Shelley Seccombe: Sunbathers, Pier 51, 1977, C-print, 18 by 12 inches. Courtesy the artist.

I cover the waterfront

I’m watching the sea

Will the one I love

Be coming back to me?1

No matter what first-time visitors make of the art on view at the new Whitney Museum of American Art on Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District, they will be awed by its magnificent views of the Hudson waterfront, which stretches from the vicinity of Ground Zero to Midtown and beyond. By and large, the Whitney’s siblings—the much bigger Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the now smaller Guggenheim Museum—look in on themselves. Organized around vast interior atriums, their galleries are mostly devoid of windows. With the notable exception of the Met’s roof deck, most of the spaces in the uptown museums make you feel as if you had left New York for a utopian city of art. In contrast, Renzo Piano’s porous design embeds the Whitney in the city, even as its multiple roof decks, exterior metal staircases and exposed air ducts evoke the ocean liners and merchant ships that once moored along the piers at its base.  

When I was given a preview of the nearly finished building, without art, on a frigid and sunny February afternoon, I was dazzled by the vistas it affords from every level. I was there not to judge the Whitney as either architecture or museum, but to think about the peculiar history of the New York waterfront that so many of its panoramic windows frame. Hearing of my plan to write about the neighborhood, chief curator Donna De Salvo and director of communications Stephen Soba, who served as my guides, said almost nothing about the Apple store, the fashion boutiques or even the Chelsea art galleries. Instead, the conversation took a nostalgic turn to bars and restaurants that closed long ago. Someone had once taken Donna to the disco 12 West. I talked about frequenting the Anvil, a cabaret and backroom sex club that was a favorite of artist Ray Johnson, and expressed my disappointment with my one furtive visit to the Mineshaft, Robert Mapplethorpe’s old haunt. 

Oddly enough, going down a back staircase of the museum transported me to the past. Something about the spare concrete stairwell recalled the interiors of the abandoned pier sheds that ran along West Street in the late 1970s and early ’80s, where I spent so much of my 20s painting and looking for love.

I grew up in Greenwich Village, and I came out as a gay man in the bars and clubs on Christopher Street and West Street and in the Meatpacking District. The museum is about 10 blocks from the Stonewall Inn, site of the 1969 riots that galvanized the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) civil rights movement; 2 and it is just across the street from the piers where gay men sunbathed and cruised. For me, the freedom with which men lay naked in the sun or fucked in the burned-out sheds epitomized the spirit of the movement. I made several drawings and paintings of the dilapidated and fire-ravaged shipping terminals that stood on the piers. A strange mix of marginalized and overlapping subcultures—gay men, the homeless, transgender sex workers, muggers, addicts and queer youth of color—had claimed the buildings and docks. Artists, too, were drawn to these structures lining the waterfront, among them Vito Acconci, Alvin Baltrop, Peter Hujar, Joan Jonas, Louise Lawler, Gordon Matta-Clark, Tava, Arthur Tress and David Wojnarowicz. In the vast shed interiors, empty offices and platforms, they recognized opportunities for performances, site-specific installations and murals. 

If someone of my parents’ or grandparents’ generations looked out from the Whitney’s promenades they might remember a very different waterfront, bustling with the commerce, labor demonstrations, pollution, overcrowded housing and traffic congestion that went hand in hand with unbridled economic expansion. In the early 20th century the piers below 14th Street served merchant ships and commuter ferries. But the advent of cheap airplane transportation and container shipping in the 1960s rendered these piers obsolete. In the 1970s, New York’s economy was in such dire straits that the government could not afford to tear down these structures or even adequately board them up. Right next to where the Whitney stands, a section of the elevated West Side Highway collapsed in 1973. Closed to car traffic, the highway below 18th Street became a proto-High Line: an unofficial promenade for skaters, bicyclists and anyone else willing to ignore the “No Trespassing” signs posted at the entrance ramps. I remember the exhilaration of standing in the middle of this multilane highway on a summer morning and painting the magnificent views down to the World Trade Center with not a single person in my line of sight. 

As I was led through the empty spaces of the new Whitney in February, I couldn’t help thinking of other initiations that occurred outside of the museum’s new neighborhood but are part of the larger story of the waterfront’s history of illicit art. On Mar. 27, 1971, Acconci put out word that for the next four weeks he would be at the end of Pier 17 each night at 1 a.m., telling anyone who met him there “censurable occurrences and habits, fears, jealousies—something that has not been exposed before and that would be disturbing for me to make public.” 3 He remembered feeling terribly frightened that first night as he ventured out alone. But over subsequent nights so many people came to meet him that he ran out of scandalous secrets. 

