Just over a week after Warhol’s death in early 1987, photographer Peter Hujar recorded his thoughts on the status of his fellow artist, proclaiming that ‘Andy influenced everybody … he’s the great artist of our time. Our Leonardo’. To call Warhol a modern Leonardo is to invoke an aesthetic preoccupation with the male form, but also of course with technological innovation, with experiment in and mastery of multiple fields of knowledge and production. Hujar’s striking assessment helps to inform the collaborative impulses that mark Warhol’s use of photography, as well as his involvement with a cohort of queer artist–photographers, including Hujar, Christopher Makos, Robert Mapplethorpe and Duane Michals. The dynamics of Warhol’s collaboration and reciprocal influence amongst these younger photographers (one that might be thought to mirror Leonardo’s in certain ways) are significant forces in the creation of a body of work unprecedented in its variety and scope, and omnivorous in its reworking of traditions across media.
Hujar dictated ‘On the death of Andy Warhol’ on 1 March 1987, only months before his death from AIDS; in those four brief pages, he meditates on what he sees as the remarkable ease of Warhol’s photographic practice, the way in which Warhol could ‘let go’ and just ‘[d]o it’ without worrying about ‘go[ing] into the darkroom and learn[ing] how to develop films’. Instead, Hujar noted, Warhol both relied upon and embraced new technology: ‘the newest camera … the best polaroid … [a] little automatic camera’. When Hujar made this pronouncement (at once admiring, envious, perhaps even a little regretful), the full extent of Warhol’s photographic practice was not known. It is possible that Hujar was recalling Warhol’s published books of photography, Exposures (1979) and America (1985), although he may also have been thinking of the exhibition of Warhol’s stitched-together photographs at New York’s Robert Miller Gallery in January 1987. Writing in the New York Times, the critic Andy Grundberg judged these late works by Warhol to be ‘subversive’ and ‘very much of the moment’ in their eschewal of ‘point of view’ and the way in which their foregrounding of ‘presentation seems well on the way to replacing style as the means by which art (photography included) is recognized and appreciated’. ‘Style’ here might be understood as the quality that most marked the work of Hujar himself, who was conscious of ‘compos[ing] the picture in the camera’, a picture that had ‘to be beautiful’.
Compared to Warhol, Hujar’s photographic practice was methodical, and, in his own reckoning, ‘essentially very Victorian’– a practice he saw as more clearly in a line of inheritance from nineteenth-century pioneers of the new technology such as Julia Margaret Cameron and Mathew Brady. If Hujar was invested in producing the sumptuous, beautiful, perfectly composed and printed image, Warhol, it seems, was more interested in what cameras – what the technology of mechanised image-making – could achieve as part of his larger artistic project. Warhol’s restless approach to the medium bears the traces of advertising, paparazzi and low-rent pornography as much as a more formalist, perhaps even modernist, concern for images unhitched from the harness of narrative. That is not to say that any of Warhol’s photographic work is evidence of a refusal to attend to composition, aesthetics, process, or earlier traditions of photography. But if Warhol is an artist who worked with photography as part of a sweeping conceptual project, one that redefined art and had a transformative impact on wider society, then Hujar and others in Warhol’s orbit were artists for whom mastery of this one particular medium was vocational if not obsessive in its attention to the kinds of details – dust on a print that Hujar would meticulously retouch, for instance – that might have been for Warhol unignorable signifiers of the singularity of the individual image.
Nonetheless, the openness to technology and looseness of approach to the medium that Hujar identifies in Warhol’s practice suggest ways in which we might understand much of Warholian photographic work. This is particularly the case if we consider how his practice predicts our own moment of photographic hyperproduction, casualisation, and omnipresence: Warhol’s use of the Polaroid almost has the immediacy of the camera phone – although without the same capacity for taking an image discreetly, even voyeuristically, or the potential for instant global transmission. But like the inundation of images awash on social media today (and the status of digital photograph as virtual ‘object’), the polaroid has the potential for public circulation, as well as total privacy – the image of the beloved, the erotic image that requires no third party to develop and print it. Warhol’s polaroids of male nudes, but also those of him in drag, activate energies of the private–public continuum, teasing the public viewer with imagery that suggests a zone of private erotic fetish as much as an exploration of the limits and mutability of the self. Warhol’s Polaroid nudes also anticipate the social media phenomenon of people trading explicit images of the self (and sometimes of others as deceptive proxies for a fantasy self) as tease, invitation, or souvenir of intimate encounters.
