In The Shabbiness of Beauty, published this past month by MACK, the artist and writer Moyra Davey places her work in conversation with that of the photographer Peter Hujar. Before becoming a book, the project appeared as an exhibition at Berlin’s Galerie Buchholz in spring 2020. Thousands of miles away, confined to their New York City apartment, Eileen Myles printed out Davey’s and Hujar’s photographs and mounted their own private rendition of the show. The essay Myles wrote about this experience appears below.
Peter Hujar, Paul’s Legs, 1979, from The Shabbiness of Beauty, by Moyra Davey and Peter Hujar (MACK, 2021). Courtesy The Peter Hujar Archive LLC.
Steve died. He was huge. He was fifty and lived in the apartment downstairs right by the front door. His Yankees sticker is still there. He went into the hospital on March 2 and died on March 22. Anna at the laundromat told me. Anna’s quite bent, deep into her eighties. I remember her in her fifties a mean and vivid woman. She got older the place is filthy many of the machines are broken but it’s on the corner and I’m weirdly loyal to it. Steve worked there usually standing outside and I think he delivered bags for Anna. He helped me lug things upstairs too. Years earlier he lived right next door to me with a crowd of people. I remember when he was a little boy and he was thrown butt naked into the hall as a joke. I was coming up the stairs and he was desperately pounding on the door. Your neighbor died Anna told me when I was getting my change. Steve I asked. He’d be standing outside my front door when I came home from wherever. Hey Steve. Was it COVID I asked. We don’t know. His sister comes once a week to get the mail Anna said. She comes on Tuesday. They still send it. I told her the post office doesn’t take you off for a while. They’re worried the landlord won’t give back the security she intimated. What’s it like five hundred dollars. Two. Two hundred and something. Then I turned hoping his sister would come in. And now this place is familiar less. I mean everything perpetually feels more unconnected to a past when I was young and the Tin Palace on East Second Street was a jazz/poetry bar and Stanley Crouch held court at the bar. He died last week. My friends who were bartenders lived in this building and I just went over here one day on my break and I could have it the super said and I moved in. This is like 1977. Time puts its stamp on everything.
This leg. I’m beginning to print the pictures out. Fifty-five or fifty-six of them. It looks lousy but you get the graphic thing of it. I have four hanging over my bed. Moyra was interested in the quality of hair smooshed when wet. It’s about not shaving. Isn’t it funny or cool that hair does this. And those droplets below the ankle. One on the calf. It’s a specimen leg, not unloving or dead. Just deeply specific. To take my leg or that leg and say this. The black line at the bottom further holds back the organic nature. Like suturing it. So the show goes Leg, Nude, Kate (without scruple). I’ll print out Nude now.
Moyra Davey, Leg, 1984, from The Shabbiness of Beauty, by Moyra Davey and Peter Hujar (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.
That’s Peter. Haptic. I’m thinking of smell too, a palpable kind of photography. It’s 1979. Not so much gym-bodied. A little pimply. But rounded in a creamy way, the shadows merely enhancing the casual folds of skin around the waist. Not fat, but turning. Everything’s turning. Like flesh is the clothing of something I think the spirit. And this is definitely the photograph of the person (taking it) who knew that he was attractive so though it doesn’t wind up being about him, it is an affirmation of a touchable world, a world close. The picture is chosen by Moyra Davey who among other things when she sees (whether she’s shooting or curating) is I think interested in the exquisite math of it. The body. The leg. The time of day (I’m thinking now of Jason in his studio) when your love is young and you already see him for years.
What’s Moyra’s birthday. August 13. Leo. She doesn’t even know her chart. Of course. Peter’s a Libra. Seems right. The surgent woman and the sexy dead man. Here’s Kate (without scruple) and scruple is such a catholic word. Scruple is a unit of measurement. An apothecary word. Even Canadian. In 1981 Moyra Davey is twenty-six and Kate, delicate—is exposed here as muscle, frame and pose. She’s not uncomfortable. It’s a little regal, a little stiff. There’s a pathetic quality, like a ceremony is begun in these early shots—a female career—gendered by the impromptu (but private) studio of sisters, family and this elaborate challenge (Kate) that makes me fool differently with the lens of my understanding of what a body is. Who’s looking, who’s positioning who. It’s vernacular yet deliberate. It’s intense. It’s a subversion, I believe. The stiffness of these early photos is like waking in the prop room of Moyra Davey’s later films. What I experience here is without words, an ambient feeling, though Kate’s name is there on the wall and a declaration of freedom is within—without scruple not cold but coolly pronounced on that teeny black border—and this composition (of everything) has begun.
