Manhattan’s West Side Piers, Back When They Were Naked and Gay

The Piers

One of the many pleasures of the current MoMA PS1 “Greater New York” show is its sense of uncovering artifacts, of showing various sedimentary layers of this city. Not that everything in the show is like that: Most of the sprawling exhibition is a more conventional apprehending-an-art-object experience, united by the fact that all the work was made by artists, of various generations, who made their home in this city.

But Alvin Baltrop’s photographs are beautifully composed and meaningful objects, and also artifactual: opening a wormhole into another, perhaps romantically expired, version of a somewhat broken-down New York. You know, the one where there were ruins here: That mid-to-late-20th century interregnum when the West Side piers were no longer used for shipping and industry, but not yet part of the current recreational real-estate-driven rivertown that is building things like the DVF Island, the so-called Superpier, or that reconstructed housing-entertainment complex Pier 40.

And yet it was once a place apart from the consumer hustle of the city, part of a now-lost postindustrial pastoral landscape.

Between 1976 and 1985, Baltrop produced hundreds of photographs on the vast, spooky, and dilapidated piers, where artists were inspired to create work and where gay men met to hook up, before AIDS. “Baltrop documented the piers in disuse, during years when they were repurposed by people at the margins, for shelter, sex and social gathering,” says Peter Eleey, a PS1 curator and associate director. “Gordon Matta-Clark’s Days End features in the background of certain shots, showing another creative reuse of the piers’ aging infrastructure, long before the High Line was repurposed a block away from the vibrant scenes that Baltrop photographed.”

A tour of a few of them (all courtesy Third Streaming, New York, and MoMA PS1):

Photo: Alvin Baltrop
Photo: Alvin Baltrop
Photo: Alvin Baltrop
Photo: Alvin Baltrop
West Side Piers When They Were Naked and Gay