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Blog: Inspiration Between the Lines

Peter Hujar: Master Class at Pace Gallery

Photographer Peter Hujar is included in a set of inaugural exhibitions housed in the new flagship building for world-renowned Pace Gallery. The space, which opened in September 2019, features 75,000 square feet of exhibition and office space and rises eight stories into the Chelsea skyline. Indoor and outdoor exhibition galleries, a library, performance stage and an open art-storage area collectively signal the reach and import of Pace’s 60 years as a tastemaker in the art world, with seven locations worldwide. 

PETER HUJAR, Edwin Denby, 1975, vintage gelatin silver print image, 14 3/4 x 14 3/4 inches, paper, 20 x 16 inches, © 2019 Peter Hujar Archive, Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

The presentation of Peter Hujar: Master Class as Pace’s first featured photography exhibition is buttressed by the small, intimate exhibition’s relationship to Richard Avedon. A portfolio of eight black and white portrait photographs by Hujar, collected by Avedon in the 1970s, comprises the bulk of the exhibition. These images are presented in relation to a four-part work by Hujar that was made when he was a student in Avedon’s Master Class in 1967. The class was co-taught with Art Director Marvin Israel in Avedon’s studio and at times featured guest speakers such as Diane Arbus and Lucas Samaras. The work titled, Nude Self-Portrait Series #1, #2, #3, #4, offers a striking mix of play and intention or experimental amusement, with the earnestness of an evolving artist winning out over any sense of random delight.

The series of portraits on view clearly reveals a relationship of trust and mutual agency. A quality of double intimacy seems to be at work in each and every image. It is as if Hujar has a particular capacity for insight into the interior life of each of his subjects, only acquired through each sitter’s permission or agreement to inhabit a quiet space of the self in front of a camera. By default, it becomes clear that Hujar’s awareness of and inquiry into his own interior self, exemplified in his Nude Self Portraits Series, is what makes him capable of achieving a particular type of empathy in his work.

PETER HUJAR, Nude Self-Portrait Series, #1A, #2, #3, #4 1967, Four vintage gelatin silver prints each mounted to board, each image, paper and mount, approx. 16 1/4 x 13 1/4 inches © 2019 Peter Hujar Archive, Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

The context in which the work was made—Avedon’s Master Class as well as within Hujar’s downtown NYC community in the 70s and 80s—reinforces the significance of relationships in the process of making art. The relationship between fellow artists, colleagues, mentors, mentees, and even the presentation of images within a curated space is up for consideration. Included within the group of eight portraits is a photograph of a pair of cows. The animals standing sideways, one behind the other, cross the center of the image frame. A pasture fills the bottom half of the frame, while a tree line crosses the back underneath an overcast sky, creating a sense of linear order. Each cow has its head turned, staring directly at Hujar. A compelling recognition between animal and man lingers in the image, amplifying questions of communication and relationship at the soul level, in a non-verbal frame, through looking.

Peter Hujar: Master Class is on view at Pace Gallery through October 19, 2019.

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