- Peter Hujar (1934-1987)
The exhibition and catalog Peter Hujar – Speed of Life at the Morgan Library & Museum (January 26 – May 20, 2018) is an auspicious way to begin a review of the past year. The acquisition of Hujar’s prints, contact sheets, and related materials by the Morgan represents the most extensive institutional presence of his work extant, which was beautifully presented at the Morgan by the assiduous and sensitive curator Joel Smith. While Hujar’s work has circulated widely since his early death, this is a leap into the mausoleum/museum world of culture, ostensibly for eternity, where it can exist and be found undisturbed. The constellation of presences in Hujar’s portraits move from their downtown neighborhood to a marble palace, among them: Edwin Denby, Lotte Eisner, David Wojnarowicz, Susan Sontag, and Vince Aletti. The East Village of cheap rents, sex, and creativity was erased long ago at this point by a juggernaut of AIDS and gentrification. Hujar’s immaculate portraits are now a ghostly reminder of what we are missing in New York City.
One of the great ironies of Hujar’s presence in the New York art and photo worlds is that, despite the many accounts of Hujar’s temperamental behavior, an artist who successfully scuttled a “career” in the gallery system in his lifetime, who shunned its shallowness, Hujar nevertheless left a legacy to be articulated by brilliant friends, including the writer Fran Lebowitz and photographer Gary Schneider. Thanks the gods for that! Likewise, his estate has been handled by a series of blue-chip galleries, leading up to its eventual perch in the collection of the Morgan. Hujar died in 1987. I met him once, in 1984. That doesn’t seem so long ago, but will another 31 years need to pass before there is a new perspective to contemplate? Who would have expected our local history to be so slow?
Peter Hujar – Speed of Life, with texts by Philip Gefter, Joel Smith, and Steve Turtell, Edition FM/Aperture, 2018
2. Oliver Wasow (b. 1960)
When did I first become aware of Oliver Wasow’s work, and why was I so slow to notice it? We shall assume the first piece I saw, recognizing it as his, was a grid of inkjet prints of UFOs at the Met, in the exhibition Dream States: Contemporary Photographs and Video, in 2016, curated by Mia Fineman. That’s not that long ago. We never crossed paths in the East Village in the 1980s, when we were both there.
Where I really took notice of Wasow was on Facebook, where I became aware of him through the painter Carl Ostendarp and their voluminous and humorous shared posts. Wasow also “debuted” a series of electronically manipulated portraits of current political figures titled the “Rogues Gallery.” These were exhibited at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects with the proceeds directed to either the ACLU or Planned Parenthood. Wasow wrote about his frustrations and anger with the administration (and the mediascape of the administration, which is how we see it/them). Working from existing images Wasow transformed these mundane examples of photographic “objectivity” into opaque caricature, akin to the political cartoons of Daumier, or a gesture like Marcel Duchamp’s Mona Lisa titled L.H.O.O.Q. (a pun in French “she has good ass“).
Seeing Wasow “through” Carl Ostendarp, and getting a sense of their ongoing, deep irreverence towards images, including photography, through extensive visual references and juxtapositions, animates what is otherwise an endgame of psychically dead mass media, cluttering our minds with the inert ether of the world wide web.
The Rogues Gallery can be found in a fantastic array of portraits, Friends, Enemies and Strangers, published by Saint-Lucy, the imprint of artist and writer Mark Alice Durant. Wasow mixes his own portraits with found images, blurring distinctions of authorship, effect, and intent. Portraits hover between the suspension of disbelief seen in the UFO images, and the neurotic villainy of the Rogues Gallery. The relentless probing of Wasow in regards to form, genre, and authorship, the mix of public and private, questions of ownership and worthlessness, the overt sense of drives shaping aesthetic choices in the electronic free-for-all of the web is generative and generous in its simultaneous cynicism and ardor. I can laugh my ass off in a forum that is also thoughtful and considered. This is like finding a flea market in the sterile, mall-like “global village” of the internet – what a relief!
Oliver Wasow, Friends, Enemies and Strangers, with texts by Matthew Weinstein and Rabih Alameddine, Saint-Lucy Books, 2018