Despite the clear differences in their practice and philosophy of photography, Warhol and Hujar produced bodies of photographic work that are significantly connected and entangled. This is not only attributable to their having in common queer subjects like Factory stars Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis, early reality television icon Lance Loud, theorist and writer Susan Sontag, and poet John Ashbery, each of whom had their image made by both artists to very different effect.
If Hujar left us with hauntingly beautiful – and often painterly – images of such figures, photographs that seem to capture the sitter’s animating spirt, Warhol offers a more direct impression of what his subjects were like as people in the world on a particular day.
The connections and possible dynamics of influence are also evident in Hujar’s and Warhol’s parallel movement between impulses of street photography [fig 1], studio work, celebrity and self-portraiture, documentation and celebration of the male nude (whether eroticised, stylised, or aestheticised), fascination with animal and architectural subjects, as well as their exploration of the performance culture of drag. While Warhol’s images across these genres may not occupy the same category of ‘beauty’ as Hujar’s, there is unmistakable beauty of a different variety; this might be characterised as a beauty of immediacy, of the candid moment and ephemeral gesture, a beauty that takes informality as its impulse, and which does not try to hide its flaws. It is, in a real sense, a very democratic beauty.
There are moments when a more direct quality of influence may be evident across the two artists’ works. Warhol’s stitched-together image work, Empire State Building (1982, stitched 1982–86) [fig 2] recall Hujar’s own low-angle Rockefeller Center (2), made in 1976.
The queer artist’s impulse to gaze up or down the length of a skyscraper might crudely be read as a fascination with the phallic, but what is more compelling is how such a gaze registers the growing dominance of corporate power in New York in the late twentieth century and its effects on the built environment, with the resulting miniaturisation of the very human species that has refashioned the world around it. For the queer artist, the focus on signifiers of corporate power might be understood in terms of longing for access to the rarefied world of institutional authority, or, indeed, of a distanced fascination with entities that often reviled and rejected the queer subjects who gazed so intently upon them.
Whether or not Warhol was directly influenced by Hujar’s seminal skyscraper images is an open question, although Hujar remarked that it was ‘amazing how [Warhol] could take anything’ – implicitly any suggestion or influence – ‘and turn it into his own’. If Warhol’s skyscrapers remind us of our smallness, we should also attend to the way he repeatedly tests the limits of the frame. His cropping of human figures suggests ruined and fragmented classical sculpture, and several images in the stitched-together series are of statues, effigies, and mannequins: in one work the limbs of a nude male statue in a classical or neoclassical style have been cropped by the frame to echo the stitched-together photograph of a bare-chested man lifting weights, a man whose arm is fixed in the same bent position as the statue.
This close cropping of the human form also occurs in Warhol’s polaroid photographs, which nearly always place subject and viewer squarely in a zone of intimate human scale, although one that, because of the size of the Polaroid itself, again accentuates the miniaturisation of the human and the portability and latent potential for sharing and dissemination of images through routes other than institutional display or publication. Although Hujar worked with a medium-format camera, his own square images of human subjects often emphasise the wholeness of the person, the integrity of the body seen entire in a single composition: an impulse that might bear a trace of inheritance from Leonardo’s The Vitruvian Man, in which the square is as crucial a framing device as the circle. When Hujar’s frame crops the body of his subject, the result suggests less classical sculpture than the extreme closeup of post-Second World War Hollywood film (including films noirs), or even the intimate framing of various traditions in painting, perhaps most obviously, in Hujar’s case, portraiture from the periods of Romanticism, Neoclassicism, the Decadent movement, and Post-Impressionism.
