Do you find scaffolding ghostly and poignant? Do you see construction sites as evocative of memory? Do you consider a Porta John a phenomenal addition to public art? Do you think a worthy memorial to an area historically connected to queer people is an ode to a straight artist?
If so, then may I suggest a jaunt to the Hudson River to gawk at David Hammons’s Day’s End, a permanent (lucky us!) monumental tribute to Gordon Matta-Clark’s famed and institutionally beloved illegal intervention of that same title at the site of what was once Pier 52. It might just be for you!
Not me, however. I hate Hammons’s Day’s End. Detest it. Loathe it. My visceral revulsion derives not only from its hackneyed concept (Do we really need more art that’s playing with absence and presence? In 2021?) and hideous formal application. Instead, to me, Hammons’s Day’s End is a symbol of the art world star system, the increasing privatization and cooptation of urban space, and the institutionally endorsed crumbs that seem to count as memorials to gay and trans history in 2021.
Developed by the Whitney Museum, in collaboration with Hudson River Park, Hammons’s Day’s End does the least for the most. Despite costing a staggering 18 million dollars, it’s hard to see exactly how Hammons’s Day’s End relates to Matta-Clark’s Day’s End with the exception of their titles. In 1975, Matta-Clark and his collaborators made several extensive cuts in the ceiling, walls, and floor of the decrepit Pier 52, including the immediately recognizable half-moon shape at the west end of the Pier, in order to create, as he described, “a cathedral of light.” In the introduction to his largely visual art history of the Hudson River piers, Pier Groups: Art and Sex Along the New York Waterfront, Jonathan Weinberg imagines what it must have been like to witness Pier 52 as altered by Matta-Clark:
“Like an enormous cat’s-eye at the end of the pier, the largest of the cutouts let the viewer look out at the sky. In those moments when the sun aligned with the cut, the spectator standing in the darkened pier building was blinded…When the sun set, and the night sky filled the cutout, it offered a vision of the universe, that is, the all.”
Though billed as a monument to Matta-Clark, Day’s End features none of Gordon Matta-Clark’s slices in Pier 52. Instead, the public sculpture recreates the outline and exact dimensions of the former Pier 52 shed in thin stainless steel pipes held in place by concrete pylons in the Hudson River and the Gansevoort Peninsula, making it a more credible monument to Pier 52, not Matta-Clark. In its feature on the installation, the Whitney Museum describes the connection to Matta-Clark’s project in terms of Hammons’s use of light:
“David Hammons’s Day’s End (2014–21) is at once massive and ethereal, its thin steel frame shimmering and evanescing with the weather and time of day…Though the original Day’s End (1975) is long-gone it resounds within Hammons’s twenty-first century structure, as does the storied history of the surrounding environment.”
To me, the difference in aesthetics is too stark to be convincing. Because of Hammons’s attachment to the artwork’s minimalism and sleekness, mimicking the vacuous architecture of the surrounding gentrified Meatpacking District, including the Whitney itself, Hammons’s monument directly clashes with the haunting play with light and water in Matta-Clark’s Day’s End, which depended on the darkness and slow deterioration of the decaying pier.
Instead, Hammons’s Day’s End looks like remnants of industrial piping left after a demolition or at the beginning of a new construction project, of which there is no shortage in the ever-expanding high-end neighborhood. In fact, the public art blends in perfectly with the nearby construction site of yet another swanky park for tourists and the people of Manhattan’s west side, right beside the newly opened, privately funded Little Island.
According to the Whitney’s Director Adam Weinberg, Hammons quipped in reference to his Day’s End‘s structure: “a great tailor makes the fewest cuts.” Enigmatic! But, wouldn’t the recreation of at least the western half-moon of Matta-Clark’s intervention have done wonders to draw a viewer’s eye upward rather than towards the yellow rubber floaties mysteriously lining the pylons, which are strangely absent in the official Whitney photos documentation? I would call it one of the ugliest and most disappointing public art pieces I’ve ever seen if Anthony Goicolea’s fake rocks covered in pigeon poop, honoring the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting and other anti-LGBTQ+ violence, weren’t right nearby.
