Sexuality, Activism and Intimacy

Peter Hujar's Photographs

Peter Hujar is one of the most important photographers of the 20th century, using the medium to document, with great tenderness, the many artists, writers and subcultures of New York's downtown scene. He is most famous for his photographs of Susan Sontag, Andy Warhol, Candy Darling, drag performers, gay culture and his partner, artist David Wojnarowicz, who once said, “everything I made, I made for Peter.”

The present lot was part of the portfolio The Twelve Perfect Christmas Gifts from Dianne B., a set of postcards commissioned by Dianne Benson for her SoHo boutique. Eight were made by Peter Hujar and four by Neil Winokur and featured the designs of Rei Kawakubo and Issey Miyake, among others. 

Reverse of the postcard that would have had Forbidden Fruit on the front, 1983. Image courtesy of Gallery 98.

In Forbidden Fruit, Wojnarowicz is pictured wearing “The Ultimate Man's Shirt” by Issey Miyake, sitting on the floor, casual, cross-legged and sumptuously eating an apple. The photograph feels rife with subtext, just as gay culture was forced to be, through symbols, gestures, and, perhaps most notably, fashion and dress. This work was also created at the initial outbreak of the AIDS epidemic in New York. In 1983, 1,000 cases had been reported in the city and by the time Hujar died from AIDS in 1987, there were 70,000 cases in New York. The overt sexuality and intimacy of this portrait of Wojnarowicz just precedes the impending ravages AIDS would have on New York's creative community and the fraught politics that ensued in the socially conservative Reagan eighties. Activist groups made up of artists, such as Gran Fury and ACT UP began protesting the government's handling of the AIDS epidemic and Hujar and Wojnarowicz were involved in these movements, Wojnarowicz even more-so after Hujar's death.

“We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’”

Read My Lips (Boys), 1988 and Silence=Death, 1987 by the artist/activist group Gran Fury

More than it is political, or even tied to New York's creative scene, this photograph of Wojnarowicz is intensely personal. Hujar, while also being a celebrated fashion photographer, primarily centered his work around those closest to him, saying: “The people I photograph are not freaks or curiosities to me.” With great warmth and stark intimacy, Hujar made familiar, even urgent, those forced to the margins of society. Instilled in Forbidden Fruit is the radical act of claiming a right to the expression of sexual and personal identity.

Peter Hujar knows that portraits in life are always, also, portraits in death. I am moved by the purity and delicacy of his intentions.

Susan Sontag

Peter Hujar 1934–1987

Peter Hujar was born in 1934 in Trenton, New Jersey and has come to be recognized as one of the most influential photographers of the late 20th century. His portraiture of important figures in art, literature, film and music are striking in their direct intimacy, capturing not only the person but also their beliefs, histories, fears, passions and standing in wider culture. His most famous images include people who have since become icons of the 20th century including Susan Sontag, Fran Lebowitz, William Burroughs and John Waters and his style has influenced photographers such as Nan Goldin and Robert Mapplethorpe.

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Auction Results Peter Hujar