Tender is the Ghost

When Peter met Paul

Text by Ajay RS Hothi

In reflecting on the relationship between artist and photographer, it is evident that Paul Thek and Peter Hujar shared a deep and serious love affair. Thek, the artist, had a personality that was erratic, prolific and temperamental. Hujar, the photographer, has been described as handsome, extravagant and complicated.

Hujar's photography has been recalled into consciousness from the few exhibitions of his work during a tragically brief lifetime. His work, particularly from the apex of his career in the 1970s and 1980s, forges unlikely relationships between his background and training in fashion photography and classic portraiture. In this, Hujar distanced his imagery from the contemporary trends of his peers. His photography depicts Manhattan's avant-garde personalities of the Lower East Side underground as much as August Sander's People of the Twentieth Century defines inter-war Germany.

Paul Thek was a difficult person to remain close with. After alienating his close friend Susan Sontag, Thek remained in unreciprocated correspondence with the intellectual. His warmth and lyricism stayed with Sontag though, and she returned to her friend to read to him on his deathbed.

This September, Maureen Paley's private gallery in London's East End opens an exhibition of Paul Thek's studio as photographed by Peter Hujar. There are also etchings and drawings uncovered during research for a retrospective of Thek's work, Diver, which opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art in October 2010.

The photographs are mostly comprised of documentation taken for Thek's infamous sculpture, The Tomb/Death of a Hippie (1967). The work, a life-sized self-portrait/death mask, with Thek attired in archetypal hippie fashion, was left to ruin in 1981 after Thek refused ownership of the piece. An effigy to the demise of the Age of Aquarius, and a forewarning to the decade of cynicism and fear that was to follow.

Hujar's photography of Thek's studio reveals an element of the artist's personality previously unseen by the public. The artist's studio as sanctuary. A place of private reflection where he can translate, craft and make manifest emotion. Hujar documents the idiosyncratic process of artistic creation. Specifically, he photographs cad averous elements of the sculpture as a work-in-progress. Aspects of (corpo)reality litter Thek's studio in a modern-day echo of Shelley's monster, Frankenstein. As yet unaware of the tenderness of life it is being created to inhabit.

Thek and Hujar died a year apart of one another - Hujar in 1987 and Thek in 1988. Both in the city of their youth, New York, and each from complications arising from AIDS.

All images printed in 2010. Courtesy Maureen Paley, London.

  • Tender is the Ghost - Paul Thek, Peter Hujar #1
  • Tender is the Ghost - Paul Thek, Peter Hujar #2
  • Tender is the Ghost - Paul Thek, Peter Hujar #3
  • Tender is the Ghost - Paul Thek, Peter Hujar #4
  • Tender is the Ghost - Paul Thek, Peter Hujar #5
  • Tender is the Ghost - Paul Thek, Peter Hujar #6