In 2014, the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Adam D. Weinberg, invited the artist David Hammons to tour the empty new building of the museum. Weinberg remembers standing together by the picture window on the fifth floor overlooking the Hudson and talking about the history of the boardwalk across from the museum, what was there and what was gone.
Since its demolition in 1979, Pier 52, once a warehouse for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company, had disappeared and was known in the art world as the location for a monumental work of guerrilla-style public sculpture that the American called the Day’s End Conceptualist Gordon Matta-Clark.
Matta-Clark’s piece was an excisional piece, not a construction. In 1975 he commanded the pier’s huge, by then half-destroyed shed – it was 50 feet high and 373 feet long – and with a small crew of workers cut openings in its walls and floors, the largest being a quarter. moon-shaped incision in the west wall facing the sunset. Its goal was to let in light that would change during days and seasons. He imagined the interior on the basilica scale as “a peaceful enclosure, a happy situation”.
A few days after Hammons’ Whitney visit, Weinberg received a small pencil drawing from him in the mail, a light sketch of the missing Pier 52, reinterpreted as a kind of pavilion in the open water. There was no justification. Weinberg was busy planning the new Whitney’s upcoming debut and didn’t contact Hammons until later about the drawing. It turned out that the notoriously elusive artist with his typical habit of strategic indirection had submitted this as a proposal for a site-specific sculpture.
Now, seven years later, this sculpture is there. Jointly sponsored by the Whitney and Hudson River Park Trust, it sits firmly on the water across from the museum on state-owned land near a large public playing field. Both the position and dimensions of the piece are the same as those of Pier 52 as it once existed. (When piles were sunk to support the new sculpture, remains of the old wooden pillar were found.)
The sculpture does not fully follow Hammon’s plan – it is not surrounded on all sides by water – but it skilfully translates his original sketch into three-dimensional terms. Guy Nordenson, the civil engineer on the project, managed to use slim, ductile stainless steel pipes to suggest the inconspicuous weight of Hammon’s pencil lines and the illusion quality of his wallless, bottomless, roofless openwork design. The matt-structured, light-absorbing quality of the steel subtly changes the visibility of the work during the day. There is no artificial lighting at night.
Hammons called his piece “Day’s End” and made it a tribute from one artist to another, but a complicated one. He and Matta-Clark were almost exact contemporaries, born one month apart in 1943. Both were active in New York City in the 1970s, with Hammons arriving from Los Angeles in 1974. But they traveled in different circles and did not meet. Matta-Clark’s main base was the SoHo arts scene; Hammons’s was part of a group of black artists associated with Just Above Midtown gallery on West 57th Street. Hammons never saw Matta-Clark’s Pier 52 work, and it happened that the overlapping presence of the two men was brief: Matta-Clark died of cancer in 1978 at the age of 35.
But as artists they had a lot in common. Both made work from found and ephemeral materials: in the case of Matta-Clark, decayed architecture; in the case of Hammon’s street garbage, often with black cultural associations – chicken bones, liquor bottles, hairdresser’s hair. And both of them worked mostly outside the mainstream art institution districts. Indeed, it is not without symbolic significance that Hammon’s “Day’s End”, despite its proximity to the Whitney, is not owned by the museum but is a trust for nature conservation. It’s a public monument, not a private one.
A memorial for whom or for what? For a fellow artist, yes, but also, intentionally or not, for certain social and personal stories. For me, the response to Matta-Clark’s arrival on site extends well into the early 1970s when Pier 52, along with several other piers lining the Hudson River in Chelsea and the West Village, served as gay and cruising hangouts.
Matta-Clark was aware of the gay presence, spoke dismissively about it and tried to keep it off the pier after the conclusion of “Day’s End”, for which he wanted to advertise as a “sculptural festival of light and water”. (The plan had to be abandoned when the city’s economic development agency filed a lawsuit against it for property damage.) By then, the place and the gay community that occupied it had a chronicler and advocate of another artist, the black photographer Alvin Baltrop (1948- 2004).
From the early 1970s, Baltrop, who often camped in a van near the pier, documented the social and sexual acts there. In his pictures from the late 1970s, “Day’s End” can be seen as a backdrop for erotic activities. In this context, Matta-Clark’s project can assume a negative political value. With its penetration of unsolicited and potentially unwanted light, it can be read as an act of colonizing the art world. (This complex dynamic that surrounds the work was summed up by Adrienne Edwards, now Whitney’s director of curatorial affairs, in her catalog for the 2019 Baltrop retrospective at the Bronx Museum of the Arts.)
And in his “Day’s End” Hammons recalls an art-historical moment of its own that took place a little further downtown. If you stand at its “Day’s End” and look south across the Hudson, you can see the commercial and residential towers of Battery Park City in Lower Manhattan. These buildings did not exist in Matta-Clark’s time. All there was was a large, scruffy World Trade Center dump that was opened in the summer of 1979-1985 under the auspices of the nonprofit arts organization Creative Time Inc. as a stage for programs of public events entitled “Art on the Beach.”
It was there in the summer of 1985, in collaboration with artist Angela Valerio and architect Jerry Barr, Hammons built “Delta Spirit”, a funky cabin that was nailed together from scrap wood, mosaicked with shredded cans and bottle caps, and opened for performances. Sun Ra and his Solar Arkestra were among the talents that shone in and played. And it is worth noting that Nordenson, who gave Hammon’s material form “Day’s End”, as a young artist contributed to another work of art on the “beach” this year.
“Art on the Beach” was at least symbolically a vote against residential gentrification in Lower Manhattan that was driving artists, a small but fiery community at the time, out of the neighborhood. It is also possible to interpret Matta-Clark’s “Day’s End” as a similar protest against the predatory, historic “urban renewal” in an area further north in Manhattan. and to find an answer to the current metastasis of real estate development in Hammon’s new sculpture from Hudson Yards down to the meat packing district where the Whitney stands.
However, I suspect that this artist would refuse to have his work read so closely. He has a track record of withholding interpretive comments on his art – “I feel like a wizard,” he said recently. “And wizards do not give up their secrets” – and thwart the critical consensus about it. For years when black artists were as good as excluded from the white-controlled mainstream, he insisted on mining materials and images from Afro-American culture, as shown in the wonderful exhibition “David Hammons: Body Prints, 1968-1979” currently in the Drawing Center .
In recent years, however, he has taken various, less overtly identity-based directions with work by black artists who have gained a foothold in the marketplace. “Today it is less convincing than ever to speak of black artists as if they were sharing a company,” wrote art historian Darby English in his 2007 book “How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness”. “Day’s End”, the Hammons version, pushes this point home.
What is special about the piece in the context of this artist’s career, however, is its declared, fixed persistence, in which, as far as I know, the artist has rarely shown interest. (In one of his best-known works from the early 1980s, he was selling snowballs on the street.)
“Most artists want at least one piece to be immortalized,” he said in a 1986 interview with art historian Kellie Jones. Because we’re doing a piece anyway, I think, fragments of it. “
Hammons is 77. Is “Day’s End” the only immortal piece he means? I do not believe that. But as economical and robust as a pallet rack and empty of everything but history, light and air, it is spacious enough to hold all the brilliant fragments of an incomparable career.
End of daypermanently in Hudson River Park across from the Whitney Museum of American Art; 212-570-3600; whitney.org.
David Hammons: Body Prints, 1968-1979, until May 23 at the drawing center; (212) 219-2166; drawcenter.org.