With regional museums closed and waiting to reopen, we are continuing to remind readers of their important collections by highlighting visual art works you can visit as soon as social distancing practices change and museum doors are allowed to reopen to limited capacity on July 2.
This week’s pick is Peter Hugar’s photo-portrait “Susan Sontag, 1975” at the Princeton University Art Museum.
Hujar was born in Trenton in 1934. His mother was a single waitress who left him with her parents in Ewing. In 1945 his mother married and took him to live with her in New York City where, with the help of a poet Daisy Aldan, he learned to be a photographer and part of the young bohemian arts community that would transform the city.
An independent artist repelled by commercial work, Hujar focused on individual projects such as the 1976 “Portraits in Life and Death.” Here he juxtaposed images of catacomb corpses with portraits of live people from his artistic circle, including writer Susan Sontag, who would become famous in 1977 for her first book of essays, “On Photography.”
According to PUAM notes, the image represents a photographer who fixes his attention “on whatever comes before him, remaining alert to the possibilities presented by an accident of gesture, mood, or light.” And that “the reclining pose and the square format, both characteristic of Hujar’s work, produce a static effect that suggests a photographic equivalent to mortuary sculpture: a portrait in which life and death cohere.”
A New Yorker reviewer named him “among the greatest of all American photographers” but added that he also has “the most confusing reputation.”
That is in part because of his range of raw and unadulterated portraits of humans and animals, nudes, cityscapes, and still life and his reputation for being “volatile, epically promiscuous, and chronically broke.” Hujar died of AIDs-related pneumonia in 1987.