Moyra Davey, Jane, 1984, from The Shabbiness of Beauty, by Moyra Davey and Peter Hujar (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.
I like troubled Jane even more. Her nipples and her shadows. The fact that her body is covered a little bit by the lines of shade cast by the high lighting I’m guessing in a bathroom makes privacy. Jane goes in. Jane is the name of something we can’t quite get. She’s got on one of those fisting wrist bands that seem incredibly advanced for a teenager if that’s what she is or someone in her early twenties who is fully in her capacity to refuse. It’s like a note she left on the door.
I went out to the pier for Jack’s sixtieth birthday party. Gail Thacker was there. I have this little office across the street I never used. I got it when my mother died three years ago. I thought I’d like a little room to work in across the street. I got a desk and a lamp and put some of my mother’s dead possessions in there. But there wasn’t a window so Jerome used it these few years and he doesn’t need it now. He’s okay he just doesn’t want to work that much. I asked Gail if she had any use for the little desk. It’s a cute little desk. She’s moving. Yeah probably. Would you take a picture.
I do have Scotch tape and I can probably stage some parts of the show right there on that empty wall at the end of the bed and think about what these combinations mean. Am I planning it or doing it. It’s an essay right?
The black dog has some white on its muzzle. People love to point out white hair on dogs like they’ve sleuthed the incredible fact of dogs aging. This is such a good dog. I’ve pasted these two up in the kitchen. Moyra’s Water Print 1 is immersive and even a little hypnotic next to Clarissa Dalrymple’s dog, Kirsten. Clarissa was or is hot. She would have a good dog. Moyra’s water is painterly.
She told me she initially printed out the photos and spread them around her apartment. Hujar believed in separating genres in his shows. Moyra says she mostly did but not always. She told me they (the gallery) wanted to do a Hujar show and then it became that Moyra Davey would curate and her own work too, which made for this entirely bountiful result.
Peter Hujar, Study of Thek’s hand, 1967, from The Shabbiness of Beauty, by Moyra Davey and Peter Hujar (MACK, 2021). Courtesy The Peter Hujar Archive LLC.
Moyra Davey’s array shuffled in with Hujar’s. Thoughtfully. At the end we get Peter’s photos (in color) of Paul Thek, his lover (1967). The two sets (Hujar and Thek, Moyra and her sisters) bear relation to one another and the show becomes like a snake biting its own tail. It opened for a few weeks last February then the thing happened. I keep thinking about the living woman and the dead man. Like a forest.
That it’s kind of spectral. I mean and then the pandemic. But in the enormity of time in this graveyard (or in the work of these two photographers) you can do anything you want.
Lots of people saw it in the first couple of weeks. Then did it just sit there. Did they take it down. No. I guess they opened it again. It circulated on the internet a lot.
Peter’s horse speaks for the shabbiness of beauty. The thick fuzzy mane curlicues behind the ear. The animal gaze not saddened but unshaking, the horse’s muzzle abuts a rough fence, and a weird shadow makes me go closer and closer (via control +) to see that shadow is just the sun concluding too that the horse is there one day in Warwick.
Her: It’s pictures but it’s thinking about pictures. His sea puckers like knots in a tree.
Do the young always carry entire history. Sophie Mgcina and Thuli Dumakude—South African Play “Poppie Nongena,” 1983. I’m looking into the South African understudy’s eyes in the embrace of the older actress who is somewhat turned away and it strikes me that experience makes a human’s willingness to show it all become occluded, eventually, but that is also an aspect of feeling.
Hujar’s nighttime photos from the seventies and eighties of the West Side from Fourteenth Street south to Wall Street (which are not here) are legendary. So it puzzles me he would also make this crisp portrait of the view of Lower Manhattan from the three-year-old building that was the World Trade Center. The view practically crackles like a new deck of cards. I decide his precision here is rage.
