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artists who had sex and made art in New York City’s piers
Biracial, Pier 51, 1978Frank Hallam

The artists who had sex and made art in New York City’s derelict piers

The author of the most comprehensive exploration of the New York City queer hotspot speaks on some of the visionaries who turned a set of decaying piers into works of art

In the 1970s, New York City’s piers became a playground for some of art history’s most revolutionary voices and many artists made not just art but love on the waterfront. With the embers of the 1969 Stonewall riots still burning and the gay liberation movement making steps forward, the social landscape for LGBTQ+ people was being transformed. Although it would still take decades for same-sex marriage to be recognised, the gay and trans community came together within the decaying structures of Pier 18, Pier 34, and Pier 46, amongst others. Last year, art historian, author, and artist Jonathan Weinberg published Pier Groups, a publication marking the artistic – and sexual – legacy of New York City’s piers.

While the piers are often remembered as a utopian space for fucking and making art, Pier Groups also shares the darker side to their history and the dangers that lurked amongst them. Whether holes in the floor which would plummet you directly into the ocean below or the gangs who hung around the piers and would attack men for no reason other than on the basis of their sexuality. However, Weinberg explains, “The danger of the place enhanced its sexiness for a lot of people.”

Whether regular pier-goers were aware that art history was also being made is difficult to ascertain. It was created not just in the documentation of the piers from the photographers frequenting them such as Alvin Baltrop and Shelley Seccombe, but the visual artists too. Gordon Matta Clark’s “Days End” (1975), a half-moon shape he cut out of the derelict wall of Pier 52, is now recognised as one of the greatest artworks of last century. David Wojnarowicz and Mike Bidlo famously took over Pier 34 and filled it with art. Performances were also staged by artists such as Vito Acconci, whose “Untitled Project for Pier 17” (1971) saw him wait at the end of the pier at 1 am and reveal embarrassing secrets about himself to anyone who could come see him.

“I say this is a memory project (but) it’s ultimately about how impossible it is to recall it” – Jonathan Weinberg

Despite its obvious cultural significance, what happened at the piers remains largely enigmatic, Weinberg says, “There’s still so much work to be done.” Out of the few explorations of its history, Pier 18 was subject to a show at MoMA in 1971 titled Projects: Pier 18 and curated by artist Willoughby Sharp. The exhibition included 27 artists such as Matta-Clark and Acconci, as well as John Baldessari, Richard Serra and more, and, due to visitors being unable to see the performances in real life, was photographed by photography duo Shunk-Kender and displayed at the museum.

However, Pier Groups finally picks up where MoMA left off, almost five decades later, and offers the most comprehensive look into a key period in New York City’s queer history which has long deserved to have its story told.

“It’s a memory project that’s subjective, beautiful, and nostalgic, but I did a lot of real art-historical work of the most traditional kind, which I think often gets put aside in contemporary art,” Weinberg says. “This is the time to do it because the people are alive and you can ask them a question and you can get the responses. If you don’t do it now, it’ll be too late. So I hope this encourages people to do similar projects and research.”

Below, Weinberg speaks about some of the seminal artists whose work was born out of the piers.

Talking about the nostalgia of the peers, you mentioned Alvin Baltrop’s images are what we want to see when we think of the piers – this utopian idea around the piers as a free space for queer desire. Was there something you found was missing from how you’d seen the piers portrayed previously?

Jonathan Weinberg: There’s not been much at all. When it does appear, it’s fleetingly in memoirs or in a short story or a novel. For example Samuel Delany’s famous memoir, The Motion of Light in Water. He’s a wonderful science fiction writer and I use him as the ultimate voice of the utopic notion of the piers as this space for freedom and desire and sexuality. One of the things I’m trying to do is to say to people that their way is how some people saw it, but for other people, they saw other aspects of the piers.

Arthur Tress made beautiful photographs that had a film noir quality, and he said he would go up to people and try to talk to them and they would say, ‘Why are you talking to me?’ (laughs). ‘I’m not here for talking, I’m here to have sex.’

