“Everything I made, I made for Peter” were the words of multidisciplinary artist, photographer and writer David Wojnarowicz who met Peter Hujar, already a consummated photographer 20 years his senior, in New York City in 1980. What began as early encouragement, turned to mentorship, and ultimately deepened with intense love. Glimpses of their profound bond are strewn through their body of work.

Sadly both artists died of AIDS, Peter in 1987 and David in 1992. The work of David after Peter’s death turned to political and social activism, documenting and writing about the epidemic, at a time when the government was doing absolutely nothing to intervene in one of the major human crisis of the 20th century.

Exhibition view in Loewe Foundation
The similarities of their early lives and sadly abusive childhoods were uncanny. Peter never knew his dad, who left his mother when he was a baby. He was then sent to live with his Ukrainian grandparents on a farm until he was packed off to Manhattan at 11 to join his mother and stepfather, both alcoholics. At 16, he left to take care of himself. David was also abandoned for two years when he was born and spent his childhood living in foster homes. His parents came back for him, only to abuse him further, so at 16 he also ran away – living on the streets, hustling for a living and hitchhiking across America. In 1978 he came to New York’s East Village, determined to use images and words to record an authentic account of his life and of those he had meet along the way. This harsh and similar upbringing left them both very insecure and traumatised, so probably when they met the recognition was instant.

When David arrived to New York, Peter was already an important figure of the downtown scene. In 1976 he had published his book Portraits in Life and Death (Da Capo Press) with an introduction of Susan Sontag, was in Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests and lived in Candy Darling’s apartment after her death, which he lovingly documented.

Peter Hujar. Christopher Street Pier #4, 1976
Two years after David’s arrival in the city they met and a brief love affair turned into a profound artistic and intimate partnership. Armed with their cameras, David and Hujar’s chronicle of the East Village’s spirited cultural shift is unique, because of their active participation in the milieu. While Peter was driven by his political activism in the Stonewall movement, David produced boundary-pushing visual art, post-punk music and performance pieces. Their dual artistic endeavours were united by an unyielding denouncement of downtown New York’s social and political status quo, portraying fellow artists, prominent musicians, and writers with poignant proximity.

After losing Hujar to AIDS – and his diagnosis a year later – Wojnarowicz’ art became sharply political. By channeling his own loss into relentless advocacy for everyone affected by AIDS and the US government's denial of the crisis, he spoke for thousands. Decades later, his impassioned activism remains a source of inspiration.

Peter Hujar. Susan Sontag, 1975
Peter Hujar. Andy Warhol (IV), 1975
This exhibition at the Loewe Foundation, opening just a month before David’s major retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, is a little jewel; a look not only into the work of these amazing artists but also a celebration of their relationship that shaped the work they both did and it’s actually the first time that they are looked at it together in one single show. I am sure they would love it. For the show, 40 works have travelled to Madrid on special loan from Hujar’s eponymous archive in New York, together with 25 of David Wojnarowicz’s art pieces generously provided by Marion Scemama – who was an artist and close friend who collaborated with David — as well as pieces source from other private collectors. The ensuing exhibition is a retelling of history through the compelling portraiture of New York cultural figures as well as a fragmented glimpse into the urban environment that shaped a new generation of spirited creators. A series of Peter’s barefaced, vulnerable self-portraits add a reflective dose of gravitas to the series.

DAMNº spoke to curator María Millán, who was living in Downtown New York in those years, and who has – paired with Loewe's project's team – has put together this extraordinary show. In addition, Loewe has released a limited edition of T-shirts featuring Wojnarowicz’s art, with profits going to NGO visual-AIDS.

Tell me about your work with Photo España and a bit about your own trajectory.