But, you wouldn’t be able to tell given the avalanche of admiration by critics, curators, social media posters, and one self-congratulatory Whitney Museum Director who bafflingly describes Hammons’s Day’s End as “like a Zen koan, a paradoxical riddle that defies logic and encourages enlightenment.” Huh? Now, I won’t deny that the project’s years-long extensive research, planning, and construction, which actually uncovered the remains of the former pier (though sadly didn’t use it in the artwork), aren’t worth commending. However, much of the slobbering praise over Hammons’s public art is a lesson in imaginative critical over-reach, attributing way too much to the fairly simplistic results of this effort. Case in point: Jerry Saltz’s pie-eyed assertion that the monument is about…the entire city?:
“While looking at it, I see the New York that called all of us here to make our names and our fortunes, find our own tribes, create communities, hate, love, and be loved by.”
Even reviews that briefly acknowledge the public art piece’s tenuous connection to Matta-Clark eventually turn up the gushing like Peter L’Official’s analysis of the work in ArtForum:
“If it is, indeed, a monument to Matta-Clark, then it is a resolutely fugitive one. Engaging with the nearby institution while evading it, it is a space of possibility that encloses no space at all. Its form is rigid, yet time and tide and air and light flow beneath, above, and through it, and the structure continually reframes the world as we move around it. It is infinitely propositional, an architectural frame to house unhoused improvisation.”
What? The only unhoused improvisation I noticed was the bright orange portable shitter that was located directly next to one of the northwestern pylons of Hammons’s sculpture.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of the praise is likely connected to the emotional pull many feel between the architecture of the piers and the gay sexual subculture cruising within that disappeared with the dismantling of the piers and the encroachment of gentrification. For instance, The New York Times’ Holland Cotter writes, “A monument to whom, or to what? To a fellow artist, yes, but also, by intention or not, to specific social and personal histories. For me, the most resonant of them dates from before Matta-Clark’s arrival at the site, to the early 1970s, when Pier 52, along with several other piers lining the Hudson in Chelsea and the West Village, served as gay meeting and cruising spots.”
In recent years, the piers have become a site of significant nostalgia. As if the majority of the sentimentalists would venture into the piers in the first place. Please. The crumbling structures were treacherous on their own with weak spots and holes (not just the ones carved out by Matta-Clark), perfect for tumbling right into the river, let alone the unknown people that may be lurking in the shadows. It wasn’t exactly like going to The Cock. Though in some ways, it was, as this sexual utopia featured all the same superficial hang-ups found on contemporary dating apps and in bars. As Jonathan Weinberg recalls in Pier Groups:
“The hierarchy of youth and traditional notions of beauty that continues to determine sexual desirability on the internet or otherwise today was fully operable on the piers. Finding sexual partners along the waterfront was prone to be highly competitive and often frustrating, dangerous, and dispiriting. Writing and photographs, no matter how vivid, cannot convey the stench of excrement and garbage on a hot, humid July afternoon on the piers. The pier scene, ecstatic and liberating for some, for others was simply a scene of desperation. For me, it was both abject and exhilarating.”
Despite evoking Weinberg’s particularly…fragrant memory, I understand why the piers have been so romanticized by the generations that came after those who were able to trespass. Urban rot and dystopian aesthetics have their charm. And even more, in an increasingly gentrified city, the opportunity for the illicit sexual possibility and cross-class erotic connection found in the piers and other public cruising sites such as the trucks have significantly diminished in favor of privatized meeting places with numerous economic, social, and technological barriers to entry. Yet Hammons’s public art project seems like a strange place to pour all these FOMO feelings, especially considering Matta-Clark’s own contested relationship with this cruising subculture, among other squatters, existing in the same space as his magnum opus.
The Whitney is partially to blame for this misunderstanding of Matta-Clark’s relationship with the queer subculture cruising the piers, willfully misconstruing or selectively ignoring certain faintly and not so faintly homophobic aspects of Matta-Clark’s Day’s End conception and construction. For instance, The Whitney’s feature on Day’s End explains, “A relic of New York’s historic shipping industry, Pier 52 was part of Manhattan’s deteriorating west side waterfront, which was contemporaneously revived by a thriving local Queer community. Matta-Clark likewise viewed the urban decay as an opportunity.” This contextualizes the cruising and Matta-Clark’s penetrative art practice as existing alongside one another. However, read any history of Day’s End and it becomes clear that they were, in reality, in direct opposition, with Matta-Clark going so far as to lock everyone–the cruisers, the homeless, the, as he described, “sado-masochistic fringe”–out of the space as he created his masterpiece. Jonathan Weinberg explains in Pier Groups:
“Matta-Clark claimed that in the process of making Day’s End he competed for the space with ‘the teeming s&m renaissance that cruises the abandoned waterfront.’ He had his ‘crew of henchmen boarding and barb-wiring up all the alternative entrances except for the front door in which I substituted my own lock and bolt.’ Of course, it could be argued that Matta-Clark’s seizure and ‘renovation’ of city-owned property was far more criminal than the trespassing or lewd conduct of the gay men he sought to exclude from the site.”
