The Hungry Years, by Jack Pierson
by Timothy Francis Barry
Peter Hujar: Speed of Life, by Peter Hujar
Jack Pierson was born with a plastic spoon in his mouth. In his hometown of Plymouth, Massachusetts, exposure to high modern culture was maybe a yellow school bus trip to the Boston museums; back at home, dirty-sneaker kids gaped moon-eyed at tour buses, laden with people from Paramus cruising for Pilgrims. To what extent his naissance in a place of unspectacular kitsch has informed his low-fi photographic eye is an open question, but a dominant thread throughout his work has long been a search for glamour in the shadows—for a savage beauty found all of a sudden, for the transcendence that lurks in the blurry, the offhand, the raw. His quest is graphically examined in The Hungry Years, a beautiful retrospective collection which yet offers few clues toward the roots of his aesthetic.
Threadbare motel rooms, rakishly appealing guys in Budweiser T-shirts scarfing fast-food burgers, a work-weary Loretta on the downslope of blowsy middle-age: these are documents that function, as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu might put it, “below the level of consciousness or language, beyond the reach of introspective scrutiny.”
Or to put it another way, these pictures don’t mean. They just are. As Eileen Myles (who knows a thing or three about the sources of small-town Massachusetts anomie) notes in an introductory essay, “Jack’s is a poetry of almost,” a poetry about “running away from something.” What he’s been running toward for thirty years now is something glimpsed, something just out of reach.
Pierson was part of a key art-historical moment when the carefully planned and executed classical photographs of Atget, Stieglitz, and Cartier-Bresson were swept away with an ecstatic howl, courtesy of a group of young New Englanders attending art schools in Boston in the mid-‘80s. It was gay, it was punk rock, it was shaking off the torpor of the suburbs. The names now stare back at us from art history textbooks: Nan Goldin, Mark Morrisroe, David Armstrong, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Jack Pierson. The details of their ascent are well documented: a Rhode Island girl named Pat Hearn, an intimate of the quintet, lit out for Gotham to start a gallery, creating a platform for a galaxy of art stars that shine ever brighter today.
Pull back the curtain from the legend though, and discover that Pierson, for one, was not a unanimous critic’s favorite. In a 1994 Village Voice screed, Peter Schjeldahl piles on the invective, calling Pierson’s work “dopey,” “pretentious,” and “superficial,” saying “he reveals nothing” with his “random stabs at connecting with some free-floating American pathos.” Is it possible that our most eminent of American art critics is blind to the gay, disenfranchised mindset, as he snickers at Pierson’s “lonesome cowboy number?”
Just as Julia Margaret Cameron made photographs that look like pre-Raphaelite paintings, so did some of this Boston art-school group look to painting for inspiration: Goldin vibing Toulouse-Lautrec and Manet, diCorcia repurposing the piercing daylight of photorealist Richard Estes.
The Rail queried Pierson on the topic:
Timothy Francis Barry (Rail): My take on The Hungry Years book is that your early aesthetic was informed in part by looking at the work of painters, more than by other photographers. Your blurry, almost abstract, and ecstatically colorful images seem to spring from looking at, and perhaps making, abstract painting.
JP: You’re spot on. Although I was seeing a lot of photographs I admired, the lead up to this work was abstract painting. That’s what I was focusing on just prior to printing these.
Rail: The images that appear similar to a light-faded old photo, especially around the edges, as a framing device [see, for example, A Woman Left Lonely, 1990; Fascination, 1990]—how did you make them? It appears to be darkroom manipulation, seeing as this was done in pre-computer, pre-Photoshop days.
JP: The printing was done by a low-end commercial printing process advertised as “make your memories into posters $9.99.” Although most of the negatives were of perfectly reasonable high photo standards, the method of printing threw a lot of things to chance and provided a unifying style to the whole project. It is that process and my willingness to use it that helped make them into Art in my mind.
If some of the early work was conceived as a project with a unified style, at other junctures Pierson decided to make an Avedon photo (see, for example, Badlands, 1992), or a perfect William Eggleston (e.g. Nice Blue Pickup, undated, ‘80s). This magpie approach to stylistic sourcing serves him well; if there are aspects of Larry Clark, glimpses of Danny Lyon, a knowledge of Robert Adams, and Robert Frank … yes, he borrows from Nan Goldin, and she borrows back from him.
