Art

A 1980s Art Experiment on an NYC Pier

From 1983 to ’84, David Wojnarowicz and Mike Bidlo took over a decrepit Hudson River pier to create a collaborative and ephemeral alternative art system.

Something Possible Everywhere: Pier 34 NYC, 1983-84
Andreas Sterzing, “Paolo Buggiani, Icarus” (1983) (courtesy the artist and Hunter College Art Galleries, New York)

The decline of the New York City waterfront in the 1960s, followed by the near bankruptcy of the city in the 1970s, left hulking piers on the shore that were easier to leave to their decay than tear down. In one of these — the 1930s Ward Line shipping terminal at the end of Canal Street — artists David Wojnarowicz and Mike Bidlo, along with a revolving community of trespassers, worked without funding and without monetary intent, claiming the abandoned space for a two-year alternative art system.

Andreas Sterzing, "Rob Jones Sculpture Shroud at the Pier" (1983) (courtesy the artist and Hunter College Art Galleries, New York)
Andreas Sterzing, “Rob Jones Sculpture Shroud at the Pier” (1983) (courtesy the artist and Hunter College Art Galleries, New York)

Something Possible Everywhere: Pier 34 NYC, 1983–84curated by Jonathan Weinberg at the 2o5 Hudson Street Gallery of the Hunter College Art Galleries, is the first exhibition to focus on this era and this place. Other recent shows have touched on it, such as The Piers: Art and Sex along the New York Waterfront (co-curated by Weinberg) at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, and Pier 34 did follow a number of other art projects in the Hudson River ruins, including Gordon Matta Clark’s “sun-and-water temple” “Day’s End” (1975). But Something Possible Everywhere concentrates on why this particular pier was a distinct hub of collaboration and freedom, even if some artists only visited for a day.

“ … No matter how much time the artists spent on the waterfront, a repeated theme in their recollections is the richness and joy of the shared experience,” writes Weinberg in the accompanying catalogue. “Perhaps that is why this exhibition feels like a reunion in its attempt to recreate a transformative moment among a community of artists; but it is also a memorial. Keith Davis, Luis Frangella, Rob Jones, Peter Hujar, Huck Snyder, and David Wojnarowicz would all be with us to celebrate and remember, but for the HIV/AIDS epidemic that stole their lives.”

Something Possible Everywhere: Pier 34 NYC, 1983-84
Rob Jones, “Shroud” (1984), fiberglass, in Something Possible Everywhere: Pier 34 NYC, 1983-84 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The exhibition’s title is taken from Wojnarowicz and Bidlo’s Pier 34 statement:

And this is just a start for all of us. We are all responsible for what it currently is and what it will become. This is something possible anywhere there are abandoned buildings. This is something possible everywhere.

Little of the art made on Pier 34 survives, aside from a stray window shade bracket painted by Wojnarowicz and saved by Jean Foos. On view instead is work produced by over 30 artists who participated in the original experiment, accompanied by vibrant documentary photographs by Andreas Sterzing. John Fekner’s “DANGER LIVE ARTISTS” stencil mural has been newly executed by Hunter MFA student Mikey Estes, lining a tunnel that leads you to a photograph of a waterlogged pier hallway, from which you access a slideshow of Sterzing’s images accompanied by a soundtrack of artist and audience remembrances. David Finn’s trio of animalistic figures formed from found objects is seated on the gallery staircase, recalling the placement of another set as greeters at the pier.

Something Possible Everywhere: Pier 34 NYC, 1983-84
David Finn, “Masked Figures (Firebird, Orphic Bird, Thang)” (1984), mixed media (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Andreas Sterzing, "David Finn Working at the Pier" (1983) (courtesy the artist and Hunter College Art Galleries, New York)
Andreas Sterzing, “David Finn Working at the Pier” (1983) (courtesy the artist and Hunter College Art Galleries, New York)

You can only imagine encountering them on the trash-strewn steps to Pier 34, and then envision climbing into the rooms lit through broken glass. Inside, you admire the incredible murals on the walls,  like Wojnarowicz’s cow or Luis Frangella’s expressionistic torsos, but you know you have to watch your step because the risk of falling through to the water is real. As you explore, maybe you suddenly glimpse Rob Jones’s ghostly “Shroud,” walk up to it, look for a figure beneath the fiberglass drapery, and find it empty. On the second floor, if you time your visit right, you see sunlight cast through holes in the roof into tracings by Kiki Smith.

Something Possible Everywhere: Pier 34 NYC, 1983-84
Andreas Sterzing, “David and Mike at the Pier” (1983) (courtesy the artist and Hunter College Art Galleries, New York)

The grass on the ground fits so well with the mood of romantic disintegration that you don’t even realize it was planted by Wojnarowicz himself. And maybe, as you continue to wander, as former offices lead into the cavernous terminal, you meet an artist working, Betty Tompkins creating a leaping wild cat from painted words or Valeriy Gerlovin stabbing syringes into a painted icon. The art is messy, imperfect, and muted by the overriding browns and gray of the space, but it feels alive.

