Credit: Andreas Sterzing
When art and sex met on New York's waterfront
Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood is well-known now as an arts center, home to the Whitney Museum of American Art, major galleries and the elevated High Line park. But in the '70s, the Hudson Piers that run along its coast were an unofficial creative space and erotic playground where artists took over and transformed the large city-owned decaying buildings that had once been part of an active port.
"To wander among the pier ruins meant both to be aware of the past of a great maritime city and to sense an apocalyptic future," wrote Jonathan Weinberg, art historian at Yale University and author of the book "Pier Groups" -- a title he borrowed from a 1979 porn film by director Arch Brown that was shot on the Manhattan waterfront.
Weinberg studied the rebirth of the city's terminals for 15 years. The resulting book tells the story of the Manhattan docks, which were frequented by a diverse group of people (the author included). The ever-changing crowd included notable artists, like gay activist David Wojnarowicz, whose liberating experiences on the piers inspired his writing and paintings. But the piers also attracted men who were cruising for sex or looking to sunbathe nude and homeless people looking for shelter. According to the book, visitors to the piers discovered a safe haven for new forms of expression -- even though walking on the run-down structures could be physically dangerous.
In doing so, they reclaimed disused buildings from their derelict fate, turning empty piers into community spaces teeming with creativity. "The adjective 'abandoned' is used again and again to describe these structures, and suggests emptiness -- a place discarded, waiting to be rediscovered by the imaginative eye of an artist," Weinberg wrote. "Yet the more I learned about the piers, the more they seemed crowded with activity."
Peering inside the docks
On the surface, the story of the Hudson Piers in the '70s was salacious. But it's also a case study in occupying public space to create a community that became synonymous with artistic and sexual freedom.
"Everybody who talks about (the piers) has this very personal relationship to them and felt like it was their place, that nobody else knew about it," Weinberg said in a phone interview.
The late '70s were a grim period for New York City, which was in crisis and on the verge of bankruptcy. In June 1975, tourists arriving in its airports were given pamphlets urging them to stay away from New York, which had been dubbed "Fear City." As crime escalated, 1977 became its most violent year since the NYPD began compiling data, with a total of 658,147 reported serious crimes.
While undeniably bleak, the city was also bubbling with creativity, particularly in the wake of the Stonewall Uprising -- the riots in 1969 which spurred the gay rights movement. Then, in 1973, when a section of the West Side Highway collapsed, the nearby docks were abandoned, becoming a breeding ground for newfound creative energy and romantic trysts.
"(Artist) David Wojnarowicz saw (the piers) as incredibly romantic and beautiful," said Weinberg, adding the artist saw the ruins as an image of a crumbling dystopian future that could happen anywhere. "And for a lot of men...there's a kind of thrill in having sex outside, in a dangerous place."
While the pier ruins were a popular refuge, they also hid many dangers. "As much as you read about it, you can't really understand how frightening it would be to go into a space like that in the middle of the night," said Weinberg. One man was injured when he fell from a ramp, while another was bitten by a rat, according to Weinberg. On one occasion, photographer Alvin Baltrop captured a body that had been found in the water. Despite the dangers, men rarely called the police, because they were afraid of their response or of their sexuality being exposed.
Artists taking over government-owned buildings
Drawn to the piers for its liberating energy, many artists created disruptive site-specific pieces on the waterfront.
For Gordon Matta-Clarke's now-iconic artwork "Day's End" (1975), on Pier 52, the artist used an oxyacetylene torch and a chainsaw to illegally cut a series of holes on a city-owned industrial building.
Wojnarowicz, meanwhile, found inspiration in the symbolism of the decaying buildings, which he saw as representations of the inequalities of capitalism. Several images from his unsettling photo series "Arthur Rimbaud in New York" (1978-1979), featuring various people wearing the same mask of the titular French poet, were taken on Pier 46. Later, he created large-scale paintings at Pier 34 on the walls of the buildings, which he used as massive canvasses that weren't for sale, in a reaction against commercialism.
"In a certain way, they are all going to the piers to break (away from the) bourgeois, (from) normativity," Weinberg said. "They're going to the edge, literally to the edge of the city, where things have broken down."
Photographers roamed the docks too, including the Bronx-born Baltrop, known for his beautiful documentation of gay life on the waterfront, and a few amateurs, like Leonard Fink, whose "family supposedly had no idea that he was gay until he was dying of HIV/AIDS in 1993," wrote Weinberg. It's mainly through their work that the piers still exist.
Weinberg thinks that as subversive art gets more recognized, its rebellious nature is softened. "By turning (radical works of art) into canon, by telling the same stories over and over again, you lose that sensation," said Weinberg. He hopes that by seeing these works in a different context they can regain their original impact. "I'm always trying, as an artist and art historian, to imagine what something was like when it was first there, to not allow it to become this dead thing you're in awe of."
"Pier Groups: Art and Sex Along the New York Waterfront," published by Pennsylvania State University Press is available now.