This review of ‘Peter Hujar: Thek’s Studio 1967’ was published in Art Monthly issue 350 , October 2011
Peter Hujar’s exhibition at Maureen Paley consists of a collection of 12 photographs taken during a 1967 visit to his close friend Paul Thek’s studio. Discovered during a period of research for Thek’s 2010 Whitney Museum of American Art retrospective, Hujar’s photos were shot in colour instead of his customary black and white. The original idea was to use the images to publicise Thek’s 1967 ‘Tomb’ exhibition at the Stable Gallery, New York: the show in which the three-tiered pink ziggurat, housing the legendary hyperrealist sculpture of himself as a giant dead hippie, was unveiled. Despite the rather workaday impetus for the shoot, this was no display of dispassionately neutral PR photos. Instead, Hujar’s images offered a uniquely intimate and absorbing view of his enigmatic friend’s creative process.
The images of Thek and his studio fall into three rough categories: details of his studio walls, wider shots of the artist at work and a few traditionally framed artist portraits. As the pair probably envisioned at the time, the wider studio shots help to illustrate the actual business of finishing work for a show, providing a practical insight into his working process. In Thek Working on The Tomb Figure, 1967/2010, the artist stands at a drawing desk in the centre of his small studio while the dead hippie, as if anesthetised, lies on a table in front. There is a real Shelleyan bizarreness to the scene, as if Thek has been surreptitiously snapped preparing for the imminent reanimation of his own Greenwich Village Frankenstein. Seen from an elevated vantage point, Thek 254 East 3rd Street Studio, 1967/2010, shows the orderly clutter of the artist’s workspace. It is made strange by the presence of uncannily human moulds that look just like Thek’s face. Stranger still is Thek, Oakleyville, Fire Island, 1967/2010, an image of the artist strumming a guitar in his second and more domestic studio space (a cottage on the Island beach town where he got his Californian glow, just south of New York) surrounded by sculpted hands. In fact hands, whether close up details of the artist’s own – Study of Thek’s Hand, 1967/2010 – or disembodied sculpted variants of the hippie’s, figure in almost all of the photographs.
The recurring appearance of these appendages, as well as the giant in the room, pulls Hujar’s duskily lit images into the dreamlike realm of the surreal. They seem to hover between the informative, contextualising requirements of the publicity shot (here is the artist and here are his tools) and the peculiarly eerie ambience of something far more elegiac.
In Paul Thek With Hand Sculptures, 1967/2010, the artist sits at a desk, arms folded in awkward resolution with two large, fingerless hand sculptures placed in front of him. This is as close as we get to a conventionally posed artist-and-his-artworks image. On the other hand there is Paul Thek, 1967/2010, a large, heavily silhouetted image of the artist’s face inhabiting another, more disquieting place. Warmly lit and cloaked in shadow, this impressionistic portrait hangs at a distance from all the rest, depicting Thek as a haunted, solitary figure. Much is made of Thek’s status as an art world outsider, somebody on the fringes of established practice. But, far from cultivating that image, he considered himself to be someone trying to make his way into the fold. In a 1965 letter to Susan Sontag he wrote, ‘I fantasize + bargain: I will become a lily of the field once I become the Toast of the town.’ But what Hujar embodies here, and throughout, is the loneliness of the hyperrealist sculptor; the solitude of an artist quietly duplicating himself, at a time when large portions of the city’s artists were trying to make their work disappear completely.
Though the twilightish atmosphere of these photographs invited romantic interpretation, the fact that Hujar decided not to publish them in his lifetime could signify either way: perhaps they were too close to the bone to be exhibited, too intimate to be revealed; or perhaps the sombre stylisation and use of colour meant that the images never sat well with his other work.
All conjecture aside, the exhibition offers an intriguing glimpse into seldom seen aspects of both artists’ practices; filling a coloured hole between Hujar’s 1963 black and white photographs of the catacombs of Palermo and his 1970s portraiture, while simultaneously revealing how the Haight-Ashbury-era Thek made his giant man. Although Thek himself remains as mysterious as ever, there is an image that lets us know what was on his mind during the creation of the large figure at the centre of the ‘Tomb’ exhibit: Thek’s Studio Wall, with Clippings, 1967/2010, depicts a wall tacked heavily with newspaper clippings, badges and assorted photographs. Among pictures of Michelangelo’s David and Christ on the Cross, there are pictures of sewn together limbs, what looks to be a mutant baby with an abnormally large head, and a front page of sensationalist rag The National Enquirer reading ‘Monster…until surgery gave him a new face.’ See, not so far from Frankenstein after all.