In fact, one of the reasons Matta-Clark felt as if he had the right to trespass and vandalize the piers was cruising’s relationship to illegality, moral degeneration, and decadent decay, calling it “a veritable muggers’ playground, both for people who go only to enjoy walking there and for a recently popularized sado-masochistic fringe.” And Matta-Clark knew what to do–colonize it! As he described, “In the midst of this state of affairs it would seem within the rights of an artist or any other person for that matter to enter such a premises with a desire to improve the property, to transform the culture in the midst of its ugly criminal state into a place of interest, fascination and value.”
Our hero! He was saving the piers from the queers (among others)!
Jonathan Weinberg perhaps articulates the implications of this best: “Matta-Clark’s padlocking of Pier 52 as an act of rescue from the gays and the homeless was as much an act of hegemony as the police raid and shutdown of Matta-Clark’s activities.” And this is thoroughly related to the art world’s privileged class hierarchy, which bestowed Matta-Clark with the power to forcefully take over the space, essentially gentrifying it, so other art world snobs like party-pooper sculptor Joel Shapiro could visit the site and pearl-clutch about “this crazy naked guy was masturbating in a corner.”
I should note that some critics momentarily paused their admiration for Hammons’s Day’s End to acknowledge this troubled history. For instance, L’Official notes in ArtForum that Matta-Clark described Pier 52 as “overrun by the gays.” Similarly, Holland Cotter writes, “Matta-Clark was well aware of the gay presence, spoke of it dismissively, and did his best to keep it off the pier after completing ‘Day’s End,’ which he hoped to promote as ‘a sculptural festival of light and water’ open to the public…With its intrusion of unasked for, and possibly unwanted, light, it can be read as an act of art-world colonization.”
Yet, none of these critics seemed to find it too much of a problem that this new structure plopped on the river is by yet another straight male artist paying tribute to an artist who padlocked the queer community out of the pier. Not only that, but Hammons’s Day’s End is, for some reason, being heralded as also a tribute to the queer history of the piers. The Whitney even went so far as to host queer-centric walking tours that culminated in Hammons’s Day’s End monument during Pride. A bit odd when Matta-Clark wouldn’t have wanted the queers in the building to begin with! The description of the grand finale of the walking tour reads: “The layered history of Hammons’s work serves as a model for how the queer history of the city remains a defining presence in the ever changing landscape of the neighborhood that the Whitney now occupies.”
Does it now? Is this really what we have to accept as a memorial to queer communities?
It’s not lost on me that many of the reviews of Hammons’s Day’s End discuss at length the work of Alvin Baltrop, a Bronx-born Black gay photographer who documented the gay sexual culture of the piers, including on Pier 52 post-Matta-Clark. This is not to say it’s not worth mentioning Baltrop. Yet awkwardly leaning on his output in relation to Hammons’s current project seems to indicate that there is, in fact, a fundamental problem with all these straight men taking up space in the piers that these critics are trying to resolve. None of the materials from the Whitney mention Baltrop’s name at all so it’s hard to argue that Hammons’s monument is somehow also a tribute to this late and, until recently, woefully overlooked artist.
