New York

Alvin Baltrop, Self-portrait (looking away), 1975–86, gelatin silver print, 3 3/8 × 5".

Alvin Baltrop, Self-portrait (looking away), 1975–86, gelatin silver print, 3 3/8 × 5".

Alvin Baltrop

Alvin Baltrop, Self-portrait (looking away), 1975–86, gelatin silver print, 3 3/8 × 5".

Alvin Baltrop’s photographs of the derelict piers beyond the West Side Highway in Chelsea and of the bodies of the men who cruised the dilapidated architecture for sex and other forms of illicit intimacy during the 1970s and ’80s were rarely exhibited during his lifetime. Over the past decade, thanks in part to the work of art historian and curator Douglas Crimp, who has included the artist in several exhibitions and wrote an essay on Baltrop’s photographs for this magazine in 2008, more attention has been paid to the photographer’s formal, graceful images, which were assembled by Crimp for an overdue New York solo exhibition at Galerie Buchholz this summer.

The piers photographs (all works 1975–86), which formed the core of the exhibition, are themselves languidly ripe and summery, featuring many hot bodies basking in the sun. Couples fucking are captured from a distance and catch the eye through a kind of double take, so dwarfed are the tiny figures by the sighing, splintering architecture. Using scale, cropping, and light, and the bodies’ partial obscurity, Baltrop dramatizes the scopophilic desire for a viewer, who scans his images with intrigue, mirroring the searching spirit of the piers themselves. 

A collapsed modernity attends the construction of the images as much as the architecture. The Piers (man undressing) is an image of a man who has fully undressed but a moment before the shutter snap. He has just pulled off his pants while standing, leaving one leg raised and foot balletically en pointe. There’s more than a touch of Degas’s bathers and dancers here; the subject has his head bowed, absorbed in the rudimentary activity of undressing, yet shafts of light splinter the body into fragments, visible against peeling walls. Images such as The Piers (blowjob), on the other hand—in which the back of one man’s head and flashes of another’s hips are barely legible among the diagonal crisscrossings of steel beams and cracked wood—suggest a crushed Fernand Léger painting. In fact, it is possible to think of the piers themselves as an enormous, broken machine of nonproduction, even a “bachelor” machine, to push the art-historical point. A ravaged mechanism still spinning, still attracting.

These photographs are also, of course, heavy with death, and it’s difficult to feel anything other than complicated about them. AIDS is just around the corner, and this allegorically unstable structure will, as we know, collapse. Add to this the fact that exhibitions by artists who have been recognized by the art world only posthumously are often tinged with a mixture of romanticism and shame. It seems probable that Baltrop’s being African American somehow figured in the art establishment’s neglect of the photographer. A double self-portrait seems to critically thematize that marginalization; Baltrop is both seen and not in a nude Self Portrait (looking away). As the photographer faces away from his camera, the emphasis is on the satiny skin of his back and buttocks in the foreground. Further off, his face is caught in a mirror, seemingly cut away from the body, suggesting a split subjectivity and reflecting the splintering of vision that characterizes the piers photographs. It’s with a dual consciousness, too, that we might consider how to live with these images. Ruins tend to aestheticize and elevate faded infrastructures to grandeur; hence the phrase “ruin porn” that has been attached to images of destroyed buildings in Detroit or New Orleans. We might warily acknowledge such attractions, but it’s the visibility of structural violence here that is truly obscene, far outweighing any sexual act caught on Baltrop’s camera. Seductive though these works might be, it’s important to bear that brutality in mind: The fragile human lives captured here are seeking out edges and corners on a sinking platform. 

Laura McLean-Ferris