A recent visit to the Peter Hujar retrospective “Speed of Life” at the Morgan Library and Museum brought to mind a fashion ephemera item in the Gallery 98 collection.
The Twelve Perfect Christmas Gifts from Dianne B. (1983) is a mini-portfolio consisting of a decorated cover and twelve postcards, eight of which are by Hujar. The postcard portfolio spotlights his talent while also resurrecting a 1980s moment when innovative art and fashion were often aligned, and in which Dianne Benson, the founder of the boutique Dianne B, was a major player.
Dianne B featured cutting-edge designers like Issey Miyake and Jean-Paul Gaultier as well as Benson’s own designs. Her second store in NYC’s Soho was one of the first fashion outlets in a neighborhood still largely populated by artists and galleries. In summer 1983 Benson’s role in fashion expanded significantly when she formed a partnership with designer Rei Kawakubo, and opened up in Soho the first Comme des Garçons store in New York. These visually striking stores with their innovative clothing lines mixed easily with the Soho art world. After encountering Cindy Sherman’s work in a Soho gallery and recruiting her for a Dianne B advertisement in Andy Warhol’s magazine Interview, Benson began regularly using downtown artists for her promotion and advertising.
Peter Hujar (1934-87) started his career in the commercial photography world, learning from masters like Richard Avedon and getting early assignments from Harper’s Bazaar and GQ. But the independently minded Hujar soon began to reject commissions, choosing instead a financially marginal existence dedicated to photographing the downtown, mostly gay, bohemia in which he lived.
While the postcards (offset prints), can’t match the subtlety of tone that marks Hujar’s masterful prints, they do capture his love of grays and moody ambiance. The images clearly connect to Hujar’s non-commercial work.
A blanket (designed by Jean-Charles de Castelbajac), arranged to look like a shrouded figure, is draped over a chair that was one of Hujar’s most frequently used studio props. Hujar’s propensity to show people from above, reclining, or in bed, is present in a card with his friend Greer Lankton covered in Castelbajac’s bedsheets. A postcard featuring silk suede gloves by Gaultier features a cross-dressed man. In another, Hujar photographed his close friend David Wojnarowicz wearing an Issey Miyake shirt while peeling an apple with a knife. The twelfth card in the set portrays the project’s patron Dianne Benson, in a languid pose with wet hair, closed eyes, and sporting ivory bracelets from her signature collection.
Hujar is not the only artist in the portfolio. Along with his eight black-and-white photos are four color-postcards by Neil Winokur, a photographer known for his creative use of color backgrounds and gels. The snake-like design on the portfolio’s sleeve is by Ken Tisa, an artist from the same downtown circles as Hujar. Today Tisa is mostly remembered for his quirky drawing of a winged angel in high-heel shoes that served as the basis for a tattoo on the back of drag performer Ethyl Eichelberger, a frequent portrait subject of Hujar’s. Tisa and the illustrator Laura Karp receive credit for the portfolio’s design.
The Dianne B postcard portfolio was mailed out to costumers in October 1983. As Christmas approached, Benson promoted a four-day sale with a card featuring a drawing of a prehistoric bird by Hujar’s friend David Wojnarowicz. Although Benson worked with Hujar again, their relationship was cut short by the photographer’s death from AIDS in 1987.
In the 1990s Benson closed her stores and retreated from the world of fashion, moving full-time to East Hampton where she took up landscape design and authored the book Dirt, The Lowdown On Growing A Garden With Style (1994). As a Founding Board Member and Trustee of Robert Wilson’s Water Mill Center and Co-President of the LongHouse Reserve and sculpture garden, Benson’s connections with the world of art continue to remain strong.