I’m standing out in the hall of my building looking at Moyra’s knobby horse, the sweet horse head covered in flies and all the world holding the horse up against a vivid white sky, maybe it’s a roan horse and the day cloudy I mean pale. It’s a little like a historical painting, a blown-up moment in one, and of course as well it is a portrayal of the horse’s thoughtfulness. Which only exists in a ratio to space.
Feet chickens water chickens Jason. You could miss the mountains for the man. They’re behind him but so what. Before, a table full of light. The composition is quiet, still yet she lends authority to the sprawl. While Hujar is holding up the dark. His work is often feminine. He was twenty-three when he shot these chickens in a yard in Key West. The trashed fence reminding me of a world I knew as a kid. It was then, 1957. It’s one of the two oldest images in the show. Moyra picked a lot of Peter’s water shots. They are film—I mean I could say that in general Hujar seems to be creating neorealist stills. The elegance and the shadowiness that nearly subsumes his portraiture (including these pics of seas, brooks, and rivers) seems passionately postwar.
Peter Hujar, Wave, Sperlonga, 1978, from The Shabbiness of Beauty, by Moyra Davey and Peter Hujar (MACK, 2021). Courtesy The Peter Hujar Archive LLC.
I look at his oily dark surface, his haptic black sea I don’t think “immersive” like Moyra’s. It’s the Hudson in the seventies. Dirty as fuck. Moyra’s chickens researching in the yard are peck pecking in the timelessness of a day are like a gang of kids. But they are sensations: down low, gathering knowledge for her. We always explain animal intelligence in terms of the ages of children. Since we don’t execute them (kids) for food before they have time to grow they function as living measurement for all other creatures. Chickens can count and in many cases are simply smarter than kids.
Hujar’s chicken is a soldier, an ornate warrior about to get thrust into our mouths. Which is war.
Vali Meyers’s feet are covered with, I suspect, animal names. Hujar photographed them in 1981. I remember her being introduced to me with great reverence one night at the Chelsea in 1982. I think if I saw her feet I would have been in awe. There’s even a little claim here to being the buddha.
It makes sense that Moyra Davey would wind up expanding into writing—out here in art everything is given (supposedly) but in writing you can’t see the intention. Visual art is mapped on the out there. Writing’s like a cat. I would say Moyra’s a cat photographer.
I’m looking at Peter’s swarthy Circus Elephants. There’s pity in the framing. What’s most evident is their closeness. They’re not performing now. The feeling among them is almost heard. I get texts from an animal rescue group. There are elephants who work alone in the world for years since they were babies and if they ever arrive at a sanctuary toward the end of their long lives and they finally see another elephant. Wow.
The longer you look at them you really get the shape of the elephants’ heads, part of seeing is understanding how they are built. And not stopping at the photograph. What would its value be if this photo was about itself and not finally about the elephants.
In a way the total picture of our time is the abstract sum total of the awareness of all the creatures who live in it. No matter what power chooses to do. It’s the greatest loss, the irreverence and disregard for the rich chaos of knowledge and presence that defines life on this fading planet. The chain at the elephants’ feet is surrounding us all.
Peter Hujar, Nina Christgau, 1985, from The Shabbiness of Beauty, by Moyra Davey and Peter Hujar (MACK, 2021). Courtesy The Peter Hujar Archive LLC.
I’m obsessed with time. Though I recently learned it doesn’t exist. The past is perfect, remains back there in memory and future is intention and the present is gone just this flow through. In physics the particles flow through these slits
Tossed on a wall in Berlin
In Memory Bernadette talks about the pre-WTC neighborhood Vito Acconci lived and moved around in.
I realize I’ve passed through a certain stage with these pictures and now they are friends. Moyra rustling through it all, entering his archive with hers, staggering the experience. I can only write about my world, the vanishing building, and slowly install the memory of this show on my walls.
Looking at earth from outer space. If these are specimens of our time here. But I print these to see them on my desk. With my phone and stapler and coffee cup. That show.
I am trying to enter her photographs not his.
