When The Piers Were Young and Gay

06.01.12 David Lumb

A photo melange of public sex, murals in abandoned buildings, and naked sunbathers splayed on the titular 1970s Hudson piers — see it all at “The Piers: Art and Sex Along the Waterfront” exhibit, just two quick doors from 26 Wooster Street.

Already extended past May, the exhibit will be history on July 8–and so will the look into a wondrous and liberated gay scene housed in the remains of a war-time pierfront.

The windows along Wooster Street are lined with photos of vibrant young LGBT teens shouting for their visibility amongst the tide of anti-LGBT violence and hatred–this is the first glimpse of the almost-year-old Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, the only accredited museum to expressly exhibit gay, lesbian, and transgender art. “The Piers” celebrates the droves of gay men freshly unshackled after the Stonewall riots, flaunting their bodies around crumbling concrete.

It’s an exhibit so full of gay sexual expression and dicks writ large that it would wither the common curator.

“Ideally, we wish that we wouldn’t exist,” said Jerry Kajpust, director of external affairs at MoGLA.

But it does, and it needs to, Kajpust insists, to highlight the influence gay, lesbian, and transgender sexuality has had on the art world that’s been swept under the rug by Mainstream Art. To wit: Paul Thek’s recent exhibition at the Whitney Museum focused on the “Meat Pieces” that made him famous while quietly ignoring his homosexuality. So MoGLA’s set to use some of the pieces that appeared in the Whitney show for an exhibition of Thek’s art, grounding his early work within the influence of his social and erotic circle of friends (including Peter Hujar, whose photographs appear in “The Piers”).

More of the exhibit will stem from personal photos and snippets of his life courtesy of an old lover, Peter Harvey–just one connection of many for the fledgling museum as it stretches its newly-accredited fingers to connect with the gay and museum communities. Some of those fingers are catching hold, Kajpust says, due to great timing–and exhibitions like “The Piers” that illustrate the cultural experience of the times; or, as Kajpust puts it, “It doesn’t matter if you are gay or straight–it’s just what was happening at the time.”

And what was happening at the Hudson Piers in 1971 was a revolution. The Stonewall riots in 1969 (the same year MoGLA founders Charles Leslie and his partner Fritz Lohman hosted their first exhibition in their New York loft) broke the doors open for a visible gay culture. The dilapidated piers below 14th Street on the Hudson River became open country for gay men to sunbathe naked, cruise, and screw; the sexual liberation spurred murals and graffiti, photo shoots and scripted pornography. “The Piers” documents the vibrant life inside the decaying waterfront: gay men cruising, gay men holding and grabbing and posing, and the art spread along crumbling walls that witnessed it all.

MoGLA is the auspicious blossom of a bud planted in a 1969 New York loft exhibition by Charles Leslie and his partner Fritz Lohman. Leslie and Lohman’s personal collection became the Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation in 1990 after three years of Internal Revenue Service hang-ups over usage of “Gay” in the nonprofit’s name. While most of the collection has been of and by gay men, MoGLA aims to broaden its lesbian and transgender holdings–its first show after foundation’s transition to an accredited museum last fall was titled “Lesbians Seeing Lesbians,” chronicling queer feminist photography in the 70s, featuring the work of Joan E. Biren, Cathy Cade, and Tee A. Corinne.

Future exhibits–six to eight a year–will be less phallo-centric, Krajpust swears, pointing to the upcoming exhibition of Del LaGrace Volcano’s work. Don’t know Volcano? The California-born Swedish artist has been featured in Scotland, Bourges, London, and Spain–but Volcano, gender variant visual artist, hasn’t been featured in the US for mysterious but predictable reasons.

MoGLA exists to call out Mainstream Art to represent the influence sexuality has had on gay, lesbian, and transgender artists.

“It’s important for us to be here–let’s just say that,” Kajpust said.

“The Piers: Art and Sex Along the Waterfront,” April 4 – July 7, Various Artists Curated by Jonathan Weinberg with Darren Jones, The Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York

(Photo: Shelley Seccombe, Sunbathing on the Edge, Pier 52, 1977, contemporary archival digital print, 11×15″, courtesy of the artist)