Baltrop also wasn’t the only photographer or creator who managed to capture Matta-Clark’s Day’s End, but he is coincidentally the one who has recently been inducted into art historical institutional importance culminating in his posthumous (of course) retrospective at the Bronx Museum, which may account for the frequent appearance of his name in art criticism. Predictable. However, other artists documented Pier 52–mostly unbeknownst to all of them (Matta-Clark’s intervention wasn’t exactly as renowned in its time as we imagine)–after the gay community returned to the pier. Post-Day’s End Pier 52 appears in the photographs of Frank Hallam and Shelley Seccombe, as well as Arch Brown’s gay porn Pier Groups, which sounds like a must-watch for any art historically inclined pervert. I’ll let Jonathan Weinberg describe:
“It tells the story of two handsome men, one gay and one presumably straight, who live in the same walk-up apartment in Greenwich Village. One goes to the waterfront to cruise for sex; the other, partnered to a woman, is sent there by his construction company to survey Pier 52 and come up with a bid for its demolition. As the hypermasculine construction worker carefully inspects the dock, getting down on his knees and even on his stomach to measure various elements of the structure, he repeatedly encounters gay men cruising or in the midst of sex. These men are drawn to his manly physique and intrigued by his suggestive poses. At the same time, the construction worker’s attention to his work often seems to falter, and he voyeuristically watches the men copulating.”
I want a memorial to this porn instead!
And that’s exactly the point. This isn’t a memorial to gay porn. Or to Baltrop. Or to Hallam or Seccombe or anyone else who may have a snapshot of Pier 52 in their archive. Or the nameless cruisers or squatters. And just because Hammons’s Day’s End is an empty shell shouldn’t mean it’s a vessel onto which we can attach just any association. I think we should believe Hammons when he wrote at the bottom of the sketch he randomly sent Whitney Director Adam Weinberg in 2014 after gazing over the Hudson River from the Whitney’s fifth floor: “Monument to Gordon Matta-Clark.”
To me, this makes the ginormous monument a tribute to the art world’s obsession with the singular artist figure–here meaning both Matta-Clark and Hammons. I mean, certainly the Whitney’s decision to take on Hammons’s 18 million dollar project based on an unexpectedly received sketch alone with no explanation should raise eyebrows. Not everyone could pull that off, even if the artist is often described as, The Brooklyn Rail articulates: “something of an outsider, turning down invitations for major museum retrospectives, eschewing gallery representation, and generally looking askance on the art world establishment.”
In this way, Hammons’s Day’s End is worth considering in relation to the troublesome institutionalization of David Wojnarowicz also by the Whitney Museum in their retrospective History Keeps Me Awake At Night. The Whitney’s Wojnarowicz exhibition attempted to shove a difficult and uncategorizable artist into the rubric of the Great White Male artist, erasing many of his collaborations in the process. History Keeps Me Awake At Night also forced Wojnarowicz’s complicated and multifaceted (sometimes wild and criminal) life and work to comfortably inhabit a white-walled institution that exists as a beacon of gentrification in a neighborhood that used to be awash with cow’s blood (a medium Wojnarowicz was known to use on occasion).
Similarly, Hammons’s Day’s End distills the dirty and hazardous, freewheeling and deliciously clandestine sex romp of the piers into a shiny construction framework worthy of its star architect-created neighbors in the Meatpacking District, Hudson Yards, and the West Village. As Robert Slifkin writes in The Brooklyn Rail, “this is a monument for an increasingly homogenized future, where the clandestine chance encounters that once took place in the abandoned piers are replaced with the eversame comforts of what used to be called late capitalism.”
Could this be a purposeful critique by Hammons, as some critics argue? Maybe, but I have a tough time understanding how simply mimicking the vacuity and soullessness of gentrified urban space is somehow subverting it, especially since Hammons’s work, unlike Matta-Clark unknowingly did, offers no ability for alternative uses of the artwork or space. Jonathan Weinberg reveals, “In the end, Matta-Clark’s padlocking was futile. The space was reclaimed by the gay cruisers and squatters. I like to think about Day’s End as the backdrop for their clandestine activity.” And this can be seen in Brown’s Pier Groups and in the photographs of Baltrop, Hallam, and Seccombe as men dip their legs in the river, sunbathe, wander, and cruise in the pier’s shed.
Hammons’s Day’s End, in contrast, offers no possibility of reclamation. As The Whitney’s feature on the public art swoons, “Day’s End (2014–21) belongs to everyone and to no one.” Let’s be honest…no one. Separated from the general public by water, it offers no shelter for activity, clandestine or no. With its open structure, primed for surveillance, there’s certainly no cruising that can happen here. Instead, it’s walled-off like a museum sculpture and emptied of any and all possibility except for staring at it from the walkway and taking pictures for social media.
Perhaps the only similarity between these Day’s Ends is that passersby will likely not recognize this hunk of stainless steel as art either.