Peter Hujar

Published on Artforum.com on September 25, 2009. To see the review in context, click here. The exhibition remains on view at Matthew Marks Gallery until October 24, 2009.

Peter Hujar, Children with Nun, Florence, 1958. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery.

Peter Hujar, Children with Nun, Florence, 1958. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery.

Some of the pictures in this exhibition were published a decade ago in Doubletake magazine; most have never been exhibited. They were made from 1956 to 1958, while Peter Hujar was in his early twenties, and most depict children at play in homes for the developmentally disabled in Southbury, Connecticut, and Florence, Italy. Neither sentimental nor aggressive, these small black-and-white images possess the empathy and compositional rigor we associate with Hujar’s unruffled portrait work of the 1970s and ’80s. Indeed, some, like Boy Rubbing His Eye, Southbury, 1957, and Girl Sucking Her Thumb, Florence, 1958, prefigure poses he would later favor: The children lie on their sides, each poking into the frame from its right-hand edge, both of them aware of the camera but obviously in their own worlds. Other photographs, like Children on a Slide, Southbury and Playground, Southbury, both 1957, have a kinetic dynamism that captures something of the children’s vitality while acknowledging that they are damaged. Hujar recognizes in each child an essential human dignity that, I think, would escape most of us, with our cultural biases and reflexive attunement to difference. (This openness would serve him well in later decades as he photographed the eccentric figures of the downtown demimonde.) In a gaggle of Italian children crowding around a swing set, watched over by a nun, one boy seems more severely disfigured. With arms and legs akimbo and head sharply cocked, he is visually separated from his playmates by being the only one dressed in dark clothing. And yet it is characteristic of this striking, humane body of work that it is his gaze that finds its way directly to Hujar’s lens.

Related reading: A wonderful essay on Hujar’s work by Vicki Goldberg that was published in the New York Times in 2000.