“Pier Groups: Art and Sex Along the New York Waterfront” by Jonathan Weinberg— Social Life, Cruising and Public Sex

Weinberg, Jonathan. “Pier Groups: Art and Sex Along the New York Waterfront”, Penn State University Press, 2019.

Social Life, Cruising and Public Sex

Amos Lassen

“Pier Groups: Art and Sex Along the New York Waterfront”, queer art historian Jonathan Weinberg makes the case for how powerfully gay male social life, cruising, and public sex were of a piece in the early days of LGBT liberation. As oppression was brutally enforced, the invisibility of the new LGBT movement looked to colonize public spaces for queer desires. They united political with the erotic, queer public spaces such as the piers which have become quasi-mythic embodiments of gay life before AIDS changed everything Weinberg here takes away the myth by presenting a careful social history of the most influential, if unseen, aspect of gay liberation at the time when the complete meaning of that term was only beginning to be understood and realized.  

In New York of the 1970s, the abandoned piers of the Hudson River became a place for works of art and a popular place for nude sunbathing and anonymous sex. Jonathan Weinberg uses art history and memoir along with interviews, documentary photographs, literary texts, artworks, and film stills to show how these avant-garde practices competed and mingled with queer identities along the Manhattan waterfront.

Artists included Vito Acconci, Alvin Baltrop, Shelley Seccombe, and David Wojnarowicz who created their work  in and about the fire-ravaged structures that only twenty years earlier had been  at the center of the world’s busiest shipping port. At the same time, the fight for the rights of gay, lesbian, and transgendered people,  were spurred on by the 1969 Stonewall riots and were dramatically transforming the cultural and social landscape of the city. Gay men felt free enough to sunbathe on the piers naked, cruise, and have sex in public. Artists collaborated to transform the buildings of Pier 34 into makeshift art studios and exhibition spaces as gay men were converting Pier 46 into “arena for sexual theater.”

This book contains one hundred exemplary works from the era and come from a rich variety of source material, interviews, and Weinberg’s personal experience. “Pier Groups”  looks at the relationship of avant-garde art to resistant subcultures and radical sexuality.

As we read we are immersed in the Hudson waterfront of lower Manhattan, that becomes central to the art scenes of the 1970s and 1980s. We have vivid illustrations and new photographic discoveries, Jonathan Weinberg’s fluent and searching work capture a community in which he plays a part as chronicler, interpreter, and participant.

 Weinberg explores sexual cultures and artistic practices that took place on the piers and then look at how the art and cruising scenes are intercalated. He rejects the logic of cause and effect, and his nonlinear approach to narrative gives us new perspectives on artists.

Weinberg brings back a fabled time and place when LGBTQ+ people found their own Riviera along Manhattan’s ramshackle docks. Weinberg shows his awareness of fluid gendered sensibilities, readers and his prose is so vivid that we almost feel the sexual heat of sunbathing in “Manhattan’s Sodom by the Sea along the Hudson River.”

Leave a Reply