In 1983, David Wojnarowicz, Mike Bidlo, and other artists started making work in Pier 34, one of the abandoned shipping facilities on New York’s West Side. Andreas Sterzing, a German photojournalist, extensively documented their activities, for a 1984 story in Der Stern. Sterzing’s images of freshly painted murals, performances, and works-in-progress form the basis of “Something Possible Everywhere: Pier 34 NYC, 1983-84,” an exhibition organized by Jonathan Weinberg, an art historian and critic who has written on the piers for this magazine, for the Hunter College Art Galleries. Weinberg has interspersed Sterzing’s photographs among paintings and sculptures, often juxtaposing an image of an artist’s site-specific work on the pier with a gallery-ready one. Luis Frangella paintings of headless torsos are seen in one of Sterzing’s photos as a sprawling fresco that, surrounded by rubble, looks like a fresh ruin. Frangella’s Encounter (1983), in acrylic paint on canvas rather than on a dilapidated wall, offers a closer look at his renditions of limbless bodies, like fragmented classical sculptures, in expressionist brushwork. To the right of the painting, a 1983 photo by Peter Hujar shows Frangella at work on the pier.
There’s a common sensibility among the thirty-one artists included in “Something Possible Everywhere.” This was not the photographic conceptualism that won critical favor in the early 1980s, or the bombastic Neo-Expressionism that was ascendant on the market. It’s messy and figurative, as Neo-Expressionism was, but warmer and more human in its timbre and scale. The palettes here are thick with rusty reds and browns—polluted as the Hudson River. Totemic motifs crop up often, from the bull in Wojnarowicz’s paintings and stenciled overlays to David Finn’s mannequins cobbled together from garbage and cast-off clothing, with brightly colored animal heads. The earnest work communicates the spirit of artists who worked not only for the East Village gallery scene but also for themselves and each other in a space associated with illicit activities like gay cruising, as well as the city’s economic decline in the 1970s. Pier 34, as this exhibition makes clear, wasn’t just a makeshift studio space. It was an exhibition center, a community hub, and laboratory for experimenting with the effects of art materials on real, rough surfaces. —Brian Droitcour
Pictured: Andreas Sterzing: David and Mike at the Pier, 1983. Courtesy of the artist and Hunter College Art Galleries, New York.