Finally I get it out into the hall. I hear my young neighbors laughing in their first apartment. I tape Times Square on my door. Lousy print. It’s not even that.
John with the white horse Goya is catholic. I insist. I get so close—the glory of never seeing pixels—to see his veins, his something on a chain deep under his rumpled probably red old turtleneck.
I think he’s WASP, she shrugs.
The horse is squinting. The horse is not squinting. The horse around the forehead and eyes is covered with flies. Charlie (Flies). It’s moist. The flies attracted to the sweet tears of the horse. The horse is spotted and its lower quarters darkened by the eventual merging of the spots. I’m easily moved toward this thought. Is light a thought. Ask Moyra. If the flies are not such a bother, and it’s summer, well it still must be difficult standing on all fours in a body of fur.
These three young men, Barney, Eric, Leo, the one on the left, Barney, good-naturedly honoring his artist parent, while a bar of light straps them all in. Leo is gregarious, Eric, in the middle, is dreaming. That’s interesting says Moyra. In another photo he grasps his own wrist.
Eric is haunted by his beauty, awkwardly enunciating it by this fashion choice, his hair.
Manny I and Manny II from 1981 is from the apex moment of Puerto Rican pride. I believe these are their real names. This double portrait installed this night outside the once door of the Guzman family simmers with a quiet challenge—the arched eyebrows and a small facial scar on the side of one man’s eye, the intense folds in the other’s white quilted shirt, the manicured fingers hooked modestly into his front jean pockets. Full of loaded detail, nonetheless the picture warms continually. The small guy in the dark shirt leans forward, arms held behind his back. Both are ferociously neat and full of strength, their masculinity exulted by the detail.
Look at the horse’s effort and that single forward leg. And the triangle, the crotch of everything at which leg meets mountain.
I love that Emma, her back covered by a spider tattoo, turns to Moyra, “You got it?” Can I stop?
A small dog is alerted to the complications. Is this one in Florida too?
Moyra Davey, Armpit, 1984, from The Shabbiness of Beauty, by Moyra Davey and Peter Hujar (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.
Moyra’s sliced quadrant of a female chest. Armpit. It’s conceptual demon youth. Wet armpit hair. Hair wisping around a small red nipple. Her love and her estrangement from female bodies is practically a font.
To wake at weird hours trying to finish this and there’s Jane, there’s the World Trade Center. Remember that morning? In my building, dying batteries squeak.
Blind Mare (pair bond) is its title yet what I overwhelmingly see is the humpy earth. What I figure about her work is it’s always relational. It’s confident and this is the Leo side of her world. All of it. The pitch the animals are standing on, the crooked earth itself forcing my own lenses to work. I ratchet up to the picture best I can the body adjusting through a long forest of tweaks to look, to see, that pitch eventually wrestling, humping my parts to the position I think she meant.
I in my bathrobe and the shifting temp and the unsteady floor
I was thinking about how blur works in his pictures because he doesn’t use it—well, in Rapids, Hyrkin Farm (I), the out of focus wave crashes into the surgent. The blur sucks the power away and the dominant wave is actually the smaller part of the picture.
The word surgent had its heyday in 1917, but it never really was a hit, always supporting something else while it is simply rising.
I think his blur is in service of the explicit emotion. Hers is more like the apparatus. Like why is the marquis empty. And the people walking by just a blur. I think this is the profoundest statement I can imagine of the emptiness of now. There are lights but there’s nothing here.
I use Twitter as a slot machine. I pledge ten dollars on “Puddin” an adorable dog. Wait and see if he’s rescued or winds up a digit in the day’s kill. That long double row I saw yesterday of dogs that were just euthanized in a shelter. I leaned in to see if there’s anyone I know.
Hujar is making records of his senses. The baby cries through the camera pretty much. Moyra’s efficiency is a way of gasping at the kinds of holes moments fall in. She’s tricking it for sure.
Michelle Collison is languorous, casts a sentimental look like a nineteenth-century painting. I searched Michelle wondering who she was but nothing came up. A few brokers.
Moyra Davey, Plymouth Rock, 2019, from The Shabbiness of Beauty, by Moyra Davey and Peter Hujar (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.
