Elton John curates photos of underappreciated talent Peter Hujar in SF exhibition

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Peter Hujar, “Don Mahoney and Peter Hujar Painting 184 Second Avenue, October 14, 1983.” Photo: Peter Hujar

It’s often revealing when one artist curates another. The selection can say as much about the curator as it does about the subject.

Peter Hujar Curated by Elton John, the new photography exhibition at Fraenkel Gallery, is fascinating because of what we know about John’s biography and preferences as well as the quality of Hujar’s work.

The “Candle in the Wind” singer has been a part of pop culture for more than five decades. He has a recent hit, the duet “Hold Me Closer” with Britney Spears, and at 75 he is embarking on his “Farewell, Yellow Brick Road” tour, which will take him to Levi’s Stadium on October 8th and 9th.

Hujar was a photographer known for black and white portraits, often focusing on New York nightlife and artistic figures in the 1970s and 1980s. His most famous portraits include Warhol superstar Candy Darling on her deathbed and a reclining view of writer Fran Lebowitz in bed. As a gay man, Hujar depicted his male nudes with an earthy, odd look that differed markedly from the slick, idealized view of the male form by his contemporary Robert Mapplethorpe.

Peter Hujar, “Peggy Lee,” 1974. Photo: © 2022 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC / Artists Rights Society, New York

During his lifetime, according to gallerist Jeffrey Fraenkel, Hujar was “an artist known and revered by other artists”, but not widely recognized. After he died of AIDS in 1987 at the age of 53, his reputation stayed under the radar until after the turn of the millennium, when Fraenkel began representing the estate in 2001.

John has been a noted photo collector since the early 1990s. In 2011 he bought his first Hujar and now owns more than 20. In 1992 he founded the Elton John AIDS Foundation; The first two prints sold during the Fraenkel show benefit the organization.

“Hujar’s humanity, depth and sensual insights are not and need not be for everyone, but once his images enter your bloodstream they cannot be shaken,” John wrote in the show’s companion book.

Peter Hujar, “Cockette Kreemah Ritz (I)” 1971. Photo: © 2022 Peter Hujar Archive LLC / Artists Rights Society, New York

Perhaps the most anticipated theme that John explores in the 50 paintings on display is fellow artists. A 1974 portrait of Peggy Lee (of which John owns a print) shows the singer middle-aged, beautiful with her frosted makeup and blonde cap, but hardy. San Francisco Cockettes Kreemah Ritz, Link Martin and John Rothermel are shown in full glamor drag and playwright Ethyl Eichelberger is shown dressed as Nefertiti, in a crinoline as “Aunt Belle Emme”, in a suit and nude.

While these images exude a cheerfulness and sparkle often associated with John’s glorious extra stage performances, he also selected photos of playwright Jackie Curtis, lying in a hospital bed and in her coffin, dead of a heroin overdose Age 38 years. John has been public about his own recovery from addiction, and he’s clearly not afraid to delve into some of the darker themes in Hujar’s work.

Elton John, who performed in New York in February, is a well-known photo collector and owns 20 works by photographer Peter Hujar. Photo: Greg Allen/Invision

Among the images of the male form, a 1981 clothed portrait of actor John Kelly is both sensually and technically gorgeous, as the play of shadow and light accentuates his exposed chest and illuminates the crest of his cheekbones. An act by writer and activist Robert Levithan, eros is mixed with playfulness as he stares at the camera, lips pursed, his hand touching his curly hair and himself. 1983’s Canal Street Piers: Painting of a Strong Man features an abandoned gay space that has fallen into disrepair, but a muscle-bound mural still intact, on a crumbling wall, powerful in its marriage of decay and idealized physicality .

For anyone who’s seen the John biopic Rocketman, with its portrayal of his strained relationship with his mother, Sheila Dwight, it’s hard not to see a similar tension in Hujar’s self-portrait with his own remarkably difficult mother, Rose Murphy, in 1977.

Peter Hujar, “John Kelly (I)” 1981. Photo: © 2022 Peter Hujar Archive LLC / Artists Rights Society, New York

“This exhibition was so important to us,” said Newell Harbin, director of the Sir Elton John Photography Collection.

Harbin worked with John on the show’s selection and said it offered him a unique opportunity to combine his passion for photography and funding HIV/AIDS projects.

“Hujar is part of the generation we lost and his work is just amazing,” added Harbin. “It leaves you speechless, it deserves to be seen.”

The show’s final image, 1973’s “Clown’s Trunk,” shows a theatrical touring trunk open backstage. It feels like a touching reminder of John’s own impending retirement from the streets.

Peter Hujar, Ethyl Eichelberger as Aunt Belle Emme, 1979. Photo: © 2022 Peter Hujar Archive LLC / Artists Rights Society, New York

“Peter Hujar curated by Elton John”: 10:30am-5:30pm Tuesday-Friday; Saturday 11am-5pm. Until October 22nd. For free. Fraenkel Gallery, 49 Geary St., SF 415-981-2661. www.fraenkelgallery.com



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