Ongoing series of pigmented ink-jet prints
Editions of five
Douglas Crimp Artforum February 2008
IN DECEMBER 1973, a highway repair truck laden with asphalt crashed through the elevated West Side Highway between Little West Twelfth and Gansevoort Streets, closing forever the section of highway south of the collapse. Fifteen years elapsed before the structure was fully dismantled, and in the meantime it stood as a ghostly barrier between "civilized" Manhattan and the Hudson River. For those willing to cross underneath it, the abandoned and dilapidated industrial piers on the other side presented extraordinary opportunities for experimentation and mischief. Most famously, in 1975 Gordon Matta-Clark transformed Pier 52, at the foot of Gansevoort Street, into his "indoor park" Day's End. Already, in 1971, Willoughby Sharp had commandeered a pier just south of Chambers Street for a series of events staged by twenty-seven artists--among them Matta-Clark, Vito Acconci, Mel Bochner, and Dan Graham--that would eventually be shown in Harry Shunk's photographs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as "Projects: Pier 18." Louise Lawler, who did a lot of the grunt work for the show, responded to its exclusion of women artists by turning the male artists' names into birdcalls (a later version of the piece is now installed in Dia:Beacon's garden). The following year Joan Jonas used the old Erie Lackawanna piers, numbers 20 and 21, as the backdrop for her vast outdoor performance piece Delay Delay, watched by an audience from the roof at 319 Greenwich Street. Early in the next decade David Wojnarowicz and other artists associated with the burgeoning East Village art scene covered the interiors of Piers 28 and 34, west of SoHo, with neo-expressionist murals.
Throughout this period Alvin Baltrop, an African-American photographer recently returned to New York after serving in the navy during the Vietnam War, extensively documented other imaginative purposes to which the piers--particularly those bordering Greenwich Village from the meatpacking district south to Christopher Street--were being put. Many of Baltrop's photographs incidentally capture Matta-Clark's Day's End while at the same time showing Pier 52 appropriated for cruising and basking in the sun. Perhaps more than Matta-Clark could have imagined, Baltrop's photographs portray the "joyous situation" Matta-Clark said he wanted to achieve there; and they constitute rare and indispensable evidence of the proximity and simultaneity of artistic and sexual experimentation in the declining industrial spaces of Manhattan during the 1970s, a time of particularly creative ferment for both scenes. But the range and significance of Baltrop's pier photographs is far greater than this conjunction. His inability to fully realize his documentary project is therefore all the more tragic.
Baltrop was born in the Bronx in 1948. He photographed constantly at the Hudson River piers from 1975 to 1986, and the thousands of negatives from that project constitute his chief photographic legacy. He risked much to work there. In order to spend more time at the piers, he gave up his job as a taxi driver and became a self-employed mover. Often he stayed for days on end, living out of his moving van parked nearby. In spite of the remarkable documentary and aesthetic value of what he accomplished, Baltrop was almost completely unsuccessful at getting his work exhibited during his lifetime. He had a small solo show in 1977 at the Glines, a nonprofit gay organization best known for producing Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy in 1982, and he once exhibited his pier photographs at the East Village gay bar at Second Avenue and East Fourth Street where he sometimes worked as a bouncer. But the established photography galleries and those just emerging in the late '70s--even those dedicated to showing explicit homoerotic work--were unreceptive. The sad result is that Baltrop never had the means to print the vast majority of pictures he took at the piers or to properly care for the few he did print. When Baltrop first learned that he had cancer, in the late 1990s, he began working on a book of his pier photographs, a task which occupied him until his death in 2004. In the preface to that unfinished volume, he wrote:
Although initially terrified of the piers, I began to take these
photos as a voyeur [and] soon grew determined to preserve the
frightening, mad, unbelievable, violent, and beautiful things that
were going on at that time. To get certain shots, I hung from the
ceilings of several warehouses utilizing a makeshift harness,
watching and waiting for hours to record the lives that these people
led (friends, acquaintances, and strangers), and the unfortunate ends
that they sometimes met. The casual sex and nonchalant narcotizing,
the creation of artwork and music, sunbathing, dancing, merrymaking,
and the like habitually gave way to muggings, callous yet detached
violence, rape, suicide, and, in some instances, murder. The rapid
emergence and expansion of AIDS in the 1980s further reduced the
number of people going to and living at the piers, and the sporadic
joys that could be found there.*
Baltrop photographed obsessively: men engaged in sex shot from the distance of a neighboring pier or clandestinely through a doorway, and men happy to become exhibitionists for the camera at close range; men and women Baltrop came to know at the piers, including some who had no place else to live; guys cruising for sex, sometimes as naked as the nearby sunbathers; people just strolling about, transfixed by the rays of sunlight streaming through disintegrating roof structures; graffiti, some of it the skillful handiwork of an artist known as Tava, who painted in a style that amalgamates Greek vase painting with Tom of Finland; gruesome corpses dredged up from the river and surrounded by the police and onlookers. Most of all, Baltrop photographed the piers themselves, right up to the moment they were razed. The phantoms of New York's bustling industrial past appear in Baltrop's pictures as vast heaps of trusses, buckled tin siding, rotting wooden pilings and floors, rickety staircases, broken windows, sometimes with a ragged curtain still flapping in the river breeze. Baltrop's camera often zeros in on a just-discernible scene of butt-fucking or cock-sucking amid the rubble, but even when the sex is absent, we recognize the piers as the sexual playground they were. Baltrop's trove of pictures is double-edged, of course. It depicts a sexually liberated paradise and simultaneously unsettles it with the harsh realities of the place: the sad fates of teenagers who lived there because their parents had kicked them out after discovering they were gay; the terror of psychopaths preying on vulnerable men (and occasionally women) and sometimes killing them; the constant danger, especially at night, of muggers who saw an easy mark; even the risk of falling through a rotten floorboard or stepping on a rusty nail. Ultimately, though, the complexity of Baltrop's legacy resides not only in the record his photographs provide of utopian and dystopian occurrences, but also in their evidence that the moment in Manhattan's history when we could so thoroughly reinvent ourselves was as precarious as the places where we did it.