Pier 34

A story I’ve told often—to friends, seminars of young artists, even, once to my daughters, though I’m not sure if they remember it—but never written down, nor even thought of doing so. Last year after seeing an exhibition curated by Jonathan Weinberg at Hunter College’s 205 Hudson Gallery titled “Something Possible Everywhere” I decided that maybe it was the moment to try.

The time was the early 1980s. I had been living near the corner of Canal and Greenwich Streets for a few years when a friend mentioned to me that there was something interesting happening at the pier at the end of Canal, two blocks away from my loft. I no longer remember who told me, or if whomever it was accompanied me on my first clandestine visit to Pier 34. I do, however, recall perfectly the sensation of stepping through a broken-into entryway and penetrating into the vast decaying domain of that long-abandoned shipping pier.

Andreas Sterzing, “Paolo Buggiani, Icarus,” 1983 (courtesy the artist and Hunter College Art Galleries, New York).

Oddly, it’s not the dramatic cavernous space of the warehouse area of Pier 34, the part that jutted into the river, that I retain most in my memory but the much smaller spaces that had been used as shipping-line offices. As I recall, there were two stories of these offices. Their floors were thick with sheaves of letters, ships’ manifests, invoices, thousands of scattered or piled-up sheets of paper that must have been tossed aside when the company that operated at the pier removed its desks and filing cabinets. During the intervening years—decades?—these papers had begun to fuse and decompose where the windows and ceilings of the neglected pier were no longer to keep out the elements. Walking through these offices was more like traversing a bog or a swamp than it was like being in any kind of human habitation.

David Wojnarowicz painting at Pier 34, photo by Dirk Rowntree, 1983.

On one of my subsequent visits (I went to the pier perhaps a half dozen times, sometimes taking friends with me) I gathered up a stack of these abandoned business documents, selecting some that had largely escaped the ravages of mold and water damage. I kept them for years, vaguely planning to do something (maybe turn them into an artist’s book, give them away to artist friends as collage material, write about them), until I could no longer justify holding on to this stack of terminally useless correspondence. Do I wish that I had kept them? Yes, of course, I do, but I now realize that nearly everything that mattered about Pier 34 had to do with ephemerality. The pier is gone. The art that was made in the pier is gone. Many of the artists who worked there are gone, felled, all too often, by AIDS, and in the Hunter College exhibition about the project almost none of the art on view was made on or shown at the pier. All exhibitions are ephemeral, but the guerilla installation at Pier 34 was especially so, made worse by the fact that many of the participating artists never achieved the acclaim or recognition they most certainly dreamed of, which is usually the only thing that keeps a life’s work from the dumpster or the thrift store. (It’s only thanks to a series of striking photographs by Andreas Sterzing that we have any substantial record of the art at Pier 34.)  So maybe it’s entirely appropriate that those relics from the Ward Line and the Cuba Mail Steamship Company I temporarily rescued have also long been consigned to the realm of trash and oblivion.

Andreas Sterzing, “Luis Frangella Murals at the Pier,” 1983 (courtesy the artist and Hunter College Art Galleries, New York).

Carefully avoiding areas where the floor had fallen through or where there was just too much mucky debris, I walked, and sometimes squelched, through the enfilade of rooms, pausing to look at the rude, brush-wild paintings on the ravaged, pockmarked, greenish walls. As far as I could tell no one else was present in the entire pier as I stood in one of those dank, dripping rooms looking at some expressionistic mural. Gradually, or maybe suddenly, I became aware that I was not alone—something or someone else was in the room with me. I slowly turned around and saw there was a person squatting in one corner, silently watching me.

He wore no clothes but he was far from naked. What looked like paint or dried mud covered much of his body. Long slender pieces of wood—sticks mostly—were attached to his body and projected out, making him into a kind of human porcupine, except that the sticks were carefully arranged in a symmetrical and symbolic pattern. He looked like some kind of ancient pictograph come to life, and here he was, staring silently at me in the midst of this deserted industrial ruin. If he were to suddenly jump up and charge at me with some atavistic battle cry, there was no one I could call to for help.

I stood there for a few moments looking at this unsettling apparition, which wasn’t an apparition but a real-life “primitive” who had inexplicably made his way to this art- and rat-infested pier almost as if he had been waiting for me. Time slowed down, but before any kind of panicked reaction could set in I realized just a few stretched-out seconds after I had noticed the bristling figure in the corner that I had seen him before. This was The Mudman, an artist (crazy person? crazy artist?) who could often be seen walking around SoHo (this was the early 1980s, when SoHo was still full of artists and galleries) arrayed in the same fashion. In a flash, the situation went from being extremely uncanny to the more or less familiar. Without saying anything I calmly walked out of the room and continued my exploration of the pier.

Kim Jones, Mudman Performance, Courtesy Pierogi Gallery, New York.

I had experienced to perfection what Tzvetan Todorov described as “the fantastic,” that moment in a narrative when there is an uncertainty about how to explain a strange event. “The fantastic,” Todorov says, “occupies the duration of this uncertainty. Once we choose one answer or the other, we leave the fantastic for a neighboring genre, the uncanny or the marvelous. The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event.”

Remembering this encounter, I feel doubly lucky. First, that I was able to confront an artwork, if only for a moment, without mediation, as pure shock. I wonder how many of those who saw The Mudman (who, as I later learned, was a creation of artist Kim Jones) were able to experience this mobile primitivist performance with similar intensity and surprise. Second, that I found my way onto Pier 34 at all. In 1983 I was only starting to discover the world of galleries and studios, and it would be three years before I began to write about art. I could easily have never learned about the audacious plot cooked up by Mike Bidlo and David Wojnarowicz to, in their words, invite artists “to explore any image in any material on any surface they chose.” As they rightly said at the time, “it was something that no gallery would tolerate.”

Andreas Sterzing, “Pier 34 Demolition (David Wojnarowicz’s Gagging Cow and Richard Hambleton’s shadow painting are visible),” 1984 (courtesy the artist and Hunter College Art Galleries, New York).