On a frozen, wet winters evening a grey gale was loose in Manhattan, a reckless storm came from the arctic and travelled over the empty expanses of Canada, effortlessly across the Atlantic and placed its icy fingers down every street and avenue. First I found refuge in a deli and sipped a sickly sweet Hot Chocolate and then after only a few minutes of being back in the cold I had no choice but to go into a fancy furniture showroom in Madison Avenue. A conversation with the sales person was a necessary and unsatisfactory formality, she knew that I was not a customer, and I knew that she knew. The conversation was a pantomime of manners and took the form of an actor’s workshop where we both knew and stuck inexpertly to our lines, we were staring all the time at the huge window as trash moved horizontally across the street.
It was relief to get to the Morgan Library and get ushered into the auditorium where we were to listen to a conversation with Fran Leibowitz talk about her friend the photographer Peter Hugar, dead now for about 30 years, but who is still very much with us and now perhaps more than ever.
Every photograph is to some degree a self-portrait. In the case of Huger this is particularly true as he placed his life before his twin lens reflex camera and documented a critical moment in the history of the world, the 1980’s, AIDS in particular and where the creative hub of Manhattan was the vortex. Others were there too, notably Mapplethorpe and Goldin, and some had fame before and after they died like Keith Haring. But there is a group of artists who were known in the art community but not so much in the outside world who were victims of the disease and who vanished without much notice and who now occupy a sacred space a generation later. David Wojnarowicz, Paul Thek, Peter Hugar…not exactly household names but all had been in a circle and had left their mark and like the poet solders of the First World War are revered because of this collision of acute observation and sensitivity in the face of senseless horror.
It’s easy to gain some understanding of their lives through the photographs and texts but to really know an artist like Hugar you need it from the mouth of an old friend, and that’s where Lebowitz comes in.
It was perhaps a stroke of genius to pair someone who was thoughtful and quiet (Trump might well call him “low energy”) with Fran who is like a vintage motorcycle that needs a couple of kick starts before spluttering alive, a cantankerous and noisy engine, rattling, racing unpredictably but in a massively entertaining way. We are fooled into feeling like she is an old friend, in the audience I see heads resting on shoulders, hands being held, knowing grins when the stories came out. She, and those like her, are the reason many of us are here in this inhospitable city – the urbane wit, the person who knows anyone worth knowing. For all the adolescents watching endless Woody Allen movies from the boredom of suburbia – this was what we came for.
And it’s exciting to hear about Hugar from the horse’s mouth – there could be no more reliable witness. We heard about the person, a sometimes self-loathing and sabotaging individual, self-centered but at the same time desperate for a ride out of the city to a printing plant in New Jersey. A lover of animals and the night forest and some of the iconic images we know were taken with Fran sitting irritably in the car on such a trip. He was tall, thin and handsome and charmed Lebowitz’ Jewish parents. A story that made everyone laugh was when she brought back into the city some chicken that her mother insisted she would give to him. He asked whether it had been made in aluminum pans because he had read that this was not healthy, and Lebowitz threw her hands in the air and said Peter, you just had sex with a complete stranger in a public bathroom, and you are worried about aluminum pans? It was a palpable expression of frustration at the tragedy of AID’s, that even in the face of the predictable outcome, some men simply couldn’t shield themselves from forces of desire. This informs many of his images and of those in his immediate circle. There was an moment after the talk when we walked through the show, a few older men that one could speculate were survivors of that period, looked intensely at the images recovering part of their own history.