Critics’ Picks

Frank Hallam, Filming Pompeii New York, 1982, archival digital print from slide, 12 1/2 x 18 1/2”.

Frank Hallam, Filming Pompeii New York, 1982, archival digital print from slide, 12 1/2 x 18 1/2”.

New York

“The Piers: Art and Sex Along the New York Waterfront”

Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art
26 Wooster Street
April 4–July 7, 2012

Re-creating the sensation of the piers along Manhattan’s West Side Highway––sites, during the 1970s and ’80s, of burgeoning artistic activity and a thriving gay subculture––provided curator Jonathan Weinberg with a daunting task. Assisted by Darren Jones, and informed by a decade of archival research and interviews with artists, “The Piers” assembles a compelling constellation of images, evoking not only a vital dimension of New York’s East Village art scene, but the social and sexual contexts with which it was bound up.

As the exhibition makes clear, it often proves impossible to tease the erotic and the aesthetic apart. Many of the photographs here fittingly reflect that instability. Stanley Stellar’s Peter Gets His Dick Sucked, 1981, for example, records an act of fellatio in the background, while in the foreground a half-naked man leans next to a drawing by Keith Haring of two men with erect penises. Shelley Seccombe’s Sunbathing on the Edge, Pier 52, 1977, records not only individuals lounging on the side of Pier 52 but also Gordon Matta-Clark’s Day’s End, 1975, sliced out of the pier’s wall. Leonard Fink’s Tava Mural Pier 46, 1980, captures a scene of a bawdy satyr and human man that Tava (Gustav von Will) painted on a derelict wall, as well as, next to the painting, two men jerking each other off in a corner.

Due to the disappearance of many works, or their excessive dimensions, photography is used to evoke other media, whether architectural interventions, performances, film productions (such as Frank Hallam’s Filming Pompeii New York, 1982), or casual encounters. Often, as in the case of Seccombe, Peter Hujar, or Ivan Galietti, photography serves as a medium unto itself. Straddling high and low, this exhibition departs from the Reina Sofía’s 2010 “Mixed Use, Manhattan,” which focused largely on physical landscapes of abandonment and decay; “The Piers,” by contrast, evokes a mode of sociality. Conjuring a world on the cusp of AIDS, “The Piers” also makes present another dimension of its subject, long since vanished: bodies conversing and cavorting, laughing and looking.