Pride in Focus: Peter Hujar’s Visionary Beginnings

At the Ukrainian Museum in New York, the exhibition “Rialto” unveils Peter Hujar‘s formative years with a focus on his less publicized early works. Hujar, a pivotal figure in the Manhattan’s artistic underworld of the ’70s and ’80s, is renowned for his raw, penetrating portrayals of the city’s East Village scene. Yet, before he became a photographic icon, Hujar’s roots were distinctly humble, entrenched in the pastoral landscapes of New Jersey under the guardianship of his Ukrainian grandmother.

Peter Hujar, Young Self-Portrait (IV) (1958). Courtesy the Ukrainian Museum, New York. © The Peter Hujar Archive – Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Navigating the upheaval of the 1970s, Hujar anchored himself within the vibrant queer circles of downtown New York. His lens was both witness and participant in the era’s radical shifts, capturing the zeitgeist with the creation of “Come Out!!” This iconic image served not just as art but as an activist tool, amplifying the voices of the first gay pride march in 1970, a defiant anniversary celebration of the Stonewall riots. Despite his considerable contributions, recognition was elusive during his lifetime; however, Hujar’s oeuvre has since ascended to critical acclaim, affirming his profound impact on visual and cultural narratives.

Peter Hujar, Drag Ball, Hotel Diplomat (1) (1968). Courtesy the Ukrainian Museum, New York. © The Peter Hujar Archive – Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

The exhibition, named after the Italian word for ‘meeting place,’ fittingly references Hujar’s studio on Second Avenue, a hotspot for East Village’s creative mavericks. “Rialto” features 75 photographs, capturing a range from pastoral settings to the visceral underground scenes of New York, offering a profound insight into Hujar’s evolving eye—from his intimate portraits of children in Connecticut and Italy to the stark realities of Sicilian catacombs. Each photograph, from his ventures in the 1950s and 60s, underscores his knack for capturing subjects off-guard, enabling a genuine capture of their essence, devoid of the typical ‘photo face.’

Beyond his seminal urban captures, the exhibit also highlights Hujar’s early exploration into the diverse cultures and lives that predated his celebrity shots, like those of Susan Sontag and Janis Joplin. The collection includes spontaneous urban snapshots—a cat perched in a bodega, the pulsing crowds of Times Square—and intimate portraits of artistic legends like Iggy Pop and Jackie Curtis, alongside personal glimpses of Hujar’s partner, Paul Thek. Peter Doroshenko, the museum’s director, emphasized the significance of this retrospective: “It was important to organise the first exhibition of Hujar’s formative years. From age 22 until 37, Hujar befriended the known and unknown, straight and gay, and individuals of various ethnic backgrounds that lived in the Ukrainian Village. Each time taking photographs during the encounters. He documented downtown life as he saw it.”

Peter Hujar, Girl on Swing, Southbury (1957). Courtesy the Ukrainian Museum, New York. © The Peter Hujar Archive – Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Doroshenko notes the importance of showcasing Hujar’s early works. He suggests these pieces lay the groundwork for Hujar’s later acclaim, revealing a depth and versatility often overshadowed by his more famous portraits. This exhibition is not just a revisit of Hujar’s early artistic phases but a reclamation of his narrative as a photographer shaped by his experiences—from a Ukrainian-speaking farm boy to a self-taught artist entrenched in New York’s cultural melee.

“Rialto” runs at the Ukrainian Museum, located steps away from Hujar’s former studio, until September 1. It offers a unique lens through which to view not just the works but the world of a photographer who captured the pulse of a city and its subcultures with unfiltered honesty and poignant artistry.

Peter Hujar, Paul Thek on Zebra (1965). Courtesy the Ukrainian Museum, New York. © The Peter Hujar Archive – Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

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