This chicken’s shape is bulbous. Ha and the name Moyra gives it Plymouth Rock is foundational, implying this chicken does everything. You can meet it, you can eat it, you can wait for each brown egg.
I was going to make an American joke (“land of opportunity”) but she shot it in Canada.
I thought Mark was a jeweler but it’s the beginning of the day perhaps. The intensity of focus at the beginning. Even being young as a subject (again). I meant to ask Moyra who this guy is.
Colt with Mother, Italy (1978). This horse is his. The colt’s legs are sort of blobby and shaky. The joints come in before the spindly legs fill out. The colt’s eyes cast down while trailing the mother’s butt.
Peter Hujar, Colt with Mother, Italy, 1978, from The Shabbiness of Beauty, by Moyra Davey and Peter Hujar (MACK, 2021). Courtesy The Peter Hujar Archive LLC.
In the kitchen (mine) Paul Thek cheats toward us a bit in this tiny close up portrait, his eyes damp feeling like the melancholy Russian poet Yesenin.
And then, just his paw out, presented: my hands my human hands
I’m sitting in Joe and Charlie’s apartment and because Charlie knew Peter I asked him to “give me something.” I thought any stray fact about Peter Hujar would be good. He said that Hujar was a very attractive man. Joe and I smiled. Yeah. Is it so unimportant to nail the exact spot in someone’s mortality when they took these pictures. I feel like we’re all handed a hundred years to move around in. You might get a tiny piece of it. My friend talks about tarot yesterday. She was talking about transmission. The spirit coming through the cards. Or through the photographer. A man gone for thirty-three years.
out of focus, fuzzy force
the audible, breathing ocean
oily dark surface, haptic black sea
Vali’s feet are pathetic. I won’t go into it here but I’m seeking a global reevaluation of the word, making it central to the pith of the approach to governing we want. Who are the pathetic.
Because there are chickens on both sides of the show there are simply more chickens.
You can feel her touching and weighing her infant’s clothed feet. Its meaning? It’s the pressure of presence. Syncopation. Like the pressure of love. Do I love the sheer sexism of the title: Dina and John McClellan. It could be funny.
The ocean is crowning.
Often I’m working fast off essentially sketches bad copies. (This is Gary and John, the printers’ worst nightmare!)
Now the small dog seems patient, beleaguered.
Moyra Davey, Rosie (bedroom), 2013, from The Shabbiness of Beauty, by Moyra Davey and Peter Hujar (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.
In Rosie (bedroom) her noble inquisitiveness, her rolling stars of gleam and wrinkles, the white patch on her chest, her belly genitals her sweet paws press in a yogic dog way.
This cock puzzles me frankly though I would definitely have uses for its banded strangeness. I’m pasting cocks up in the hall.
The chickens don’t know what to do about those boots.
Neil Greenberg’s Feet. They are young dirty feet. Neil was stretching at some point. Peter went oh that’s nice can you stay there. Neil visited Peter in the hospital—on Thanksgiving the day he died. He kept pointing at Neil and Neil thought Peter wanted something but he was just laughing at some silly design on Neil’s shirt. Like the dying are so serious. He called it the horse-pistol. I’m sweet on you Peter said. They met at The Bar on Fourth and Second Ave and were walking home and suddenly he stopped. There was a car outside covered with drops of rain. Now that’s beautiful said Peter.
In this “studio” shot at the end of the show Paul Thek resembles a butcher in a fairy tale—proud of his work, which is to cut up men. The photo’s in color of course. The severed hands are strewn matter-of-factly on a worktable.
As the light suffuses him.
Ask Moyra what color is this shoe. In her mind I mean. She can’t pass through and find it out. She can only choose.
I mean what does she believe. Gray? Pink?
Eileen Myles came to New York from Boston in 1974 to be a poet. Their books include For Now (an essay/talk about writing), I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems, and Chelsea Girls. They showed their photographs in 2019 at Bridget Donahue in New York City. Eileen has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and an award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters. They live in New York and Marfa, Texas.
The Shabbiness of Beauty, by Moyra Davey and Peter Hujar, was published by MACK in April 2021. Text © 2021 Eileen Myles.
Last / Next Article