As subtly engaging, as mysterious and yet frankly in-your-face as many of these images may be, they suggest nothing of the later evolution of Pierson’s postmodern art practice, wherein photography has become only one leg of the chair. Finding avenues toward the production of ideas is Pierson’s quest; they are evoked in his liquid graphite and watercolor paintings, his on-the-floor installations using seaglass and driftwood, and in his now-famous word-pieces composed of mismatched letters from old signs.
But The Hungry Years chronicles a period long before this, between the years 1983 and 1989, and it does so effectively, though longtime Pierson followers will recognize many pictures from his other books, such as Desire/Despair and The Lonely Life; what prevents this from reading like a Greatest Hits collection are several “new” pictures, previously unseen by most eyes. A larger format, as in the 1998 Boston School catalogue Emotions & Relations, would have been preferable, because bigger pictures give a bigger bang.
If Pierson’s charter is lust—be it lust for a glance at dying flowers or lust to capture “the sadness … in the hustler’s eyes”—Peter Hujar’s charter is love. Hujar also documented the gay experience, but in a more pragmatic, journalistic manner. His is an art of formal beauty, sitting squarely in the tradition of studio portraits.
Hujar’s compositions are sublime, if formally doctrinaire; they record his love for his subjects, be they sheep in a meadow, a Bush (1974), or a Dog In The Street, Provincetown (1976). His recording of the red-hankie-in-the-left-pocket gay milieu of the ‘70s has few rivals—maybe Alvin Baltrop—and it’s significant that David Wojnarowicz was Hujar’s (briefly sexual) partner in roaming with his camera the then-destitute streets and back alleys of the Lower East Side, Queens, Jersey City, and Newark.
The texts in this book—by Joel Smith, Philip Gefter, Steve Turtell, and Martha Scott Burton—bring to light fascinating and valuable material important to the history of the New York art world, but more importantly to understanding the development of a contemporary way of looking that is still with us—all through the lens of Peter Hujar’s black-and-white camera. It is a towering work of scholarship.
In Hujar’s too-short life (he died at fifty-three of AIDS-related pneumonia), he could barely buy a break. He tried commercial photography to pay the bills, and though he did a lot of work for fashion magazines, he eventually turned away from it. He had exhibitions and sold a fair bit of work, but during his lifetime he was marginalized by museums and the curatorial eye. He had one book, in 1976, which featured images of his friends, like Susan Sontag, who wrote an introduction.
Hujar was bitter; he hated Robert Mapplethorpe, saying “he has his ‘art look’ down perfect, he can do his big dick pictures … but it’s not going to have any odor, any temperature. It’s removed.” Hujar’s own “big dick pictures” are now iconic; several are included here, and they offer an interesting case-study measured against Mapplethorpe’s and Pierson’s depictions of the gay male body.
Like Pierson, Hujar tried on other photographers’ personae; his 1974 Peggy Lee and his 1971 Bill Rafford and Vince Aletti in Dresses, Fire Island could be mistaken for Diane Arbuses; and his Self Portrait Jumping (I) (1974) is a page ripped, with a wink, from Philippe Halsman’s famous 1959 Jump Book.
In strictly formal terms, Hujar’s work succeeds on a compositional level to which Pierson’s photography never aspires. The intrinsic connection between these two very different photographers’ work, and working methods, is best summed up by Hujar’s 1978 portrait Rene Ricard. It catches the raffish yet regal mien of the poet and critic, naked on a bed scattered with rumpled sheets (likely at the Chelsea Hotel), his hand supporting his head, his thoughts somewhere out there in the night. There’s an absence of sexual availability in the depiction of Ricard; though he’s naked to the world, the odor is not Pierson-pheromonic—it is dust and decay.
The critic Jan Avgikos has isolated in Pierson’s work a “fidelity to nature and, simultaneously, a distance from observed reality.” In the stylized, low-culture Americana portraits which are part of both artists’ practice, in which both to some extent choreograph the mise-en-scene, the difference between them is that Hujar seeks presence over distance. His portraits aren’t the ambient glimpse of a snapshot; they’re closer to the frozen-in-time look of a daguerreotype.
ContributorTimothy Francis Barry
TIMOTHY FRANCIS BARRY has written for the Boston Globe, New Musical Express, Aesthetica Magazine, artcritical and artsfuse.org. His first column was under the editorship of Byron Coley at Take-It Magazine. Summers he operates Tim's Used Books in Provincetown, Mass., which book critic David L. Ulin, called his "favorite bookstore in America." (Los Angeles Times, 8/29/13) He lives in New York.