Critics’ Picks

Girl in My Hallway, 1976, black-and-white photograph, 14 1/2 x 14 1/2".

Girl in My Hallway, 1976, black-and-white photograph, 14 1/2 x 14 1/2".

New York

Peter Hujar

Matthew Marks Gallery
523 West 24th Street, 522 West 22nd Street, and 526 West 22nd Street
March 15–April 26, 2008

Interest in this show, which arrives just over twenty years after photographer Peter Hujar’s untimely death from AIDS, could at first glance be chalked up to something like sociological curiosity. Shot between 1969 and 1985, nearly all in the artist’s East Village studio, these thirty-one photographs make up a fascinating study of a highly specific, highly mythologized era in New York City’s cultural history. The exhibit includes intimate portraits of downtown figures such as Hujar’s lover, the artist and writer David Wojnarowicz; the stunning, wistful Cookie Mueller; and an impossibly young, rumple-haired John Zorn—not to mention a suited-up Warhol, who, by this 1975 portrait session, was, admittedly, wholly uptown.

But what a strictly sociohistorical approach might miss is Hujar’s enormous gift for presenting beautifully lit and classically formed compositions that are nonetheless shot through with the decidedly rougher (though no less seductive) texture of the corporeal. The mark of the body serves as the punctum that provides a frisson of lyric realism. This combination of the rough and the smooth is, arguably, a trope that reached its ultimate articulation in the work of Mapplethorpe, but Hujar’s own practice is decidedly more modest, and, as such, more human and appealing than that of his well-known follower. In these portraits, texture can be as light-touched as the downy traces of mustache and the glint of a beaded rope belt on a homeless woman (Girl in My Hallway, 1976) or Mueller’s lustrous locks and faintly pitted skin (Cookie Mueller, 1981). In other cases, the subversion that texture enacts is more overtly political, as in the gender-bending, hirsute resplendence of a bearded Cockette (1973) or the erect member of a male nude (1978). With these disruptions of the conventionally beautiful, Hujar’s work points to the beauty that is inherent in disruption itself.