Galerie Buchholz is proud to present an exhibition of photographs by Alvin Baltrop (1948-2004) at our Berlin gallery. Coinciding with Gallery Weekend Berlin, this exhibition is the second solo exhibition of the artist with Galerie Buchholz.
The gallery was first introduced to the work of Alvin Baltrop through the art historian and cultural critic Douglas Crimp (1944-2019). Crimp was instrumental in making Baltrop’s work more widely known through his writing and curating, beginning with his Artforum cover story for Baltrop in 2008, and then through the exhibitions “Mixed Use, Manhattan: Photography and Related Practices, 1970 - present” (curated with Lynne Cooke, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, 2010) and “Greater New York” (MoMA PS1, 2015). The gallery’s first times exhibiting Baltrop were in the context of shows organized together with Crimp, first in Berlin (“Pictures, Before and After”, 2014) and then in New York (“Before Pictures: New York City, 1967-1977”, 2016). Crimp then introduced us to the Alvin Baltrop Trust, which is run by Randal Wilcox and Yona Backer of Third Streaming. In 2017 we presented our first Baltrop solo exhibition, which was curated by Douglas Crimp, and for which he also wrote an introductory text. In 2019 The Bronx Museum of the Arts presented the first comprehensive exhibition and catalogue of Alvin Baltrop, curated by Antonio Sergio Bessa.
The largest group of photographs left behind by Baltrop depict Manhattan’s dilapidated West Side Piers and the surrounding area from 1975 to 1986, when it was the city’s epicenter of gay social and sexual experimentation. Baltrop’s photography poetically documents the excitement and danger of this moment. This May, the Whitney Museum in New York is commemorating the history of this neighborhood through a new public art installation by David Hammons. Titled “Day’s End” in reference to Gordon Matta-Clark’s famous architectural interventions into Pier 52, which Baltrop photographed and which Crimp wrote about in his memoir “Before Pictures”, Hammons’s sculpture reconstructs the outline of the most notorious Pier. In tandem with the project’s realization, the Whitney presented “Around Day’s End: Downtown New York, 1970-1986”, an exhibition which featured artworks that relate to the pier, including works by Baltrop from the Whitney’s collection.
Alvin Baltrop’s posthumous legacy is indebted first and foremost to Randal Wilcox, an artist, friend of Baltrop in his lifetime, and a trustee of The Alvin Baltrop Trust. In 2012 he published a biographical text on Baltrop in the journal Atlántica. The below text is a selected adaptation of that text.
Alvin Jerome Baltrop was born in the Bronx, New York, on December 11, 1948, shortly after Dorothy Mae Baltrop, his mother, moved to the North from Virginia along with her oldest son, James. Alvin’s first exposure to art was James’s drawings; the younger Baltrop picked up a Yashica-C camera in order to respond to his older brother. Baltrop began his career as a teenager shooting on the streets of New York. Early on he also photographed the patrons of the Stonewall Inn, New York’s famous gay bar, to which he and other gay teenage friends gained entry by lying about their age, prior to the famous Stonewall Riots of 1969. The energy of this downtown community clearly had an effect on Baltrop, as he would later move to the East Village and live there for nearly three decades.
Unfortunately his mother, Dorothy Mae Baltrop, who was a devout Jehovah’s Witness and was often in conflict with Baltrop over his homosexuality, destroyed most of her son’s early photographs and negatives. One surviving print from this period is a photograph from 1965 [included in the present show], depicting a seated elderly woman reading a book at The Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park. This print anticipates many qualities that Baltrop would explore in his later photography. Baltrop frequently captured people engaged in looking or someone or something else. The act of viewing is therefore compounded and overlapping.
In 1969, Baltrop entered the US Navy, where he continued photographing at sea. He later recalled:
“I was just being sent to boot camp when they had the riots at Stonewall. My friends were sending clippings about it. We all used to hang out there, and now I was seeing my friends in the newspaper. I couldn’t tell anyone else about it, but after my first year in the Navy I learned that I could be a whole person… I was a medic. They called me W.D. - witch doctor. I built my developing trays out of medic trays in the sick bay; I built my own enlarger. I took notes about exposures, practiced techniques, and just kept going. I think I perfected my lighting skills there.”
In 1972, Baltrop received an honorable discharge from the Navy and returned to the Bronx. Following his brother’s example, he enrolled in the School of Visual Arts the following year on the G.I. Bill. In 1975, he began working as a taxi driver. As Weegee had done decades earlier, Baltrop used a police radio, which he hid in the vehicle, to locate crimes throughout the City that he could photograph during his breaks. It was during this time that he began to visit and take photographs at the West Side Piers.