An Italian couple came to visit me for a film they were making. They were young and I could tell that they were in awe of the idea that the piers were a fabulous place. I asked them what they thought it would be like, and they said, ‘It was an orgy. You’d go in and immediately have sex with everybody.’ But it wasn’t like that at all. It was much more like a bathhouse or even a back room in a bar where people would look you up and down, and if they didn’t find you attractive, they would shake their head no. Or somebody hideous would be trying to get you and you wouldn’t want them. (During the day), it was very honest and brutal, but not unlike Grindr or something. It wasn’t that everybody was willing to have sex with everybody. At night it was totally dark and pitch black and you couldn’t see. I personally never found that to be a particularly exciting or wonderful experience. In fact, I found it horrifying – but that doesn’t mean it was horrifying. I’m just saying, for me, personally, it wasn’t this wonderful, liberating thing. But for every Samuel Delany, there’s a writer like Larry Kramer, who will talk about how dehumanising queer, anonymous sex is in the bathhouses. There are multiple voices on it.

There’s an interesting parallel between the avant-garde artist who wants to take to their own work with some of those ideas of breaking with the decorum of everyday life. Gordon Matta-Clark was so interested in breaking all the taboos and rules. Whether he saw it that way himself is unclear, but he talked a lot about voyeurism. If you read a lot of the literature around Gordon Matta Clark, it’s so theoretically oriented and it omits a lot of the erotics around his work, and how he’s cutting holes through things, looking at things, showing things. He himself spoke about how his work was embroiled with ideas of voyeurism.

Were the people cruising the piers aware that artists were making work there and others were taking photographs?

Jonathan Weinberg: I think they were and they weren’t. I didn’t know and I must have been in the Gordon Matta Clark spaces and it never occurred to me that that was a work of art. I asked Arch Brown, who made the gay porn film Pier Groups, if he knew that (Gordon Matta Clark’s “Days End”) was one of the great works of the 20th century, and he had no idea that it was a famous, site-specific work of art. These were just abandoned buildings which had all kinds of things going on in them. If you go back and look at a lot of Alvin Baltrop’s work, it’s pretty clear to me that in many of them that people know who’s photographing them – and they’re posing (laughs). With Leonard Fink, they’d know he was photographing them. He’s often photographing himself! In many cases, these pictures are not documentary photographs. Almost all of Arthur Tress’s photographs are posed. Frank Hallam took so many of his photographs by having the camera around his neck, where he would just push the button... and maybe that’s a little creepy now... but he took thousands of photographs.

I’m a social historian, so some of the things that bother me about near contemporary art is the historical work. People don’t spend a lot of time looking into the actual context of the work and the place. I was struck by how people would talk about Vito Acconci’s ‘Untitled Project for Pier 17’ in passing. They’d say, ‘Oh, Vito did a lot of crazy things. He went out in the middle of the night to the end of a pier and waited for people to come and see him.’ And that was all they’d say about it. But why haven’t they asked somebody what happened! If you look at the history of performance art in general, nobody asks those questions – which to me feels like a very obvious thing to do.

In regards to Vito’s ‘Untitled Project for Pier 17’, I did do that. I asked Vito, ‘Who went out and saw you, and what happened? What did he tell them?’ He was great. He was the most wonderful interviewee ever. So charming and hilariously funny! He said, ‘Geoffrey Hendricks came out to see me, you should go and speak to him.’ He’s an old friend of mine and I had no idea. He unfortunately just died, and that’s why these interviews are so important. Fortunately, I was able to speak to both Vito and Geoffrey. Geoffrey said, ‘I went twice actually. I went out the first time and he told me that he had a fantasy that this artist is going to drop dead because I’m jealous of him.’ And Geoffrey said, ‘Oh okay.’ And then he goes home and he made a little work of art (inspired by what Vito told him) and then he gave that image to Vito – and that’s fascinating to me, that this piece generated another piece.

There was this guy from the Village Voice, who went on a Saturday and said that Vito wasn’t doing the piece because there were too many people there and Vito didn’t think it would work. So (the journalist) denounced him. Vito talked about performance as a contract, in that you had to perform it, not in terms of theatre but in terms of performing a contract. He spoke about failing over and over again. Failure was often the result of the piece, in his inability to do the piece on some level that he might hope had happened. His work is often about frustrated desire or frustration. To me, that really enriched my understanding of the piece.

There’s so much history to piece together. So much that wasn’t documented or written down anywhere properly it seems.

