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.
Something Possible Everywhere: Pier 34 NYC, 1983–84, curated 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 .