Some things aren’t addressed in the exhibition — for instance, the fact that Pier 34 was a free-form community but limited in its diversity, with most of the artists coming out of the East Village gallery scene. But Something Possible Everywhere is careful to not use the pier as a metaphor for the 1980s or read its collapse as a symbol of the AIDs crisis that was only dawning. The destruction of the pier was what finally ended the experiment, although police attention and overexposure had already threatened it. A 1984 photograph by Sterzing, the last work in the show, captures Wojnarowicz’s cow mural through a gaping demolition hole, about to disappear.

Andreas Sterzing, "Pier 34 Demolition (Wojnarowicz’s Gagging Cow and Richard Hambleton shadow painting are visible)" (1984) (courtesy the artist and Hunter College Art Galleries, New York)
Andreas Sterzing, “Pier 34 Demolition (Wojnarowicz’s Gagging Cow and Richard Hambleton shadow painting are visible)” (1984) (courtesy the artist and Hunter College Art Galleries, New York)
PIER 34, New York 1983 (Artwork by David Wojnarowicz) Long abandoned WARD Line Pier 34 in the Hudson River at Canal Street/Spring Street in New York was transformed in spring/summer 1983 by artists into a huge art space, gallery and museum for their work. Pier 34 was closed by the City of New York in July 1983 and torn down the following year.
Andreas Sterzing, “Wojnarowicz’s Gagging Cow at the Pier” (1983) (courtesy the artist and Hunter College Art Galleries, New York)
Something Possible Everywhere: Pier 34 NYC, 1983-84
Photographs by Andreas Sterzing of artists at Pier 34 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Something Possible Everywhere: Pier 34 NYC, 1983-84
Installation view of Something Possible Everywhere: Pier 34 NYC, 1983-84, with David Wojnarowicz’s “He flew his plane…” (1983), made from a window shade bracket, one of the rare surviving artworks made on Pier 34 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
PIER 34, New York 1983/1984 (Luis Frangella) Long abandoned WARD Line Pier in the Hudson River at Canal Street/Spring Street in New York was transformed in spring/summer 1983 by artists into a huge art studio, space, gallery and museum for their work. Pier 34 was closed by the City of New York in July 1983 and torn down the following year
Andreas Sterzing, “Luis Frangella at the Pier” (1983) (courtesy the artist and Hunter College Art Galleries, New York)
Andreas Sterzing, "Luis Frangella Murals at the Pier" (1983) (courtesy the artist and Hunter College Art Galleries, New York)
Andreas Sterzing, “Luis Frangella Murals at the Pier” (1983) (courtesy the artist and Hunter College Art Galleries, New York)
Something Possible Everywhere: Pier 34 NYC, 1983-84
David Wojnarowicz, “Totem 3 (Fish Totem)” (1983), paint and stencil on driftwood (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Something Possible Everywhere: Pier 34 NYC, 1983-84
Kiki Smith and David Wojnarowicz, “Untitled (Psychiatric Clinic: Court of General Sessions)” (1983), screenprint and lithograph; Kiki Smith, “My Secret Business” (1993), duotone lithograph (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Something Possible Everywhere: Pier 34 NYC, 1983-84
John Fekner’s “DANGER LIVE ARTISTS” installation from 1980 executed by Mikey Estes, Hunter MFA 2014, for Something Possible Everywhere: Pier 34 NYC, 1983-84 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Something Possible Everywhere: Pier 34 NYC, 1983-84
Andreas Sterzing, “Rick Prol on the Pier” (1983), pigment print; Rick Prol, “All Saints Day” (1982-38), stencil on wood and window frame (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Something Possible Everywhere: Pier 34 NYC, 1983-84
Two 1984 mixed media works by Luis Frangella, and Judy Glantzman’s “The Greasy-Seated Figures” (1983), oil-based house paint on Plexiglas (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Something Possible Everywhere: Pier 34 NYC, 1983-84
Mike Bidlo, Luis Frangella, and David Wojnarowicz, “Crab” (1983), paint on horseshoe crab (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Something Possible Everywhere: Pier 34 NYC, 1983-84
Valeriy Gerlovin, “The Large Icon” (1985), canvas on curved Homasote, syringes, acrylic paint; Andreas Sterzing, “Valeriy Gerlovin Head with Needle Eyes” (1983), pigment print (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Something Possible Everywhere: Pier 34 NYC, 1983-84
Andreas Sterzing’s photographs of Ruth Kligman at the Pier (1983); Jean Foos, “Lucky Strike” (1983), oil on canvas (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Something Possible Everywhere: Pier 34 NYC, 1983-84
Installation view of Something Possible Everywhere: Pier 34 NYC, 1983-84, with Valeriy Gerlovin’s “Staircase Man” (1985), wood, acrylic, at center (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Something Possible Everywhere: Pier 34 NYC, 1983-84
Andreas Sterzing, “Valeriy Gerlovin & Rimma Gerlovina Working at the Pier” (1983), pigment print; “John Fekner AIDS and Valeriy Gerlovin Head” (1983), pigment print (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Something Possible Everywhere: Pier 34 NYC, 1983–84 continues at the 205 Hudson Street Gallery of Hunter College Art Galleries (205 Hudson Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through November 20 .

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