New York

Peter Hujar

Marcuse Pfeifer Gallery

The Roman Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus objected to having his portrait made, saying: “Is it not enough to carry about this image in which nature has enclosed us? Do you really think I must also consent to leave, as a desirable spectacle to posterity, an image of an image?” Peter Hujar, a photographer of human and structural architecture, encloses enclosures and makes images of images in his “New York Portraits.” What defines these photographs as “portraits” is both the animate and inanimate subjects’ willingness to be depicted and their need to break out of the medium in which they are captured.

The photograph of Wall Street is a group portrait of diffident structural “personalities,” some of whose “faces” peek round the bend, moving back up the abandoned city block that converges to lock an obelisk of flat sky. By far the most memorable architectural portrait is that of the Woolworth Building seen as a grand spaceship in twilight, with lights ablaze inside signaling that it does house life. In the photograph of Central Park Hujar perches above the brambles, looking down on the wind-tossed trees’ wild restlessness.

Viewed in a wide angle, the park—clusters of Medusian branches—is confined and bounded by its frame of stone encasing wall, marking its private territory. Nature is seen to have the same capacity for hiding and enclosure as does the architecture.

Hujar’s human structures peer at us as obliquely as do his buildings. They too are rigid objects, despite the forces inside. New York personalities, establishment, avant-garde, underground cult-figures—John Ashbery, Susan Sontag, William S. Burroughs, Candy Darling, Divine—all are intense in their gaze or in their avoidance of contact with the camera. Their presence is so intense as to be hieratic; they almost seem like posthumous portraits.

Arango caught in his abandonment to sleep makes us suddenly sense that all of the figures have in some way abandoned their image. Anthony Blond peers out with suspicion and disdain at his own inhibition before the camera. William Burroughs, stonefaced, challenges the camera eye to penetrate. Stephen Varble crosses his arms and closes us out.

The solidity of Hujar’s images allows us to concentrate on what a photographic portrait does, namely, record appearances; we fixate on the figures as concretions, making them purely appearances. By juxtaposing portraits of people known not by their appearance but by their actions with buildings known by their appearance and less for the lives they hold, Peter Hujar enables the animate and inanimate alike to embody a soul, an essence.

Judith Lopes Cardozo