Although Hujar sees his approach to portraiture as embedded in a tradition dating from the nineteenth century, his work is also potentially influenced if not by Warhol’s still photography, then by aspects of the Screen Test style. As Stephen Koch reflects, ‘Peter’s profound admiration for Warhol’s early phase’ and Hujar’s later ‘dismissiveness about the sewn photographs is revelatory about both artists, even if what it reveals must involve a lot of speculation’. Hujar sat for Warhol’s screen tests in 1964 and was included in The Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys, 1964; he also made portraits of Warhol and his dog Archie (whom Warhol photographed, too) in 1975. Such encounters reveal the ways in which these very different artists were connected over time and demonstrate their familiarity with each other’s work. Hujar recounts how he even showed Warhol examples of his commercial photography, work he judged aesthetically bankrupt, not ‘classy’. Nonetheless, Warhol, with his own background in advertising, was ‘impressed’, saying of Hujar’s ‘glossy color pictures of … green peas and steak on a yellow plate, with flowers’, “Ohhhhh, they’re so beautiful”’. How might such praise have affected the course of Hujar’s subsequent work? And by the same token, how might Hujar’s sharing of that commercial work have affected Warhol’s own subsequent practice?
Warhol’s use of high contrast and deep-black backgrounds in some of his film works, as well as his playful unsettling of composition – allowing subjects to move from a stable centre and break the edge of the frame – are characteristics that mark much of Hujar’s portraiture. The positioning of the subject in Hujar’s 1966 image Susan Sontag (II), along with the framing and lighting in Hujar’s images of Warhol himself, show traces of what might be read as a Warholian influence, even if it operated subconsciously. Hujar’s Warhol portraits also demonstrate the divergence of his aesthetic from that of Robert Mapplethorpe, who made multiple images of Warhol and who was, in turn, repeatedly Warhol’s subject. Mapplethorpe’s Warhol portraits range from religious icon-like headshots of the older artist, one of which has Warhol backlit with a halo and framed in a cross, to representations of Warhol that depict him in a mode that, if not camp, is suggestively queer in pose and in the dynamic of the gaze, which returns to face the photographer and, implicitly, the future viewer of the image. Hujar’s Warhol portraits, on the other hand, give us a Warhol who, if not necessarily straight, presents a version of the artistic persona (with glasses, club tie, and blazer) who looks ready for dinner with one of his powerful society contacts. If Hujar’s Warhol is unthreateningly uptown, presentable for Upper West and Upper East Side hosts, then Mapplethorpe’s is testing and assertive, avowedly downtown, a Warhol of Greenwich Village, the Meatpacking District, and Soho.
The fluid socialisation of influence in a manifestly queer creative milieu not only anticipates how influence now operates in an often-degraded form across social media image-making, but also gives us a corrective to the photographic illiteracy of our day. The constellation of photographers whose pole star might in fact be Warhol demonstrates in complex and wildly divergent ways how the light of one example can bounce back and forth across neighbouring bodies in the dark, making each burn more brightly in their moment. Hujar, who saw himself as longing for an earlier and more beautiful time, acknowledged an important truth about Warhol’s unparalleled body of work. ‘It is sometimes hard to see the beauty in our own time’, he writes, but Warhol ‘showed us the beauty of today’. Whether he had in mind Warhol’s photography specifically or the canvas portraits based on photographs, that Hujar was able to evolve a broad and inclusive sense of what might be beautiful is as much a testament to the plasticity of his own aesthetic sensibility as it is a mark of the extent to which Warhol helped to show the modern world, and his artist peers, that beauty could reside in and flourish even amidst the most ordinary moments of a life, in zones of private socialisation and public performance.
Patrick Flanery is Chair of Creative Writing and Postgraduate Coordinator, Department of English, Creative Writing, and Film, at the University of Adelaide.