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Peter Hujar Retrospective - ICA (Lower Gallery)

Preview by Lizzie Guilfoyle

THE INSTITUTE of Contemporary Arts is presenting the first UK retrospective of the photographer Peter Hujar – from December 5, 2007 to January 27, 2008.

Hujar, one of the most important American photographers of the 1970s and early 1980s, is best known for his black and white portraits of the New York avant-garde, but his subjects also include nudes, animals and the night time streets of Downtown Manhattan.

Hujar started his career on the fringes of fashion photography, before becoming increasingly involved in avant-garde circles. But it was in the early 70s, with his male nudes and portraits of the gay scene, that he first began making a name for himself.

The exhibition contains portraits of cult transvestite performers such as Divine, Ethyl Eichelberger and Candy Darling. Others include figures from New York’s cultural aristocracy, such as Andy Warhol as well as younger scene-makers such as Susan Sontag, John Waters and David Wojnarowicz – the latter Hujar’s partner and friend in the 1980s. Many of the subjects of Hujar’s portraits are shown languidly reclining on beds, their attention turned inwards, posing with beautiful insouciance.

In 1976, Hujar published Portraits in Life and Death, in which his images of New York’s luminaries were supplemented by photographs of desiccated bodies in the catacombs of Palermo. Susan Sontag, who wrote the foreword to the book, commented on the symbiotic relationship between the two groups of works: “Photography… converts the whole world into a cemetery… Peter Hujar knows that portraits in life are always, also, portraits in death.”

The exhibition also contains a number of Hujar’s male nudes, reflecting his immersion in the dynamic gay culture which characterised New York at this time. Looking beyond Hujar’s portraiture, the exhibition also features a selection of the photographer’s images of New York itself, including stunning images of empty Downtown streets at night, as well images of the city’s cruising grounds.

Finally, the show also contains a number of striking images of animals, which he photographed using the same square format film, and the same iconic approach, that he brought to his human subjects.

Hujar’s work received little public recognition during his lifetime, but the photographer was a highly significant figure in the East Village ‘scene’ of the 1970s and early 1980s, and his work was an important influence on fellow artists such as Nan Goldin and Robert Mapplethorpe.

Since his death, from AIDS, in 1987, Hujar has been the subject of retrospectives at Grey Art Gallery, New York University, in 1990, at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (travelling to Fotomuseum, Winterthur) in 1994, and at PS1 Contemporary Art Centre, New York, in 2005.

During this exhibition, the ICA will also be showing a new short film from British artist, Emily Wardill, in the Upper Galleries.
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Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), The Mall, London SW1Y 5AH.

Admission (covers entry to exhibitions, café and bar): Monday to Friday – £2, £1.50 concessions; Saturday and Sunday – £3, £2 concessions.

For more information call 020 7930 3647 or visit the website.