A year later Robert Whitman led a group of fellow artists, including George Segal, through the abandoned Hoboken Ferry Terminal near the foot of the World Trade Center. Segal described this happening in Arts Magazine:

We stood on the second floor facing an enormous square opening, where a broad set of stairs led to a lower level. . . . No railings kept you from falling off the ledge to the lower level, which was exhilarating; but you could see enough to stay clear. You could play at danger.4

These recollections echo reactions to art made in the immediate vicinity of the new Whitney. Dealer Holly Solomon remembered a feeling of both awe and fear not unlike Segal’s when she first beheld Matta-Clark’s Day’s End late in August 1975: “It reminded me of the first moments of seeing a Michelangelo, of being in a cathedral with flying buttresses and the light-stained glass. Yet I was also afraid. I was afraid to cross the cut he made in the floor.”5 That summer Matta-Clark and a small group of cohorts had broken into the city-owned terminal on Pier 52.They cut an enormous sail-shaped hole in the wall at the end of the pier and made other cuts in the side walls and floors, creating the artist’s largest site-specific work. Matta-Clark wrote about how in making Day’s End he had to compete for the space with “the teaming [sic] s&m renaissance that cruises the abandoned waterfront.”6 He secured the entrance with a padlock to keep the cruising men out. Of course, Matta-Clark’s seizure and “renovation” of city property was more criminal than any of the lewd conduct of the gay men he excluded. The police tried to shut down Matta-Clark’s project at its opening party. There was even talk that he would be arrested. 

Pier 52 was boarded up, but the gay men returned soon after, as can be seen in photographs by Baltrop, Leonard Fink, Frank Hallam and Shelley Seccombe, as well as in Arch Brown’s porn film Pier Groups (1979). Hallam managed to capture Day’s End in the midst of its demolition, when all that remained was the far wall with its sail-shaped cut. Hallam didn’t know that Pier 52 had become a site-specific artwork; he imagined the cuts were part of the building’s industrial past. It’s appropriate that Day’s End disappeared into the ruins, given Matta-Clark’s stated ambition to create nonmonumental structures and anarchic situations that would undermine traditional notions of authorship. Yet the last remains of Day’s End as captured by Hallam, its central void crowned by a pediment, reminds me of a triumphal arch. The photograph is the perfect memorial for the heroic artist, who just a year before had died of cancer at age 35.

Day’s End has taken on mythic proportions in art history as a work of guerrilla action. There is no doubt that Matta-Clark and company risked arrest, along with life and limb, to make cuts in municipal property. But if you had asked about a scandalous artwork at the time, locals would have probably pointed you to the colossal two-story mural featuring naked men with engorged penises, which the little-known artist Tava (the pseudonym of Gustav von Will) painted at the end of Pier 46 in broad daylight and in full view of river traffic. I wouldn’t attempt to compare the ambition or accomplishment of Tava and Matta-Clark. But I am fascinated by the relationship between these two different kinds of illegal art and how they relate to other forms of illicit behavior. 

Anyone who stepped foot into the boarded-up dock terminals to have sex or make art was “playing at danger,” as Segal put it; they were experiencing the thrill of breaking the rules. But there was real danger in walking on the crumbling piers, especially at night, and the men who had sex on the piers or in trucks parked nearby were risking encounters with police and muggers. Arthur Bell’s 1975 exposé in the Village Voice focused on the brutal murder of a waterfront denizen, warning that if you go to Pier 48 “you take your life in your hands.”7 

The menace of the piers is starkly conveyed in a Baltrop photograph taken a few years later of the police surrounding a naked body fished up from the river. It is unclear how the man was killed, but the image reminds us not only of the possibility of homophobic violence, but also of the docks’ long history of organized crime, murder and corruption.

And so when novelist Samuel R. Delany had sex in the trucks along the waterfront he was not just playing at danger. Yet when he recalls a police raid of a nocturnal orgy that sent men scurrying, he writes with exhilaration: “what this experience said was that there was a population—not of individual homosexuals . . . but rather of millions of gay men, and that history had, actively and already, created for us whole galleries of institutions, good and bad, to accommodate our sex.”8 

Delany and other radicals in the gay liberation movement rejected the pathologization of public sex; to put it another way, they embraced perversity as a challenge to the regulation of behavior by various medical and legal institutions. Rather than emphasize marriage equality, they fought for the right not to get married—to opt out of marriage’s standards of monogamous decorum. 

Stanley Stellar’s photograph Peter Gets His Dick Sucked (1981) could be an emblem of radical freedom, encapsulating the alignment of illicit art and sex on the waterfront. The Peter of the title is Peter Hujar, one of the great photographers of the 20th century. Hujar ran into Stellar on Pier 46 while the latter was photographing porn star J.D. Slater. Hujar volunteered to have sex in the background, while Stellar shot the beautiful Slater against Keith Haring’s graffiti of two naked boys showing off their cocks. In comradely spirit, Hujar and Stellar then took pictures of each other, realizing the circle of art, desire and exhibitionism inscribed in Haring’s drawing.

