Rough Paradise: Sex, Art, and Economic Crisis on the New York City Waterfront

Reviewed by Jeffrey Patrick Colgan and Jeffrey Escoffier

Pier Groups: Art and Sex Along the New York Waterfront  By Jonathan Weinberg Penn State University Press, 2019 232 pages

Pier Groups: Art and Sex Along the New York Waterfront
By Jonathan Weinberg
Penn State University Press, 2019
232 pages

New York City was for many years one of the world’s leading ports. In the early 1950s, the docks in New York City, by far the country’s busiest, directly and indirectly supplied, according to the City’s Department of Marine and Aviation, livelihood for almost 10% of the city’s population. Nevertheless, even then there were signs of the port’s impending doom. Plagued with racketeering, traffic congestion, and outmoded facilities, the invention of container shipping was the final straw. Without adequate rail and road access and the space to operate cranes and stack containers, most of the port’s Manhattan-based business moved to New Jersey where new container facilities were being built.

Exacerbated by suburbanization, demographic changes, and the city’s consequent fiscal issues, this shift led to the collapse of New York City’s industrial base. By 1970, most of the Manhattan piers along the Hudson River had been abandoned. The thriving industrial past reduced to rotting husks.

These piers—totally abandoned, barely guarded or fenced in—were then utilized by men cruising for sex, small-time criminals, and, perhaps surprisingly, artists. They were also physically dangerous: rotting wooden floors, interiors exposed to the elements, and muggers lurking in dark corners. Like Walter Benjamin’s Parisian Arcades the piers emerged as an iconic series of sites—symbolic of a unique stage in New York City’s history, where abandoned and derelict structures resulted from profound economic changes and became a mélange of urban ruin, sexual wilderness, and cultural frontier.

Jonathan Weinberg’s Pier Groups: Art and Sex along the New York Waterfront, just out from Pennsylvania State University Press, serves as a guide into this extinct and exotic world. Drawing on interviews, literary texts, even his own memories as well as the incredibly rich photographic archive of the art of the piers’ denizens, he meticulously documents what took place there. Inspired by Walter Benjamin’s Arcades project, Weinberg uses his exploration of art and sex at the piers to untangle the interconnections between culture, social life, and sexuality during the decline of the welfare state and the emergence of a new stage of capitalism in the 1970s and 1980s. He documents the work of artists such as Gordon Matta-Clark, Vito Acconci, Shelley Secombe, Morgan Greenwald, Alvin Baltrop, Cindy Sherman, David Wojnarowicz, Peter Hujar, Arthur Tress, and many more as they photographed, painted, and mounted performances on the abandoned piers. Weinberg, a painter and art historian, was the lead curator of Art After Stonewall, 1969-1989, the joint exhibition at NYU’s Grey Art Galley and the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art that marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots earlier this summer. In 2012, with Darren Jones, he curated The Piers: Art and Sex Along the New York Waterfront also at the Leslie-Lohman Museum. He has followed the activities on the piers, both the artistic and the sexual, since he was a teenager in the 1970s, then as an art history student, and now brings together the findings of this lifelong project into his captivating and wide-ranging book.

As the piers were abandoned, they were taken over by different groups—some were converted to new purposes, by the NYPD water police or by the Department of Sanitation, but others were inhabited by gay men cruising for sex, by runaway teenagers, and by artists of one kind or another. Amongst the earliest artists on the piers were Vito Acconci and Robert Whitman who mounted performance pieces or staged ‘happenings’ on the piers. Piers 17 and 18, on the east side of lower Manhattan (now the South Street Seaport), were the sites of a number of artistic events in 1971. It was there that Acconci staged a performance piece called Untitled Project for Pier 17—for which he had posted an announcement inviting anyone to meet him at the far end of pier 17 between 1 and 2 AM. In this empty, unlit, and frightening locale, Acconci would reveal to the visitor some privileged personal detail, something that would be difficult for him to divulge. Piers 17 and 18 served as the venues for other artists in the early 1970s, including Dan Graham, the collaborative team of Shunk-Kender, and Louise Lawler.

Many of the artists who presented work at Piers 17 and 18 represented the most avant-garde artists of the period, but art of all kinds was made and shown at the piers. Tava, the pseudonym of painter Gustav von Will, painted two-story high pictures of nude men masturbating—visible to every tourist on the Circle Line boats that traveled around Manhattan. David Wojnarowicz not only painted large murals on the interior walls of several piers, but he also scattered grass seed throughout the piers giving them a pastoral dimension. The piers also attracted dozens of photographers—prominent practitioners like Peter Hujar, Arthur Tress , Shelley Seccombe, and Cindy Sherman as well as unknown or amateur photographers like Leonard Frank, Frank Hallam, and Alvin Baltrop, whose work has become known only in the years since. This density of photographic work as led to thousands of photographs documenting the action taking place at the piers, “the shocks and the phantasmagoria,” to borrow a phrase from Walter Benjamin.

The Stonewall Riots took place just as the piers were almost completely abandoned. But even before Stonewall, many gay men had already found the waterfront to be a hospitable place to socialize and cruise—not only at the rough and tumble bars down near the docks but also in the empty trucks parked overnight under the Westside highway. After Stonewall, with few venues apart from bars for socializing, gay men took advantage of their new-found freedom and the city’s proliferating empty spaces. Thus the piers, untended and unguarded, and dangerous as they were, provided a relatively secluded space for casual sex.

