Pier Pressure: High Line Art Resurrects Classic Willoughby Sharp Waterfront Show

The pier. (Photo by Timothy Schenck, courtesy Friends of the High Line)
The pier. (Photo by Timothy Schenck, courtesy Friends of the High Line)

Over the past decade, as luxurious buildings, parks, restaurants and clubs have popped up near the Hudson River in the Meatpacking District and West Chelsea, Pier 54, which is located at about West 13th Street, has sat desolate, uninhabited except for the occasional concert or special event, and in 2012 the Hudson River Park Trust cut off access to most of the 800-foot-long, 104-year-old pier since it is at risk of collapsing.

“I see that pier from my window, from the High Line office, and it’s a landscape that is completely separated from what we connect to art, which is of course Chelsea,” Cecilia Alemani, the director and curator of High Line Art, told me by phone last week. “It is such an amazing pier. It has this wonderful metal framework at the entrance, and it’s where the survivors of the Titanic were brought. It’s a pier that is very rich in history, but now is just sitting there.”

For the next few months, though, Ms. Alemani will be venturing out to Pier 54 quite a bit, facilitating the completion of works by 27 artists—including Margaret Lee, Liz Magic Laser, Virginia Overton, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Sara VanDerBeek and Anicka Yi (the full list follows below)—that she has recruited for a project called “Pier 54.” It’s an update on “Pier 18,” a show staged in 1971 by the notorious curator, publisher, dealer and all-around gadabout Willoughby Sharp on that eponymous pier. As in Sharp’s show, most of the works in Ms. Alemani’s edition involve performances or instructions and are being created without audiences, created for—and by—the camera. The legendary duo Shunk-Kender snapped photos in 1971; Liz Ligon is handling that duty this time around.

“The idea of restaging it came because the piers have been such an important space for artistic experimentation in the past,” Ms. Alemani said. Sharp, of course, wasn’t the only art denizen who rushed to the largely abandoned piers in the 1970s—Gordon Matta-Clark used them as his raw material, making careful slices in the dilapidated structures, David Wojnarowicz snapped some of his Rimbaud photos on them, and Vito Acconci staged one of his earliest performances on Pier 17, whispering potentially compromising secrets to people who visited him. (The catalogue for “Mixed Use, Manhattan,” Lynne Cooke and Douglas Crimp’s 2010 exhibition at Madrid’s Reina Sofía, is well worth a look for more on the subject.)

Incredibly, all 27 participants in Sharp’s show were male. “It’s kind of shocking,” Ms. Alemani said. Indeed, even at a time when many shows blithely excluded women, 27 to 0 is a pretty absurd ratio. That said, “It’s amazing what [Sharp] did,” she continued, because if you look at those guys, they were young. It was the very early ‘70s, and he really got them all. It’s a very visionary group of people. Many who were in the early years of their careers have gone on to become pillars of recent art history, from Mr. Acconci (who invited “someone about whom my feelings are ambiguous, someone I don’t fully trust” to lead him, blindfolded, to the edge of the pier) and John Baldessari (who, apparently very enthusiastic about the project, produced around 10 works for the camera) to Allen Ruppersberg and Richard Serra.

Ms. Alemani has picked 27 women for her show. “It’s a project that’s very dear to me,” she said, “and has been embraced by the artists in a very excited way.” The performances and documentation have just begun, and will continue throughout the next few months, but a few have been completed. Marie Lorenz took Ms. Ligon underneath the pier. “There are all these almost stalactites of limestone that are like pouring from the pier, and they create almost a sculptural landscape, which is really beautiful,” Ms. Alemani said.

Aki Sasamoto, meanwhile, staged what sounds like a characteristically inventive performance that involved a huge block of ice, a mop and shoes she fashioned with ski boots and cement. “I was glad I was there to see it because it was very hilarious to see her doing that,” Ms. Alemani said.

Everyone else will get to see the work when the photos are presented as a slide show in the fall in High Line Channel 14, the space in the park above West 14th Street, as well as at an exhibition space somewhere in the neighborhood. “We will also be installing a more traditional photo exhibition, which I’m so thrilled about,” Ms. Alemani said, letting out a big laugh, “because I haven’t worked in a gallery space in so long, and I can hang pictures. It will make me so happy.”

(The full roster of artists: Leonor Antunes, Rosa Barba, Francisca Benitez, Carol Bove, N. Dash, Liz Glynn, Sharon Hayes, Iman Issa, Margaret Lee, Maria Loboda, Marie Lorenz, Shana Lutker, Liz Magic Laser, Jill Magid, MPA, Virginia Overton , Leah Raintree, Emily Roysdon, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Aki Sasamoto, Xaviera Simmons , Mika Tajima, Andra Ursuta, Sara VanDerBeek, Allyson Vieira, Marianne Vitale and Anicka Yi.) Pier Pressure: High Line Art Resurrects Classic Willoughby Sharp Waterfront Show