I am haunted by another trace of an encounter between two pier artists—Fink and Wojnarowicz. Fink captured Wojnarowicz simply walking down West Street, his expression somewhat quizzical and his head turned slightly back, as if he were daring Fink to follow him as he cruised the waterfront. I do not know whether Fink and Wojnarowicz were friends, but both were on the piers so much that they had to be at least nodding acquaintances. Wojnarowicz did his first large-scale paintings on the walls of the dock buildings and he shot his series “Rimbaud in New York” on Pier 46, while Fink took hundreds of pictures of the piers and the gay Village. In Fink’s photograph, Wojnarowicz seems at first to be in the midst of one of his many passages through the city’s cacophony of sensations, a flâneur in the mode of Baudelaire and Benjamin. Wojnarowicz described these experiences in his diaries:

Restless walks filled with coasting images of sight and sound, cars buckling or bucking over cobblestones down quiet side streets, trucks waiting at corners with swarthy drivers leaning back in cool shadowy seats and windows of buildings opening and closing, figures passing within the rooms, faraway sounds of voices and cries and horns that roll up and funnel in like some secret earphone connecting me to the creakings of the city.9

The streets of the city merge with encounters in the crumbling pier sheds in Wojnarowicz’s mind, as if outside and inside were one vast continuous space.

Renzo Piano made this spatial continuity the key to his design for the Whitney, so that visitors feel as if they are not just cruising but “swimming in the middle of the city.” He imagines the ideal museum to be a place where we are “lost because of art,” akin to the way Wojnarowicz would lose himself in the streets.10 Piano’s words remind me that in the ’70s the waterfront and the city’s museums neighbored each other in my routine. I often went to the piers right after I had spent hours drawing statues of naked men at the Met, or sat dreaming in front of Monet’s Water Lilies at MoMA, or encountered a Charles Demuth painting of sailors groping each other at the Whitney. For me, going to museums was as much of an erotic experience as hanging out on the piers.  

Both Wojnarowicz and Fink died of complications from AIDS; so, too, did Baltrop, Hujar and Tava, and countless others who belonged to what Arch Brown called “pier groups.” Unfortunately, images of the burned-out dock buildings have fused too easily with memories of the AIDS epidemic, as if the collapse of the port, which began a full decade before the disease was first diagnosed, was a metaphor for what some have deemed the inevitable price of “partying” so long and so well. We must resist the moralistic implications of divine retribution entailed in such a clichéd narrative. And we cannot forget that AIDS activism was born of the LGBT community’s newfound sense of its own power as it literally seized control of a part of the city and made it queer.  

I began this essay by marveling at the new Whitney’s integration into the city. But this makes its potential dynamism dependent on its neighborhood, which increasingly is a place where art is seen and sold but no one really makes a scene. The challenge for the museum is not so much to be a good neighbor to the upscale occupants of adjacent properties as to honor its neighborhood’s past—the spirit of radical artists like Matta-Clark as well as the queer youth of color who in the 1990s were the last marginalized subculture to create a community on the piers, and who are being squeezed out by so-called urban renewal.11 

Perhaps the greatest lesson of the neighborhood’s history is that change is inevitable. As we gaze from the Whitney’s windows and decks, we would be wise to heed Wojnarowicz’s dire yet somehow comforting prediction that “soon all this will be picturesque ruins”12—including, of course, the new Whitney itself. 

 

This essay is dedicated to Frank Hallam, who died in 2014.  

1. “I Cover the Waterfront,” 1933, music and lyrics by Johnny Green and Edward Heyman, famously sung by Billie Holiday. 

2. Although “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender” is a later term for the movement, I use it here for its inclusiveness. The same is true for “queer,” which began to be given its positive connotation in the 1980s.

3. Vito Acconci, “Vitto [sic] Acconci and His Pier 17 Project,” Village Voice, May 18, 1971, p. 30. 

4. George Segal, “On Whitman and Things,” Arts Magazine 47, no. 2, 1972, p. 53.

5. Mary Jane Jacob, Gordon Matta-Clark: A Retrospective, Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, 1985, p. 24.

6. Gordon Matta-Clark and Thomas E. Crow, Gordon Matta-Clark, London, Phaidon, 2003, p. 12.

7. Arthur Bell, “Mayhem on the Gay Waterfront,” Village Voice, Jan. 13, 1975, p. 5.

8. Samuel R. Delany, The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village, 1957-1965, New York, New American Library, 1988, p. 174. Although Delany’s memoir focuses on the 1960s, it is very much a product of a post-Stonewall sensibility, deeply engaged with what would come to be called queer theory in the 1990s. 

9. David Wojnarowicz, In the Shadow of the American Dream: The Diaries of David Wojnarowicz, ed. Amy Scholder, 1st ed., New York, Grove Press, 1999, entry Mar. 6, 1980, p. 146.

10. “Whitney Stories: Renzo Piano,” 2014, youtube.com.

11. For a discussion of FIERCE (Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for 

Community Empowerment) and the struggle for the rights of LGBT youth of color,
see Benjamin Shepard and Greg Smithsimon, The Beach Beneath the Streets: Contesting New York City’s Public Spaces, Albany, State University of New York Press, 2011.

12. David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, New York, Vintage Books, 1991, p. 24.