In 1975, New York City was bankrupt. President Gerald Ford’s rejection of loan guarantees to the city was immortalized in the frontpage headline of the Daily News on October 30, 1975: “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.” New York now had a vast supply of abandoned properties that it couldn’t even afford to tear down. The piers and their adjacent warehouses were adopted by New Yorkers for a variety of purposes. Some went there to sunbathe. Others went to engage in sexual activity. Teenage runaways, the homeless, and mentally ill went there because they had nowhere else to go. Thieves and murderes also went there looking for prey. An increasing number of artists also ventured there to make art.
Eventually, Baltrop quit his job as a taxi driver and purchased a van that he used in his new profession as a mover. Loading his van with cameras, film, food, wine, joints, and a handgun, Baltrop would stay at the piers for days on end, using his vehicle as a place to change clothes, eat, and sleep. In 1975, he dropped out of SVA because he could no longer juggle school, work, and his art. It was at this point that Baltrop fully committed to capturing the piers.
In 1986, the West Side Piers were finally demolished by the city, citing public health and safety concerns.
In the 1990s, Alvin Baltrop conducted interviews with people he knew from the piers to capture their memories of that time on tape. Two of these interviews are featured in the exhibition, with Rick and Mark, whose portraits by Baltrop are both in the show.
On the occasion of this exhibition, the renowned American science fiction author Samuel R. Delany, currently living in Philadelphia, wrote a new text, entitled “Looking Through Two Books of Alvin Baltrop’s with My Computer to Help”, reflecting on his time in New York and his memories of this specific area of the city. Delany has also written about this in his autobiographical books “The Motion of Light in Water” and “Dark Reflections”, as well as in “The Real Joe Dicostanzo”.
The photographs of Alvin Baltrop (1948-2004) were virtually unknown during the artist’s lifetime. A working-class African American, many of whose photographs are sexually explicit, Baltrop encountered only rejection. In the past decade his work has belatedly begun to be exhibited, including the Bronx Museum of the Arts, MoMA/PS1 in New York City, and Third Streaming in New York, the Reina Sofia in Madrid, and the Contemporary Art Museum, Houston. By far the largest cache of Baltrop’s extant photographs depicts the scene at the dilapidated Hudson River piers adjacent to Greenwich Village and the Meat Packing District. During the 1970s and into the 1980s, when Baltrop photographed there, the piers were a site of pleasure and danger for men seeking sex, sunbathing, making a provisional home, or just hanging out and taking in the splendor of the industrial ruins. More nefarious deeds also took place: theft, gay-bashing, even murder.
Baltrop claimed to be terrified of the place initially, but also intrigued; he began taking photographs, he said, as a voyeur. Eventually he became a denizen of the piers, at times living nearby in his moving van, which also provided his source of income. His rapport with certain of the pier’s users is clear enough in the straightforward portraits he made there, and is even clearer in photographs of men removing their clothes to pose for Baltrop. Some photographs are so intimate as to suggest that the sex they depict is staged for his camera – or, indeed, that photographing was part of the action.
Baltrop seems to have wanted above all to portray the environment in which these activities took place, the piers themselves. Sometimes you have to look closely even to locate people within the disintegrating remains of the pier sheds, much less see what they’re up to; and in any case they might simply be sitting on a window ledge or standing on a mooring. Or, more disquieting, they might be prone bodies covered with blankets, presumably sleeping. In many cases, there are no figures at all; Baltrop’s subject is simply the architecture in its vastness and melancholy.
Baltrop printed the majority of his photographs small, no more than 5 x 7 inches (approx. 13 x 18 cm), although he printed a few images considerably larger. There are variant sizes and crops of a few pictures. Because of the small size and density of information in many of the photographs, especially those of one pier taken from the distance of another, adjacent pier, you have to get very close to the picture to really see it. It has been noted that Baltrop’s pier photographs constitute a significant record of a lost era of New York industrial landscape and gay culture’s pre-AIDS history. There is truth in that view, but it suggests that Baltrop’s project was essentially documentary in nature, whereas the intimacy of the pictures, their studied compositions, their attention to the play of light and shadow testify to a wider ambition.
