Beyond the Studio & Out of the Closet: Art and Sex on the Waterfront, 1971-83
The Piers: Art and Sex along the New York Waterfront at the Leslie + Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art
April 4 to July 7, 2012
26 Wooster Street, between Grand and Canal streets
New York City, 212-431-2609
This fascinating, intelligently-conceived, at once astute and celebratory exhibition, organized by Jonathan Weinberg and artist Darren Jones, documents, mostly through photographs, a moment of unique intersection between several histories: gay, art, industrial and New York. From 1971 to 1983 – post-Stonewall and pre-AIDS, and at a time of social liberation and economic distress – the rapidly decaying wharfs and docks on the West Side below 14th Street were the site of unprecedented sexual and artistic experimentation. As commercial shipping moved to Jersey and Brooklyn and a bankrupt city could not afford to police its abandoned industrial stock along the waterfront, artists and gays, for varying reasons, seized the day (and night).
In a heady fusion of hedonism and politics, the Stonewall riots of 1969 empowered new levels of public affection. Docks and sailors held historic associations of gay adventure anyway, but the virtual police no-go piers proved an enticing playground for those who liked it rough. “Why do gays love ruins?” asks a character in Andrew Holleran’s novel, Nostalgia for the Mud, quoted by Weinberg as the epigraph to his accompanying essay. “The Lower West Side, the docks. Why do we love slums so much?” “One can hardly suck cock on Madison Avenue, darling” comes the reply. With the ocean liners gone, cruising began in earnest.
But the piers were also compelling for artists, regardless of their orientation. The abandoned real estate proved a perfect canvas for Gordon Matta-Clark’s literally breakthrough environmental interventions, his “building cuts.” The show is rich in photographs of Day’s End (Pier 52), his iconic cutout at the river’s end, steel wall of a mammoth shed, an Ellsworth Kelly-like sail-shaped puncture opening the dark interior to daylight. Beside Matta-Clark’s own photographic diptych of his work there are images by urban photographers who documented the Piers scene such as Harry Shunk, Leonard Fink, Frank Hallam and Shelley Seccombe, who captures guys sunbathing along a jetty oblivious of the cut formed behind them in the name of art. In contrast to literally and sexually cold nocturnal activities, the piers became a great place for mass gay sunbathing, and were soon dubbed “Manhattan Beach.”
For Vito Acconci, the dark, sinister, edgy quality of the wharfs made a suitable locus for Untitled Project for Pier 17 (1971). As announced in a printed statement posted at the John Gibson Gallery, the artist waited at a designated hour at the end of the pier and to anyone who came to see him there he would reveal “something that has not been exposed before and that would be disturbing for me to make public.” Matta-Clark and Acconci were both made aware of the piers by ground-breaking curator Willoughby Sharp who anticipated the post-studio potential of the waterfront.
Artists and queers are by no means mutually exclusive groups, of course, but as cohabiters of the abandoned piers they were an odd couple. Could this come down to the fact that for gays, whether there to cruise or sunbathe, the piers were perfect just as they were, a place in which life could improve, while for the artists, the piers were mere raw material, awaiting their magic touch? The relations were active and passive: for gays, the piers were transformative whereas for artists the piers awaited transformation. Matta-Clark, as if anticipating a charge of vandalism of city property, defended himself in a rather prissy manifesto of 1975 in which he lamented the way the properties had been taken over by “a recently popularized sado-masochistic fringe,” arguing that his interventions would “transform the structure in the midst of its ugly criminal state into a place of interest, fascination and value.” The city would ultimately do its own improvements, leveling the piers to create the running and cycling trails we have today.
Of course, both Matta-Clark’s macho hole busting and Acconci’s whispered secrets can be read as playing, with innuendo, upon the gayness of what was going on around them, a collision of sub and high culture. But art in the piers was not all about cold cuts and furtive revelations: there was “gay abandon” aplenty. At the end of the period covered by this show, in 1983, Mike Bidlo and David Wojnarowicz took over the Ward Line Pier which they made an extension of the then burgeoning East Village scene. For artists they attracted like Luis Frangella and Judy Glantzman, the vacant industrial spaces were Sistine chapels awaiting their mural painting exuberance. The Austrian street artist Tava (Gustav von Will) was already decorating the piers with stories high gay graphics of great skill and verve.
Sometimes, business and pleasure could be combined. Colleagues Stanley Stellar and Peter Hujar ran into one another during a photo shoot at Pier 46 in 1981, as Weinberg recounts. The photographers shot pictures of one another on Stellar’s camera. And Hujar posed, getting a blow job, in the background of Stellar’s portrait of J.D. Slater as the celebrated porn-star leaned half-naked against a door jam with Keith Haring graffiti behind him, “a startling juxtaposition between an act of fellatio, a beautiful male body, and a signature Haring,” as Weinberg writes. This sumptuous photograph seems to be saying, in paraphrase of a chant made popular at the time: It’s a pier, we’re all here, get used to it.