Cruising the Archive: Jonathan Weinberg on the History of the Piers

Alvin Baltrop: The Piers, n.d. (1975–86). Courtesy the Alvin Baltrop Trust and the Pennsylvania State University Press.

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“The piers” are often invoked as specters of New York’s countercultural glory, of the expansive possibilities for sex, art, and new ways of living that opened up as the city’s infrastructure crumbled in the 1970s. But which piers do we have in mind when these images of unbounded sexuality and artistic expression are thrown about? Where were they? Who used them? What happened to them? For many, “the piers” exist more as a vague symbol of a bygone era than actual sites with distinct histories. With his book Pier Groups (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019), art historian Jonathan Weinberg seeks to attend to the nuances of these questions while contending with the nostalgia and romanticism that saturate his own memories of the piers, which he frequented while living in New York in the 1970s and ’80s.

As he seeks to clarify these questions, Weinberg simultaneously conflates, with intention, the various users and activities associated with the piers. Pier Groups discusses avant-garde and conceptual artists such as Robert Whitman, Vito Acconci, and Gordon Matta-Clark; members of the East Village scene like David Wojnarowicz, Luis Frangella, and David Finn; and the many photographers who captured both candid and posed images of the sexual and artistic milieu on the waterfront.

In deeming this broad range of artists “peers,” Weinberg sheds light on the work of a number of “amateur” photographers he has championed over the last decade, such as Leonard Fink and Frank Hallam. More importantly, however, this grouping flattens hierarchical distinctions between the piers and the art world, allowing Weinberg to examine gay public culture and its bearing on avant-garde artists in the 1970s. (Weinberg’s attention to the impact of gay culture on the “straight” art world is also apparent in “Art After Stonewall,” the dual-venue exhibition he organized with Tyler Cann and Drew Sawyer, on view at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery and the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art through July 21.)

 

Weinberg titled his book after a 1979 gay porn movie that provides an entry point into the overlapping valences of “the piers” along the Hudson River in New York’s Chelsea and West Village neighborhoods. The film follows two men as they wander Pier 52, one a seasoned regular of the cruising site, the other an outwardly straight construction worker who sizes up the pier for demolition. He is a muscular and mustachioed representation of the city’s impending initiatives for redevelopment. As the two men exchange glances, peering through the cavernous ruins with their divergent aims, the viewer catches glimpses of the enormous crescent-shaped void of Matta-Clark’s Day’s End, one of several unauthorized cuts the artist made into the pier’s crumbling building in 1975. For Weinberg, the porn film offers a subtle, poetic, and unintentional reading of Day’s End, bringing into focus the hypermasculine erotics of construction (and Matta-Clark’s deconstruction), the voyeuristic pleasure of exposure, and the potential for creation amid destruction.

Extending this reading, Weinberg notes that Matta-Clark padlocked the pier during the creation of Day’s End; in the photos and film that document the project, the pier appears abandoned and devoid of people. In its critical reception, the work has been understood as a gesture or event, an architectural intervention removed from its social and even historical context. Matta-Clark was well aware who he was keeping out when he locked the building. In a defense statement written against vandalism charges, he cites concern about “a recently popularized sadomasochistic fringe” and suggests that his intervention was an attempt to “improve the property” by allowing more light to enter the building. For Weinberg, this statement confirms the significance of reading Matta-Clark and members of the “sadomasochistic fringe” as peers; Day’s End cannot be discussed without acknowledging the presence of gay public sex. The piers were not a neutral backdrop for Matta-Clark, but rather a site already imbued with the pathos of degeneracy and antiauthoritarian risk.

In later chapters, Weinberg covers a wealth of pier-related art activities: Wojnarowicz’s “Arthur Rimbaud in New York” photo series; the photography of Hallam, Alvin Baltrop, Shelley Seccombe, Fink, and Arthur Tress; and the “art pier” started by Wojnarowicz and Mike Bidlo at Pier 34, which briefly became an outpost for experimentation by East Village artists in 1983–84. Weinberg’s careful research of these diverse practices makes for a meandering read, but one that offers surprising moments of beauty and coincidence as artists encounter each other on the waterfront, such as a Fink photograph that captures Wojnarowicz strolling toward the piers, or a Stanley Stellar portrait in which a blurry Peter Hujar appears in the background, getting his dick sucked.

In these works by gay artists, the bearing of gay culture and the piers on artistic production is self-evident. But Weinberg cautions against readings that posit these images as simply recording extant identities and desires. Instead he suggests that both the sexual and artistic activities of the piers gave form to New York’s nascent gay public. The piers were a world apart from the city, a place for initiations and new experiences, for experimentation and self-invention, for exhibition and for looking. They were a domain in which gay culture could develop and become visible, if not publicly, at least to itself.

For Weinberg, Pier Groups itself is a project of self-invention. Likening it to a scrapbook, he names Benjamin’s Arcades Project as an inspiration. Recollections are littered throughout the book, sometimes giving rise to extended moments of speculation, as the author wonders if he ever unknowingly crossed paths with Fink or Wojnarowicz. Ostensibly, this is part of Weinberg’s method for grappling with nostalgia—to name it and consciously work to avoid it, but also to give it voice and accept that he is fated to forever fail to overcome it. The first person is risky ground for a historian, but given the inclusive ethos of the project it makes sense that Weinberg, too, could be considered part of this peer group. One can’t help but wonder, though, if the centrality of Weinberg’s “I” obscures other peers. We catch glimpses and passing mentions of sex workers, trans women, and queer youth of color in the photographs and descriptions of the waterfront, but they are not afforded the same gravity as other denizens of the sex piers. It is a shame that Pier Groups ends abruptly in the mid-1980s, when Weinberg moves to Connecticut, because the stakes of his arguments about gay culture, public space, and the art world have intensified since then. Particularly in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the redevelopment of the waterfront into a network of parks and promenades accentuated the racial and economic striations of gay culture, pitting residents of the gentrifying West Village against queer youth of color during the height of the Giuliani era and “broken windows” policing. Whether witnessed firsthand or not, these histories deserve critical attention in any account that concludes with the “cultural corridor” of museums and carefully policed public spaces that now occupies the waterfront.