Back to The Queer Future

David McDermott and Peter McGough, Queer, 1885, 1987. 44 x 88 inches, oil and gold leaf on linen,

Pier Groups: Art and Sex Along the New York Waterfront by Jonathan Weinberg, Penn State University Press, 232 pp.

I’ve Seen The Future and I’m Not Going: The Art Scene and New York in the 1980s by Peter McGough, Pantheon, 304 pp.

Picture a time where two (struggling) gay artists could take over dilapidated houses or apartments in New York City and the Hudson to turn them into spaces from past eras. Imagine a moment where the New York piers were vast and almost abandoned spaces which could be filled both with art and queer cruising. These types of spaces existed in a time, stretching from the 1970s to 1980s, before both the onset of the AIDS epidemic and before our current moment of gentrification. These are the eras chronicled in Peter McGough’s memoir of his life with David McDermott in the queer New York art world of the 1980s, I’ve Seen the Future and I’m Not Going, as well as Jonathan Weinberg’s Pier Groups, an account of the simultaneous artistic and cruising culture along the New York Piers mostly in the 1970s. Both books offer unusual histories of the importance of queer world-making, for both art and life. What is central in both is the importance of relationships and spaces, in romance and friendship, to gay life.

“As we left the restaurant near dusk, I thought I had found a nice friend, someone to talk to. Little did I know how this person would shape my life.” So writes McGough on an early meeting with McDermott. McD, as he is called in the book, would become McGough’s collaborator and artistic partner. Their relationship, as chronicled in his recent memoir, is complicated: by turns volatile, loving and creative. They paint, photograph, and make spaces together in Victorian style, imagining a past to create a present. The question of what their artwork is remains open throughout the book: their renovation of several homes to become representatives of different periods from the past and their living within them represent as conscious a performance as their paintings.

“We considered ourselves not dandies but modern artists making a living performance about time,” McGough writes. Their paintings, all as if from other times, are striking and often make profound statements about the long durée of queerness. So, however, did their very living. At one point in the late 80s, they began taking photographs with period methods. “With McD’s intense obsession with making sure he lived in his time machine, I could turn the camera everywhere and get an interesting image,” notes McGough. This type of panoramic or photographic image, of daily life crossing with making artwork, is what is offered by this book, as what McGough terms “a record of our lives.”

Weinberg’s Pier Groups also is best viewed as a kind of panorama or montage of the Manhattan Piers in the in the 1970s and early 1980s, also a space of simultaneous creativity and decay. Weinberg’s primary mediums under consideration here are photography and architecture, though others come into play. What makes reading Weinberg’s book significant within writing on queer art history is his specific focus on relation, both among the many queer men, such as David Wojnarowicz and Leonard Fink, who cruised and created within the piers and the ‘straight’ artists, ranging from Gordon Matta-Clark to Vito Acconci, who made art there as well and responded to the same spaces. Rather than separating ‘queer art’ from the other art made in these same spaces, Weinberg recognizes the many ways that these disparate artworks were connected and responded to the space and sexual cultures of the waterfront, dilapidated, often dangerous and also somehow uniquely free. His title, taken from a porn film from the era which astonishingly featured Matta-Clark’s carved building Day’s End, is also his thesis: that the many disparate sexual and artistic practices on the pier can be seen to constitute a group of contemporaries in a certain dialogue with each other, sharing (and oriented by) space. The book is also worth reading simply for Weinberg’s fascinating anti-autobiographical interpretation of Wojnarowicz’s Rimbaud in New York series.

Late in Pier Groups, Weinberg notes that “the study of ruins you are reading is yet another ruin.” Yet, as the artistic practice of McGough and McDermott and the many experiments on the Piers show, many new possibilities can open from ruins. Reflecting on the two books made me think of Michel Foucault’s interview on “Friendship as a Way of Life,” from 1981 during the period McGough and Weinberg both chronicle. In this interview, Foucault poses the question, “what relations, through homosexuality, can be established, invented, multiplied, and modulated?” Foucault goes on to suggest that “becoming” homosexual is something to “work on,” with the “homosexual mode of life” offering a subversive potential. What is exciting in both these books is their opening up of past moments of queer fashioning and creativity. In thinking about what kinds of spaces and relations queer art can open now, looking back with these books can help to move beyond the present to multiple pasts and maybe even a kind of future.

Some Additional Reading: For more on AIDS and gentrification, I recommend Gentrification of The Mind by Sarah Schulman. For more on art in New York and Wojnarowicz, I highly suggest reading The Lonely City by Olivia Laing.

The Foucault interview is published as “Friendship as a way of life.” in The Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, Volume One - Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. Ed. Paul Rabinow. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: The New Press, 1997. 135-140.