I worked as a Photography Editor for over two decades in New York; at places like Parkett magazine. At the same time, I was also developing my own personal photo projects. While I lived in the city, I was always very close to the Art world. Always going to see exhibitions or performances with friends and then going out to dinner and talk about them. It was way of life…

When I arrived to Madrid a decade ago, I did not know anybody, and did not really know how to go about working here. After having been away for twenty-six years I was a foreigner in my own country. Five years ago, Lucía Zaballa, from Loewe Foundation, invited me to curate a photography exhibition for the International PhotoEspaña Festival. I have since curated 5 shows for them.

Why did you decided to do this show at this moment?

Well, when I look at Peter Hujar and David Wojnarowicz´s work among other themes, I see and hear voices claiming the right of sexual identity, it talks about living in the margins of society, and it denounces society’s double morality and the Aids crisis… I remember how crude and difficult those years were for many people. The social gap between those who lived within the establishment and those who didn’t grew wider and deeper. In the past few years the gaps and walls in the World are spreading fast, and double morality is back and healthy.

Peter died over 30 years ago, it is true that gay marriage and other positive sexual identity regulations have taken place, however it is shocking to see that in today’s 'Modern World' society and the law in many countries still condemns those who are not heterosexual. As an example, non-heterosexual soccer funs attending the World Cup games in Russia right now are advised not to express their affection in public. Sadly there have already been brutal attacks to lament. It happens everywhere. It is still not understood that tolerance and respect for others make us all richer people.

You are also a photographer. What was your relationship with them if any?

As a photographer and as an individual, I admire the honesty and strength of their work, what they were able to do with it artistically and politically. In terms of photography, I relate with Peter Hujar’s content and like his approach to it formally. One can appreciate the connection he had with his subjects without imprinting his own presence in the frame. I like David’s multidisciplinary art expression from the immediacy and well thought out stencils we could see around Downtown, his photographs and paintings, to his performances charged with love, pain and rage.

David Wojnarowicz. Untitled, 1988-89

DAMNº:Their story and their work is part of an era in New York, you were living there also during the 80s, can you talk to us about that period and how their work is related to the city at that time?

As I said, in the mid-1980s, there were several social marginal groups coexisting and each trying to survive their crude reality. The core problem was the same for all. Anyone who wanted to help or be part of what was happening at the time could find ways to do it. There was, for instance, a group of mostly Hispanic transvestite people living in garbage trucks converted into homes in an area run by the Sanitation Department of New York - located where the Whitney museum is now. There, the city kept trucks and piles of salt to be used on the roads in case of snowstorms. Most of these people were crack addicts who lived in horrible conditions among salt and junk for a couple of years. Two Spanish people, Carlos Aparicio and Susana Aikin, together with others, were very active trying to get help for them. While doing so, they made two documentaries titled The Salt Mines, followed by The Transformation, which won them an Emmy Award.

Across town, on 2nd street and Avenue B was the Gas Station, where more diverse people gathered to create work, or participate in all kind of politically charged performances. Peter and David’s work speak about what was going on in their immediate circle at the time. They gave voice, especially David since he lived longer, to what was happening to all those marginalised groups of people.

Both artists died of AIDS, tell me how it affected their work and how their work affected the AIDS awareness and regulations.

Their work was their lives, and when Peter’s life ended David’s work was even more poignant and charged with pain and anger towards politicians and a large part of society for turning their heads away from the terrible crisis. It is hard to think that more people could have been saved if time had not been wasted.

Their work and that of many other artists, scientists, intellectuals and regular caring people contributed to create awareness and be proactive at finding solutions to a World crisis.

What do you think is their legacy?

Their work is witness of a time of struggle, crisis and some victories, a reminder that tolerance and respect for all needs to be part of our early upbringing. Their work is instrumental in times like now when we seem to be walking backwards in this Global World.

Loewe Foundation

Gran Via, 8


June 4th – August 26th 2018

David Wojnarowicz. Iolo Carew, 1988-89
Peter Hujar. Merce Cunningham and John Cage Seated, 1986
Peter Hujar. Candy Darling on Her Deathbed, 1973