Peter Hujar: Love and Lust

Review

Peter Hujar: Love and Lust

By Danica Willard Sachs January 20, 2014

In New York in June of 1978, Marcuse Pfeifer Gallery exhibited a survey of the male nude in photography. The exhibition took a historical perspective with the inclusion of photographs by Eugène Atget and Edward Weston, but the emphasis was on work by contemporary photographers such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Lynn Davis, and Peter Hujar. Relegated to Pfiefer’s office, away from the main exhibition space, was Hujar’s triptych Bruce de Sainte Croix (1976). In this series of three black-and-white gelatin silver prints, Hujar’s nude subject moves from standing in the center of the frame, to sitting holding his erect penis, to standing on his knees masturbating in the center of the image. Critics at the time lashed out at the gallery’s display of such graphically sexual images. One even called for a return to what he termed an “old-fashioned prudery,” citing his discomfort with “the sight of a man’s naked body being presented primarily as a sexual object.”1

Fraenkel Gallery’s current exhibition, Peter Hujar: Love and Lust, marks the first time that such a large body of Hujar’s nudes have been shown together. The aforementioned Bruce de Sainte Croix, and a grouping of three other photographs depicting anonymous men (all from 1969) at the instant of climax, appear in the last gallery of the exhibition.2 Hujar’s composition is spare and uncompromising in its directness. In each image, the artist captures the subject in the center of the frame, at the second when orgasm renders the body primal, contorted in pure reflex. Installed across from these is a grouping of portraits of couples, John Cage and Merce Cunningham being the most famous. The juxtaposition is jarring; viewers move from frank portrayals of men at their most intimate moments to straightforward images of couples sitting placidly together. The title of the exhibition, however, belies the ambition of Hujar’s work. The artist’s contrapposto stance in Self Portrait (Standing) (1980), for example, evokes Michelangelo’s 16th-century sculpture David. Likewise, the tilt of the camera in the diptych Masturbating Nude (I and II) (1977) echoes Courbet’s Origin of the World (1866). To say that his central preoccupation was simply love and lust unduly narrows the scope of his project.

The more sensual photographs in the exhibition are the more subdued ones. David Wojnarowicz Reclining (III) (1981) depicts the artist and one of Hujar’s lovers from the waist up, reclining on a white sheet. With arms casually bent above his head, Wojnarowicz seems to stare through the camera. His gaze is simultaneously focused, as if intended for Hujar alone, and yet still inviting, as if anticipating other admirers. Though a much quieter image, this photograph makes clear that what was most radical about Hujar’s project was not necessarily its explicit content, but the more pressing question of what you can depict in a photograph.

Peter Hujar: Love & Lust is on view at Fraenkel Gallery, in

San Francisco

, through March 8, 2014.

Notes

  1. Gene Thornton, “Photography View: From the Ideal to the Erotic,” The New York Times, June 18, 1978.
  2. It is worth noting that Fraenkel’s presentation does not stray far from the historical precedent. In the installation, Hujar’s most explicit photographs are relegated to the back gallery.

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