Aperture Magazine

The magazine of photography and ideas

Behind the Scenes of Peter Hujar's Bohemia

Aperture members met with curator Joel Smith to hear the stories behind Peter Hujar's radical work.

 - March 1, 2018

On Wednesday, January 31, Aperture Patrons and Trustees met at The Morgan Library & Museum for an intimate after-hours tour of Peter Hujar: Speed of Life, led by Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography Joel Smith. The exhibition features more than 140 of Hujar’s photographs and contact sheets, which portray avant-garde pockets of New York City from the 1970s and ’80s. Along with a book of the same name, published by Aperture this past year, the exhibition follows Hujar’s career, divided thematically into sections. Smith described the sequence of the exhibition as: “Every image is a fresh thought, so you have the chance to see the work as interrelated and yet a puzzle.” Throughout the tour, Smith helped decipher this puzzle of Hujar’s complicated life for Aperture members.

A highlight of the exhibition is the photograph Daisy Aldan (1955) of Hujar’s high school teacher, who deeply inspired the artist as a youth. Smith shared many stories behind the images, including photographs of celebrities like Susan Sontag, Hujar’s lovers, and communities, such as drag queens, that historically haven’t been featured on museum walls. Hujar was obsessed with conveying “what makes an individual truly fascinating”—as befitted an artist who was so fascinating himself.

The tour offered great insight into Hujar’s life and work, and meditated on the message he was never able to fully articulate during his lifetime.

Peter Hujar (1934–1987) died of AIDS at age fifty-three, leaving behind a complex and profound body of photographs. A leading figure in the cultural scene of downtown New York in the 1970s and ’80s, Hujar was admired for his portraits of people, animals, and landscapes. Since his death, his work has been the subject of major retrospectives at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland, and he is included in permanent collections at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among others.

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