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Pier Groups

by Lewis Whittington
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Jul 24, 2019
Pier Groups

Art historian Jonathan Weinberg's "Pier Groups: Art and Sex Along the New York Waterfront" is a companion book to the recent exhibition "Art After Stonewalltext" at the Whitney Museum in New York that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the 1969 GLBTQ uprising in Greenwich Village.

Weinberg is an artist and writer, and this book chronicles the now-mythic era in New York when the once-thriving Hudson River ports became the abandoned piers and docks that the gay men claimed as their public space, where they could embody gay and sexual liberation without fear or apology.

Meanwhile, a new generation of New York artists saw the piers as modern ruins they could claim as once-in-a-lifetime free studio space. Painters, photographers, sculptors, multi-media, and performance artists made site-specific work, and Weinberg details the creative circumstances and cultural impact of this remarkable convergence of queer liberation, decaying architecture, and art activism.

Weinberg brings new perspectives to the public art of Vito Acconci, Alvin Baltrop, Shelley Seccombe, Leonard Fink, Andreas Sterzing, Harry Shunk, Janos Kender, and others among the era's New York downtown scene. The first place that Keith Haring hung out and hooked when he landed in New York as an aspiring art student was the Piers.

Industrial Artist Gordon Matta-Clarke consecrated one of the most popular piers by cutting a huge crescent on the metal side of Pier 18. It was a sculpturing of natural light suddenly cast on the collapsing interior walls and naves in a perpetual interplay of light reflecting off the Hudson River because of holes in the flooring.

Matta-Clarke eventually blocked entrances so it could not be a cruising area, but the artist was also threatened by NYC zoning officials for vandalizing a condemned site. The artist's attempts to seal off the pier failed as men reclaimed space to cruise. Matta-Clark called it 'anarchitecture.'

Weinberg explores and critiques the life of artist-AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz, whose visual phantasmagoria and erotic frescoes on the shredded walls of the Piers were cathartic artistic expression against sexual repression, AIDS, and anti-gay hysteria. His performance art mused on heroin addiction, sexual adventurism, and voyeurism. Wojnarowicz staged Arthur Rimbaud in New York, inspired by gay French poet's quest to keep his senses in "degradation" with opium and absinthe in order to break through as an artistic "seer."

Wojnarowicz's vision is channeled through his rage poetry and dystopian visual art and cathartic artistic ritual in a perilous time. Weinberg's chapters on Wojnarowicz are not only full of artistic analysis, but also a compassionate portrait of a visionary artist creating visionary artwork even as he was facing his own death.

By day, gay men met on the docks to sunbathe, socialize, and hook up on the piers or the nearby (and aptly named) Meat Packing district. At night, it was a different scene when the piers continued to be cruising grounds for anonymous sex or ritualized fetishes. The whole scene on the piers day and night are part of Weinberg's artistic purview and social narrative of the book.

Photographer Peter Hujar's black and white picture of a small band of gay pride marchers became the iconic emblem of the early GLBTQ liberation movement of the '70s. Weinberg considers Hujar's less famous, but equally compelling, photo essays on the action at the piers. Hujar even allowed himself to be photographed (in the book's most artistically erotic prints) while he was having sex in one of the wrecked piers, as a '70s porn superstar loiters with intent in the foreground.

Some men used the piers as an extension of open sexual expression; for others, the piers were a space in which they could remain closeted and have gay sex on the down-low. At any given time, it could be a dangerous area of a drug crime, muggings, and other crimes.

"Pier Groups" is a finely designed volume by Penn University Press with beautifully curated photography and a fascinating study by Weinberg. Even with some of the author's art theory tangents, the text illuminates and documents a disappeared place as well as a defiantly expressive era in GLBTQ history.

"Pier Groups: Art and Sex Along the New York Waterfront"
by Jonathan Weinberg
Hardcover; 216pgs.

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.

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