Jonathan Weinberg: It really began to bug me that so many people got the names of the Piers wrong. Cynthia Carr was doing research for her book, a biography on David Wojnarowicz (Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz, 2012) and she mentioned these photographs of David and asked me which pier they were on. I was like, ‘I think it’s Pier 46,’ but then I really couldn’t say because I wasn’t sure. And so I became obsessed with that, trying to figure out what the building looked like. An architecture student helped me look at a whole range of photographs from Alvin Baltrop, David Wojnarowicz, Frank Hallam, and we put them together to create archaeology of a particular site. For example, there are photographs where you can see a wall before David had sprayed graffiti on it, then there’s another photo where you can see the graffiti, then you can see it getting covered up, etcetera, etcetera. And then you see it’s next to another drawing, which is across the way and next to a room, and that’s how the room connects in certain ways. To me, it was magical to be able to do that. Suddenly the building began to appear, and how things related began to become clear to me. 

It’s so frustrating that there isn’t a videotape of all of Pier 46. There’s much more documentation of Pier 34 where David and his friends took over because people really knew that these were famous artists making paintings there.

Who was in there making work with David Wojnarowicz and Mike Bidlo? Did they invite people in?

Jonathan Weinberg: Yeah. They invited their friends. David, I think of him like (French poet, art critic, and essayist) Charles Baudelaire, wandering the city, lonely, sad, alienated. But he was actually an incredibly social person, and loved people, and wanted people around. This was a pier that wasn’t a gay pier, it wasn’t at the end of Christopher Street, it was much further down at the end of Canal Street, and he started going there by himself and it was pretty empty. It must have been incredibly lonely and he must’ve kept this fantasy that he would invite other people to see it, and so he started inviting his friends. I think he reached out to Mike Bidlo precisely because his work wasn’t like East Village art in many ways. And then their friends began asking their friends to come, and it started to be people who had nothing to do with them (coming down) and people began painting over one another’s pieces, and then fashion photoshoots began happening. And then it got all closed down.

It’s Andreas Sterzing whose photographs of Pier 34 really have become so iconic and famous. Sterzing is one of those photographers that no one knows his name, they know his photographs. Some of the most famous pictures of David are by him, but they come across as being by David.

Can you talk more about some of the photographers of the piers?

Jonathan Weinberg: Leonard Fink died and he had never had an exhibition in his life. He never had a chance to curate his work. We know almost nothing about him. And then there’s Frank Hallam, who totally saw himself as an artist, he saw himself as documenting this world. But Leonard was all about creating performances. Self-portraits... he was an exhibitionist. He was photographing himself naked or half-naked all over the place. There are a few pictures of Frank and he was all about documenting what was there. His are super voyeuristic. He was a very shy, sweet man. He mostly lived in the bars. Both Leonard Fink’s work and Frank Halm’s work are in this archive on 13th street in The Lesbian & Gay Community Centre. He would go to SAGE (Services & Advocacy for LGBT Elders). Frank was really someone who lived in the gay community. Every day he would go to Julius’s bar and there were wonderful programmes for older gay people, so he wasn’t alone but he lived alone. 

The paradox of photographing the pier is that almost all the photographs of the piers are during the day because you can’t photograph them at night. But a lot of the stuff that people talk about, the most extreme sex and everything, is happening at night. Baltrop’s photographs are really good at conveying the night. People like Shelley Seacombe and Frank Hallam were photographing in colour, and often in bright light. They would photograph the sunbathing and the sex that was happening in broad daylight, so they convey a very different feeling, the outrageousness of it. It was amazing that people were just naked out in the middle of New York. Their photographs have a very different feel, but in terms of the idea of the ‘romantic ruin’, people are more interested in pictures that are more evocative of the beauty of the water and the poetics of that.

To me, even when I say this is a memory project, it’s ultimately about how impossible it is to recall it. I can’t really see it anymore. I can’t really feel it anymore.

And you’re subjective to your own experience. 

Jonathan Weinberg: Right. I only had one kind of experience. The power of art is that (after seeing images or art from it) you now think, ‘I know what it was like.’ But I’m somebody who actually experienced it, and I’m struck by all these beautiful photographs and beautiful works of art, but they actually don’t convey to me anything of what it was like. The exceptions are a few films I’ve seen. Those seem to work on me more.

It’s complicated and different from day-to-day and each persons’ experience of it is going to be very different. There’s no truth to it, it’s just constantly shifting.

Pier Groups – published by Penn State University Press – is available here