Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin & Peter Hujar
At Matthew Marks, Los Angeles (Through December 22, 2017)
Reviewed by Emily Nimptsch
As three supremely unconventional 20th century portrait photographers, Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, and Peter Hujar are currently the subjects of an exhaustive, evocative and eponymous retrospective at Matthew Marks, Los Angeles.
With twenty-two poignant prints spanning sixty years proudly on display here, the viewer can detect the overwhelming similarities and differences between these widely adored artists. Although all three chose the same medium and subject, each photographer approached the human form and spirit in a completely unique manner.
Perhaps the most well-known of the group, Diane Arbus is renowned for her intimate and thoughtful depictions of people on the fringes of society. This New York native would wander the city streets in the 1960s and capture the daily lives of circus performers, transgender people, the mentally ill, and others in pensive and momentous black and white. Arbus was on the leading edge in an era of rapid societal change. For the very first time, the public was becoming aware of groups outside of the mainstream. Fascinated by notions of identity and the unorthodox, Arbus depicted these formerly ridiculed people with dignity and respect. Born Diane Nemerov, she was raised in a wealthy family, which allowed her to pursue an artistic career. Deeply inspired by the photographs of Eugène Atget, Matthew Brady, and Paul Strand, Arbus began a commercial photography career, eventually contributing to Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar before her foray into artistic street photography. Following her tragic suicide in 1971 at the age of 48, her fascinating photographs are now included in prestigious collections all over the world, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Similar in subject matter and tone are the works of fellow American black and white portraitist Peter Hujar. A prominent figure in the New York cultural scene of the 1970s and 80s, this minimalist photographer often portrayed his famous friends and acquaintances, such as Susan Sontag with empathy, theatricality, and sensuality. He also frequently car depicted car crashes, gloomy landscapes, and animals, including dogs, horses, and cows with as much care and intimacy as his human subjects. Due to Hujar’s childhood abandonment, this New Jersey native’s work features a sense of looming darkness. Death is a central theme here, ranging from photos with skulls taken in darkened catacombs to the heartbreaking deathbed photo of transgender actress Candy Darling from 1974. Shortly after Hujar’s death caused by AIDS-related complications in 1987, his partner, avant-garde mixed media artist, and frequent Goldin collaborator, David Wojnarowicz tenderly photographed him one final time. The artist left behind a body of incredibly moving and relatable works which used memento mori to remind us that death is the one thing we all have in common.
As the final artist included in this exhibition, Nan Goldin also takes extremely personal, candid, and transgressive photographs of her family, lovers, friends, and the LGBTQ community. Inspired by Arbus and Hujar, Goldin has captured a series of compelling subjects and themes over the course of her lengthy and prolific career, including drag queens kissing in bars, drug addiction, and domestic abuse. Working solely in color, she instills these topics with vibrancy and sympathy. Goldin admits that this sense of connection photography creates is one of its great strengths, “It’s a way of touching somebody—it’s a caress. I think that you can actually give people access to their own soul.” First emerging on the New York art scene in the 1970s, Goldin’s masterpiece is undoubtedly The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1980-1986), a slideshow of over 700 candid pictures documenting her life within the city’s vibrant subcultures.
One of most gut-wrenching images from The Ballad of Sexual Dependency collection is on display in this latest Matthew Marks exhibition. “Nan one month after being battered” (1984) reveals the artist with not one, but two black eyes. This series also includes several of Goldin’s intimate and unconventional portraits and cityscapes from the 1990s and 2000s, including, the blurry “Paris skyline, twilight” (1999) and “My mother laying on her bed, Salem, MA” (2005).
Other highlights include Hujar’s “David Wojnarowicz Smoking,” (1981) a gelatin silver print depicting the frail-looking artist staring down the camera with a piercing expression. The aforementioned “Candy Darling on her Deathbed” from 1974 is also here. Always glamorous, even when dying of Lymphoma, Darling turned this traumatic occasion into an enchanting boudoir photoshoot with red carpet-ready makeup and a single red rose by her side. Additionally, Hujar’s warm and relaxed 1975 portrait of former Vogue editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland is also included.
Whether capturing the inner lives of strangers on the street, family, or the closest of friends, all three photographers displayed here were not afraid to show the grittier side of life and explored New York City’s vibrant underground subcultures at a time when they were bursting with newfound attention and creative energy. Arbus, Hujar, and Goldin helped spark national discussions by portraying sex, disease, death, LGBTQ issues, drug use, and familial ties with boundless heart and depth. While Arbus revealed the humanity behind things that may seem outwardly strange, Hujar underscored the fragility of life, and Goldin used candid, colorful snapshots to empathize and give power to the voiceless, they were united in the celebration of life in all of its varieties.
Featured Image: Peter Hujar, “Divine.” 1975.
©Nan Goldin, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
©Estate of Peter Hujar, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery