban desuetude, and a lingering ethos—now melted in the furnace of capital—of antibourgeois insouciance. Fran Lebowitz [at Home in Morristown], 1974, scowls from her teenage bedroom in New Jersey—the wallpaper is goofily suburban, with a pattern that looks like little pustules bursting with bad taste. Divine, 1975, the plump, lovely muse of John Waters, is depicted here as some high-Romantic heroine, her ample belly swelling at the buttons and soaking up the feathery shades of Hujar’s lighting. It’s poignant, but yes, a bit camp—a bomb lobbed at our notions of respectability and grace. Waters himself smiles from across the room (John Waters (I), 1975).

But lost, too, are individual figures of the so-called downtown scene, picked off by cancer and AIDS—the latter greeted by the establishment with criminal indifference. David Wojnarowicz, 1981, gawky and boyish, gazes spectrally from a bed, his nose and temples carved starkly from the dark—years before he was infected. And after Hujar’s death, Wojnarowicz would take a photo of his corpse. That photograph isn’t included here, but the spooky echo resounds: another talisman, a memento mori, a furtive ritual of an extinct tribe.