New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 24 July 4 to 17, 2012

Theaters of Desire

The Piers: Art and Sex along the New York Waterfront
Two Men, Two Rooms by Arthur Tress. Source:
Arthur Tress, "Two Men, Two Rooms" 1977

The men I was searching for now became palpable. They leaned out of the low shelf of the night.They whispered, if they were in twos, or shifted their weight from foot to tentative foot if alone... Congeries of bodies...”

                 Edmund White, from Nocturnes for the King of Naples

The West Side piers, one of New York’s primary theaters of gay desire during the 1970’s and 80’s, is the subject of an important show at the Leslie Lohman Gallery. Though the tidal wave of AIDS was just beginning to break over the gay community, the party was not yet over.

Partly what makes this body of work so interesting is the fact that many of the photographers were both observers and participants, giving the images a kind of anthropological validity that goes beyond impersonal documentation. Sex, in decaying graffiti-strewn rooms, on piers with gaping holes, on crumbling concrete floors, anywhere anyhow anytime sex, non stop sex in which the phallus is king, is their ultimate subject. Classic participant-observers in Franz Boas’ famous phrase, these photographers had access to moments of absolute intimacy and unbridled exhibitionism.

As well as a cruising arena par excellence, during l970’s and 80’s the piers were also the scene of various art projects. Concurrent with these revels was a downtown East Village art scene in which some, if certainly not all, of the players were the same. Vito Acconci, John Baldesarri, Gorden Matta-Clark, Dennis Oppenheim, Richard Serra, and William Wegman created pieces on Pier 18 in 1971, for example. Though later artists sometimes spoke about urban decay what they almost invariably depicted was the body. And while there was some attempt to characterize the Pier 34 scene as environmentally motivated, there is the lingering suspicion that decay was part and parcel of its attraction. The adventure of seediness, the romance of the illicit pervades these crumbling, cavernous spaces. Most, if not all, of the participants were children of the middle class; to pretend one was in a 19th century Dickensian slum was titillating beyond belief for ex-suburbanites whose greatest adventure had been a trip to the mall. Danger, both real and fantasized, was a stimulant. Only they did not yet know it was a disease not Jack the Ripper that would tear them apart.

En Masse Sunners seen from Pier 45, by Frank Hallam. Source:
Frank Hallam, "En Masse Sunners seen from Pier 45,"

Often shot from a considerable distance, the figures in these photographs frequently seem dominated by the space–– as if to enter that realm was to lose your identity. Indeed, for many that may well have been the point. Even the daytime sunbathers, their mostly white bodies tumbled together, seem lifted from a harem scene by Delacroix. Everyone was on offer, on display. And yet, subsumed by the general atmosphere. To complement the distant impersonality of the images, one needs to turn to writers like Edmund White who have written so eloquently about the experience.

Several well known photographers– Peter Hujar, Arthur Tress, David Wojnarowicz among them––stand out in the show. Their work, mostly shown in glorious, old fashioned black and white, possesses an interest and quality that goes beyond the historical, whereas the color, a bit too large and overblown at times, often has a snapshotty quality as if taken by tourists not far from home.

Finally, there is no overstating the fear and loathing these men could inspire in both the public and police who raged against them in their various ways. Gangs of gay bashing youths from the hinterlands of Jersey and Queens would descend on the weekends with the police all but complicit in their behavior. Not to mention direct confrontations with the police themselves. There must be photographs of these ‘police actions’ and it is a pity they are not included in the show, since they, too, are part of the history of the piers.

Now the piers have been gentrified and landscaped, most of the empty buildings torn down. Gradually the New York waterfront is becoming the park developers have dreamed about for half a century. The Wild West days of the trucks are over. What’s left is memory. Photographic and otherwise.

The Piers: Art and Sex along the New York Waterfront
Curators: Jonathan Weinberg and Darren Jones

Leslie/Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art
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Thursday, April 5 to
Saturday, July 7, 2012
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