While at The Piers: Art and Sex along the New York Waterfront at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, one question kept popping up in my mind: What is with this obsessive nostalgia for the decaying, destroyed and often depressing New York of the past, particularly as connected to the emerging gay subculture and downtown art scene of the 1970s and 1980s?
Curated by Jonathan Weinberg with Darren Jones, The Piers is the first museum exhibition to document the artistic and sexual culture surrounding the burnt-out piers on the Hudson River, from after Stonewall until the mid-1980s, when many of the piers were demolished.
Like the book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, a well-known and studied love letter to the dingy, stained Times Square porn theaters pre-Guliani, pre-AIDS and pre-Grindr, by Samuel R. Delany, whom Weinberg cites in his catalogue essay, The Piers presents a nostalgic view of its subject matter. But the piers were dangerous as well as free-wheeling. While the importance of preserving and displaying the history of the piers is unquestionable, the yearning for these industrial spaces might hinder the preservation of some of their negative aspects.
From Vito Acconci’s “Security Zone” (1971), a performance in which Acconci was blindfolded and led around by a man he did not trust in the crumbling Pier 18, to David Wojnarowicz’s frequently exhibited photographic series Rimbaud in New York, the exhibition succeeds in developing a connection between the various artists who used the piers despite differences in their artistic styles and motivations. Starting with Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Day’s End” (1975), for which Matta-Clark trespassed into Pier 52 to chainsaw and torch an enormous hole into the end of the pier, artists took advantage of the nearly lawless area around the New York waterfront.
The most spectacular intervention in the piers for me has always been the murals and other installations in the stunning Ward Line Pier Project at Pier 34. Organized by pier-goer Wojnarowicz and renowned appropriation artist Mike Bidlo, the Ward Line Pier Project featured a lineup of future ’80s East Village art stars such as Louis Frangella, John Fekner, Rhonda Zwillinger and Kiki Smith. With murals and installations, Pier 34 was transformed into an urban, 20th-century Lascaux, with the paintings on the chipped, water-damaged walls looking oddly similar to cave paintings.
The artist most associated with the full range of activities inside the piers is unquestionably David Wojnarowicz, who wandered through the warehouses for his art and his writing, in which he would capture his experiences, including cruising. In the run-down piers, the public art was extremely connected to the public anonymous sex occurring there. Wojnarowicz was not the only artist to go to the piers to cruise; for example, his lover and mentor, photographer Peter Hujar, also used them as a place of inspiration and sexual exploration.
Looking at the piers as a site of 1970s and 1980s gay culture, it’s hard to not associate the photographs in the exhibition documenting various sexual acts with the onset of AIDS only a few years later, particularly when you realize the staggering number of artists and men in the photographs who passed away due to complications from the disease. While the piers as a site for anonymous sexual freedom for gay men after Stonewall in 1969 remain an important part of gay history, the specter of AIDS behind many of the photographs and the history of the men in them create a tragic tone that possibly counters the curator’s intent.
Taking the exhibition as a whole, it seems that Weinberg and Jones present the piers as a celebratory space of sex and art, possibly leaving out some of the darker elements and rejection. For example, police attempted to shut down the art-filled Ward Line Pier Project because a dead body was discovered inside one of the rooms of Pier 34. I have also read accounts that the piers could be very isolating, particularly for gay men of color.
Giving in to nostalgia for the 1970s and 1980s like many other exhibitions of downtown-based art, The Piers raises some important questions about the source of this longing. Does it spring from the restricted, Disney-fied, Bloomberg-led New York that we currently live in? Or from safe sex post-AIDS crisis? Or the over-moneyed and conservative art world? Whatever the source, this nostalgia certainly hinders a complete critical look at the art from that period.
In reality, the piers were not ideal, but they were the sight of some important moments in the queer and arts communities, presenting a spectacular, almost primitive space, at the edge of Manhattan. As Wojnarowicz once explained in an interview with Barry Blinderman:
What I loved about them was that they were about as far away from civilization as I could walk, and I really loved that sense of detachment. It was like sitting with the entire city at your back and looking across the river.
The Piers: Art and Sex along the New York Waterfront will be on view at the Leslie-Lohman Museum for Gay and Lesbian Art (26 Wooster Street, Soho, Manhattan) until July 7.