One of the most enduring and influential artists of the Piers, and one to whom Weinberg’s book pays particular attention, was the ‘un-builder’ and ‘anarchitect’ Gordon Matta-Clark. Educated as an architect and the son of artists (his father was a prominent surrealist painter), he was obsessed with how the built environment impoverished the lives of urban dwellers. His work as an artist consisted of ‘cutting’ into buildings—he had cut through floors and ceilings in abandoned buildings in the Bronx to make ‘real-life’ architectural cuttings—to reveal the buildings’ structural faults as well as to challenge the containment inherent in domestic spaces. Alarmed at the vast number of abandoned piers along the Hudson and the city’s neglect of what had once been vital conduits of people and commerce, Matta-Clark made a series of cuts into the walls and the floor of Pier 52 at Gansevoort Street (just across the street from the current location of the Whitney Museum) that created a stirring show of light and reflections of water inside the cavernous darkness of the pier. Made in 1975, Day’s End, as the piece was called, initiated the high point of the piers’ artistic period and was one of the most compelling and grand artistic works of 1970s New York City.

Weinberg discusses at length both the reception of and the failure to notice Day’s End among the Pier’s everyday participants, successfully highlighting the fascinating mix of populations, desires, and values of the Pier-goers. Furthermore, Weinberg avoids the oversimplification of Matta-Clark’s relationship to the pier’s more frequent visitors: men both sunbathing nude and cruising for sex. In his book Before Pictures, art historian Douglas Crimp questions the artist’s engagement with the piers. As portrayed in Before Pictures, Matta-Clark dismissed those engaged in public sex at the piers, and he proceeded to bar these men from their own valued space while he was working on Day’s End. Weinberg, however, helpfully provides a bit of the historical and legal context surrounding some of Matta-Clark’s more questionable remarks.

Essential to understanding the context of this situation are the criminal proceedings that the City of New York was pursuing against Matta-Clark for the creation of Day’s End, which was seen by City officials as an act of trespassing and vandalism. Many of the problematic comments made by Matta-Clark come from a letter written at the behest of his attorney to the City of New York, wherein he fabricates an opposition between the seedy reality of the piers and the civic-minded intentions of himself, the artist. This opposition is not only absent in any formal way from Matta-Clark’s other writings and recordings, he also speaks at length of the connection between what he dubs as the “S/M community” and his own process for the piece. Speaking with Liza Bear, in an unpublished recording found by the authors of this review in the Canadian Center for Architecture archives, Matta-Clark claims that the “occupancy” of the Piers by the S/M community was essential to his work. The mixture of the “lovemaking in the corner” and the S/M “shadow violence” that he saw at the Piers was a direct inspiration for him and reflected in his “own little macho performance” at the pier. Pier 52, for Matta-Clark, “came straight out of that neighborhood.”

Another key player in Pier Groups is the artist David Wojnarowicz. If anyone embraced the entire spectacle of the piers it was Wojnarowicz, who had inhabited the piers as a teenage runaway, had cruised for sex with other men there, and had not only painted murals on a number of different piers but had also turned Pier 34 into huge open-ended art show—almost as if it were a Salon des Refusés—that served, in many ways, as the climax of the piers as a site of culturo-political expression. As a teenager living on the streets, Wojnarowicz used the piers as a refuge, later he would go there to read and write—some of his memoir, Close to the Knives, was written there. The piers also played a role in his first substantial work of art, Arthur Rimbaud in New York, a series of photographs of his friends wearing a mask of French poet Arthur Rimbaud. The series was shot in various locations around New York such as Chinatown, Coney Island, and 42nd Street, but included a number of scenes set in the piers.

Sometime in the early 1980s, Wojnarowicz started painting at a relatively unused pier down near Canal Street—Pier 34. In 1983, he and his friend, Mike Bidlo organized an open-ended art show on the pier. He invited everyone he knew in the art world to come to Pier 34 and make art. And they did. Dozens of artists, of all kinds, participated—men, women, straight, gay, painters, sculptors, and performance artists. “This is the real MoMA,” he declared. Fortunately, the show is well documented, and posterity can thank the police, who closed the show when the corpse of a man who was shot and stabbed was found at the pier.

The strength of Weinberg’s book lies in its ability to illustrate to the reader the verisimilitude of life and activity at the piers—the breadth of which the above sampling is only a fraction—while also offering significant interpretations and reinterpretations of artworks, installations, and happenings. These interpretations are made all the more interesting by their being interwoven into the complex cultural fabric of both the piers and the wider City—a task at which the author excels. The reader is brought to appreciate the scope of activity, the thoughtfulness of installed artworks, and the value of this unique place amongst those who dared step out onto the wobbly, wooden planks.

Weinberg, however, is no nostalgist. In a recent conversation, Weinberg cautioned against the all-too-common and all-too-easy unqualified glorification of the piers and New York City, generally, in the 1970s and 1980s. Not only was he quick to mention the vile smells, shady characters, and profound sense of insecurity that pervaded the Piers, he emphasized the general hardship experienced by those living in an economically depressed New York City. However, though by no means a utopia, there was for many New Yorkers at that time a profound sense of anarchic possibility that resulted from the enervated municipal services and not-yet-arrived private sector dominance—a void-like interregnum between the welfare state and its neoliberal successor. One need only to think of Matta-Clark’s Pier 52 and its long and mostly invisible life after the art world crowd moved on, or Wojnarowicz’s seeding a pier’s empty lot as a gesture toward the rough paradise present in the ruins, or the sexual adventures to be had or observed in these liminal spaces—all demonstrate the emblematic character of the piers in a city that was both palpably suffering yet prodigious in its potential.

Jeffrey Patrick Colgan is one of the founders of the Network for Culture & Arts Policy and the producer of the DROP DEAD podcast series. Jeffrey Escoffier is the author of American Homo: Community and Perversity (Verso, 2018) and a research associate at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.