Art

Fluid Glimpses of a Queer Community on the Margins

More than portraits of the Piers, Alvin Baltrop’s photos become documentation of the AIDS crisis in the ’80s, which deeply impacted (and continues to impact) queer communities and communities of color.

Alvin Baltrop “The Piers (man wearing jockstrap),” n.d.​ ​(1975-1986) silver gelatin print, image size: 6.73 x 4.65 inches (all images courtesy The Alvin Baltrop Trust, © 2010, Third Streaming, NY, and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York, unless otherwise stated)

Months after the sizzle of summer and World Pride, many of the exhibitions organized in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots remain on view — and worth seeing. One of these is the Bronx Museum’s The Life and Times of Alvin Baltrop, which honors the ongoing legacy of the photographer through February 9, 2020. The exhibition, which features over 100 photographs and a selection of the Bronx-born artist’s ephemera, draws from the museum’s permanent collection, private collections, and from the Baltrop Archive, which is housed at the museum.

Installation view of The Life and Times of Alvin Baltrop (courtesy of the Bronx Museum of the Arts, photo by Argenis Apolinario Photography)

The exhibition is loosely organized, following Baltrop’s practice of not including dates or titles for his photographs. This structure imbues a queer fluidity to the space and encourages a multiplicity of connections. It begins with early work and photographs from Baltrop’s years in the United States Navy,  (from which he was honorably discharged from in 1972). Even in these early photos, some of which were made using makeshift materials, one quickly understands Baltrop’s mastery of light and shadow, his talent for composition, and his draw to both the intimate and the everyday — in ships and sailors, in docks and sunbathers. Following his Navy photographs, the exhibition places Baltrop back in New York, where he captures scenes of gas stations, parking lots, and underpasses, many lit only by street lamps.

Alvin Baltrop, “The Navy (man sitting on deck, looking away)” (n.d., 1969-1972), gelatin silver print, image: 4.53 x 6.7 inches

These examples lead to his documentation of the West Side Piers in the 1970s and 80s, a historic site of queer community and crumbling architecture. Through Baltrop’s lens, one sees empty or nearly empty spaces, moments of intimacy and sex, steel beams and rippling water. In his photos, light pours out of windows and doors; the ridges of buildings and bodies curve in their shadows; men wear their pants around their ankles or nothing except socks and shoes. One image shows cursive graffiti warning to “watch for your wallet” in the Pier’s “Pick Pocket Paradise.” Particularly in these images, I was struck by Baltrop’s masterful compositions of the Pier’s structures and the sense of community captured even in his singular portraits. 

Alvin Baltrop, “The Piers (graffiti in warehouse), n.d. (1975-1986), gelatin silver print, image: 4.53 x 6.7 inches

Several recent and upcoming exhibitions consider  the legacy of the Piers and the artists that frequented them. The Whitney Museum, whose new building sits at the steps of the West Side Piers in the much-changed Meatpacking district, presented David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night last summer, a retrospective of the artist and writer who documented and contributed to much of Pier life, and will present a new public art installation in the Fall of 2020 by David Hammons titled Day’s Ends, inspired by Gordon Matta-Clark’s eponymous work from 1975. The iconic openings cut into Pier 52 by Matta-Clark are seen in some of Baltrop’s photographs.

Within the predominantly black and white exhibition, the select moments of color pop, conveying the radiance of non-white skin, of red patterned towels, and of green-tinted walls. Nearby, Baltrop’s silver gelatin portrait of activist Marsha P. Johnson — big hair, jewelry, and eyes at the camera — stops you in your tracks.

Alvin Baltrop, “Marsha P. Johnson” (n.d.​, 1975-1986), silver gelatin print, image: 8.62 x 13.03 inches

In the final grouping, dilapidated buildings burn surrounded by debris, firemen, and police. Bodies are shown blanketed, bagged, and hurt. These photographs become more than portraits of the Piers, they become documentation of the AIDS crisis in the 80s, which deeply impacted (and continues to impact) queer communities and communities of color, and of the unstable economy which Baltrop, who worked many jobs, knew too well. In his words, AID’s “rapid emergence and expansion . . . further reduced the number of people going to and living at the Piers, and the sporadic joys that could be found there.” The show ends as it began, with portraits along the water.

Alvin Baltrop, “The Piers (man outside warehouse)” (n.d., 1975-1986), gelatin silver print, image: 4.53 x 6.7 inches

During his lifetime, Baltrop — Black and bisexual — encountered institutional exclusion. The art world, which still ignores and erases the work of the (multiply) marginalized, barely recognized or exhibited Baltrop. Much of his visibility came only after Artforum featured his work in 2008, four years after his death. This presentation at the Bronx Museum finally shines a light on a rich archive and does justice to Baltrop’s deep contributions to photography. The accompanying catalog, which includes essays from Antonio Sergio Bessa, Douglas Crimp, Adrienne Edwards, Allen Frame, and Mia Kang, will remain an invaluable resource. Especially beyond milestone anniversaries, it remains critical for institutions to counter erasures and whitewashings, not just decades after the working life of an artist, but during it as well. 

The Life and Times of Alvin Baltrop continues at the Bronx Museum of the Arts through February 9, 2020. The exhibition was curated by Antonio Sergio Bessa, and is presented in conjunction with the Stonewall 50 Consortium.  

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