Art

Peter Hujar’s Tender, Transgressive Portraits and Why They Require Nuance

Lacking any attempts to deepen or broaden conversations about Hujar’s work, Cruising Utopia at Pace Gallery feels more like a store than an exhibition.

Peter Hujar, “Christopher Street Pier #4” (1976), vintage gelatin silver print, 14 3/4 × 14 5/8 inches, paper No. 128278.02 (© The Peter Hujar Archive, all images courtesy Pace Gallery, New York)

Debuting on the last day of Pride month, amid pandemic and protest, Pace Gallery’s Peter Hujar, Cruising Utopia is an online store masquerading as a disconnected, virtual exhibition. Featuring twenty of the artist’s photographs from the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, the compilation is a mix of portraits and city scenes. The introductory text describes Hujar’s subjects as “a fabulous and often infamous cast of underground elites,” which include Susan Sontag, Fran Lebowitz, Paul Thek, and David Wojnarowicz. While these elite white subjects are mostly named and contextualized in their portraits, the subjects of color seem to be more tertiary, barely named and mostly lacking context. Unnamed people of color are part of his scenes set along Chelsea’s now-mostly-demolished Piers and grace photographs like “Two Cockettes” (1971), in which two femmes from the gender-expanding performance group embrace. If the exhibition’s title is a reference to José Esteban Muñoz’s 2009 book, he too goes unnamed.

Peter Hujar, “Susan Sontag” (1975), pigmented ink print, 14 5/8 × 14 3/4 inches (37.1 cm × 37.5 cm), Edition 10 of 10, Edition of 10, #127988.10, Alt # EPH0021-GSP10

The photographs in Cruising Utopia demonstrate Hujar’s skill with composition and his attention to intimacy and shadow. His documentation of queer life remains a key archive but as he is (lucratively) canonized, exhibitions of Hujar’s work bear the responsibility of considering the limitations of his gaze and social circles. Yet with Cruising Utopia the curatorial framing is loose, and mostly comprises short quotations from (white) critics and artists including Bob Nickas, Arthur C. Danto, Vince Aletti, and Nan Goldin. These quotes, while lucid, are inserted without broader citation and safely rely on established authority.

Moreover, the main text’s author goes unnamed, positioning it as that of a faceless gallery voice. Relatedly, each photograph is accompanied by a large button reading “Available” (or, in a few cases, “Sold” or “Reserved”), so one can inquire about purchasing prints, which are priced between $10,000 and $35,000, unframed. The 10% of sales that will be donated to the New York City AIDS Memorial from sales reads as an insufficient gesture considering the curatorial lackings and the current political moment.

Peter Hujar, “Gay Liberation Front Poster Image” (1970) pigmented ink print 18 1/2 × 12 inches, paper Edition 7 of 10, Edition of 10 No. 128224.18 (© The Peter Hujar Archive)

Just a few days before this exhibition opened, the Reclaim Pride Coalition organized the Queer Liberation March for Black Lives and Against Police Brutality, without corporate sponsors or police permits. It honored the radical legacy of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising, led by trans people of color against police brutality, and for which Hujar was present. True to this ongoing history, several instances of police violence were reported along the route. This reality stands in stark contrast with images like Hujar’s “Gay Liberation Front Poster Image” (1970), which depicts a seemingly all-white group in smiles and celebration.

Further, the exhibition feels disconnected from current demands for structural institutional change backed by material commitments, and from Pace Gallery President and CEO Marc Glimcher’s own June 2 statement, in which he committed to “looking in the mirror and making the changes that are needed,” before continuing, “[i]f we are not part of the change, then we are empowering the destruction of all principles and ideals we claim to hold dear.”

Peter Hujar, “Hudson River (III)” (1976), pigmented ink print 14 3/4 × 14 3/4 inches, paper Edition 3 of 10, Edition of 10 No. 128207.03 (© The Peter Hujar Archive)

As galleries and art spaces continue to grapple with their virtual presence, we must hold them accountable to the ways they are using their power. If an exhibition is to take up (virtual) space at any moment, but especially this one, it should do so with rigor, especially when centering a white artist increasingly validated by the market.

Initially only scheduled to remain on view for two weeks, it is also worth noting that Cruising Utopia does not include new scholarship or programming to deepen or broaden discourse around Hujar’s work. The value of his tender, transgressive images is not just an economic one.

Peter Hujar, Cruising Utopia continues online via Pace Gallery through July 28. 

Editor’s note (7/10/20, 12:38 pm EDT): Since the publication of this review, Pace Gallery has announced the public program “Cruising Utopia, A Conversation on Peter Hujar,” scheduled for July 15. 

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