Looking Through Two Books of Alvin Baltrop’s with My Computer to Help
by Samuel R. Delany
My firsthand knowledge of the docks and the sexual action that went on there under the highway and among the docks was about over when Alvin Baltrop’s photographs begin. One book, in which over 170 of his images are entombed, begins with Douglas Crimp’s observation, “In December 1973, a highway repair truck, laden with asphalt, crashed through the elevated West Side highway between Little West 12th St. and Gansevoort St., closing forever the section of the highway south of the collapse.” By that time, I had abandoned New York - and the kind of activity I wrote about both in The Motion of Light in Water, which took in many trips from east to west and hamburgers and coffee at the Silver Dollar 24-hour breakfast place on Christopher St., of which my meetings with Bill Stribling and Joe Soley were the most memorable, and a very uncharacteristic account in my memoir, The Real Joe Dicostanzo, which occurred shortly after the breakup of my music group Heavenly Breakfast and the murder of Martin Luther King on April 4th, 1968, by James Earl Ray. I doubt I ever stepped foot on or in Pier 52, but the kind of images Baltrop was able to spy on during daylight were commonplaces of the night under the highway during the 1960s. One picture of a particularly well-hung Scandinavian (page 143) brings back a comment made to me by the writer Judith Merril that particularly well-hung men have a certain cockiness to their walk. Myself, I was never particularly aware of it, nor is cocky the feel I take away from the photograph, but I do remember her saying it.
It takes texts such as Wojnarowicz’s Memories that Smell like Gasoline or my own Mad Man or Times Square Red/Blue to show those illicit moments Baltrop’s sometimes captured from a distance, sometimes from close up, and that white photographers such as David Hurle or my own fictive photographer Joe Salieri (in Dark Reflections) plumbed for the phallic profusion available during this or that passage of time, in that or this fragment of social space.
What strikes me most about Baltrop’s pictures is the comparative isolation of the subjects. Probably that is a factor of the fact that it was day.
The city locations are insistently marginal.
The sense of ruin is both romantic and oppressive and throws one back to the 18th century when, in Europe, after the Franco-Prussian war, the ruin itself became a symbol of romance. The etymology of a word like “pornographic” is both troubling and problematic: the writing of and by prostitutes. In a society such as ours, there are often men who feel that the exchange of money takes the focus off desire per se. An old adage that I first heard while I was still a teenager returns to mind: “Today’s rough trade is tomorrow’s competition” - not that I particularly found it to be true. In the case of most of Baltrop’s photographs, one is not sure whether these are people who have been caught in the act, who don’t care if they were caught in the act or not, or were caught just before or just after an act that may be as simple as removing one’s clothes for a sunbath; a few, however, suggest that a moment of commercial exchange is what the photographer’s attention and lens have fallen on.
The nude or the naked offers - in various climates - an entire sartorial critique that, again, goes back to William Blake and his wife sunbathing nude in their gardens, not to mention the somewhat notorious nudism of the great 20th-century-short-story master, Theodore Sturgeon.
Eventually, color takes over for a brief while, between pages 201 and 217, in the larger Baltrop volume, and at much the same time, a viewer paging through becomes far more aware of death and cats . . .
All such collections as they are framed in a gallery or in a book, accompanied by more or less informed, more or less accurate texts, are also being tamed: their separation from the place and time they were taken is being emphasized. There is little way to escape it. Baltrop died at age 55 from cancer; often we see him with the coffin nail between his fingers that took my own father at age 54, when I was nineteen. Page 11 of The Life and Times of Alvin Baltrop shows a foreshortened picture of the dockside bar Badlands I was in perhaps once under that name on a Gay Pride Day - which one I don’t remember - but, years before in the ’60s, when it was known as Dirty Dick’s, I wrote about it in some detail. By the time Baltrop photographed it, it was up from a place called The Ram Rod, whose sign is visible in his photograph. When I was there, there was another bar, I believe, called Hudson’s (but I may have it wrong), which was across the street, in which the photographer is pretty clearly standing for the picture I’m talking about. It catered to S&M (that’s three syllables) and did not particularly interest me in the Dirty Dick’s days.
Eventually, Dirty Dick’s/Badlands ceased to be a bar altogether and became a peepshow venue and which, as of 2019, was still standing with a “Store for Lease” sign on it, according to Google Maps. Somehow, these continuities, whether captured by a Baltrop photo or a glance out the window when being driven down West Street on some trip to the city or even a glimpse this morning in Google Maps, are reassuring in some way through their continuity.
Philadelphia, PA, April 12, 2021
¹By comparison with Baltrop's work, the Peter Hujar photo of a day-time moment on the piers (p 56) looks incredibly coy, in a way it would not if the two central figures were simply naked.