“OUR STREETS ARE CALENDARS containing who we were and who we will be next,” wrote Colson Whitehead in a November 2001 essay about a New York still in the turbid wake of a different airborne cataclysm. “We see ourselves in this city every day when we walk down the sidewalk and catch our reflections in store windows, seek ourselves in this city each time we reminisce about what was there 5, 10, 40 years ago, because all our old places are proof that we were here.” Whitehead’s essay is perhaps most famous for its charming epigraphic rubrics for city citizenship (“You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now”), but, at its core, it conducts a reckoning with the unique and personal aftermath of physical, material loss, while offering a token of consolation just as unique and personal: the lost city, forever fixed in individual memory—a place we might carry with us and move through whenever we like because we once moved through it.
For more than fifty years, the street—both literal and metaphorical, in New York and elsewhere—has been essential to David Hammons’s artistic practice. Hammons first codified his preference for activating city streets—rather than white cubes—as creative sanctuaries and liberatory theaters in an oft-quoted 1986 interview with Kellie Jones: “The worst thing in the world is to say, ‘well I’m going to see this exhibition.’ The work should instead be somewhere in between your house and where you’re going to see it, it shouldn’t be at the gallery. . . . That’s why I like doing stuff better on the street, because the art becomes just one of the objects that’s in the path of your everyday existence. It’s what you move through, and it doesn’t have seniority over anything else.” Both Whitehead and Hammons are as attuned to the shifting absences and impermanence of urban life as they are to its abundances, and to the capacity of place to encode within us a sense not only of identity but also of wonder, sociality, and history.
Day’s End is infinitely propositional, an architectural frame to house unhoused improvisation.
So when Hammons rather enigmatically proposed to New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art—by way of a modest, poetic sketch—a public art installation intended as a monument to Gordon Matta-Clark, whose Day’s End, 1975, featured five large “cuts” made in the walls, roof, and floor of a massive tin shed at Pier 52 on Manhattan’s West Side waterfront, he seemed intent on explicitly engaging with history and memory while gesturing, in spectral outline, to the ephemerality of each. Matta-Clark famously altered the original shed by cutting, extracting, and “opening up” elements of its facade; Hammons, by contrast, presents a simple stainless-steel armature that precisely replicates—in its dimensions and its site—the Pier 52 structure. Open to the sky above and to the land and river beneath, it is almost invisible. It is also unexpected, and therefore in character for an artist who so cannily embodies the puckish brilliance of the Black folkloric tradition’s trickster figures. This, after all, is Hammons’s first permanent public artwork in more than three decades, located in tantalizing proximity to one of the many major institutions that the artist has spent a career impishly frustrating, critiquing, and flirting with—often by mobilizing impermanence. 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.
Hammons moved to New York, to Harlem, in 1974—a year before Matta-Clark created Day’s End. And though both artists showed in New York galleries in the 1970s, there is little evidence they ever met during that time. That said, the maverick spirit on display in Day’s End, executed without permits or authorization, and more so in Window Blow-Out, 1976—for which Matta-Clark shot out all the windows of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies with an air gun the night before the opening of a show to which he was invited to contribute photographs of broken windows in the South Bronx—is present in much of Hammons’s work as well. Hammons remixed and repurposed Richard Serra’s T.W.U., 1980, twice: first by throwing tied-together pairs of sneakers over it in 1981’s Shoe Tree, marking it in a way intimately familiar to urban citizens worldwide, and again in Pissed Off, 1981, by urinating on it, with photographer and friend Dawoud Bey there to capture the result: a police officer writing him a citation. In this way, the sampling and interpolation of Matta-Clark’s original work that Hammons offers in his Day’s End is both spiritually concordant and resonantly renegade. But if there are, as Whitehead notes, “eight million naked cities in this naked city,” no story of a place like the West Side piers—or any place, for that matter—is ever authored by so few narrators.
Alvin Baltrop’s photographs of the Hudson River piers, taken between 1975 and 1986, attest to the efflorescence of queer life as lived on the piers and express nothing if not the total commitment of an artist to his subject, as they convey all the romance, spontaneity, danger, languor, delight, tragedy, desire, slyness, and sublimity that hanging out in a derelict landing at the edge of the city might suggest. They also, incidentally, capture Matta-Clark’s Day’s End. Baltrop shot thousands of images of the piers; to do so, he quit his job as a taxi driver, purchased a van, and worked as a mover so that he could spend days or weeks parked by the river, living out of his vehicle. The photographer’s devotion was such that he constructed a harness that allowed him to hang from the rafters—much like Matta-Clark did in cutting through Pier 52’s walls and ceiling—and shoot from clandestine angles. Born in the Bronx in 1948, Baltrop made work that forms an elemental stratum in the accreted layers of history that lie between Matta-Clark’s own forays into the South Bronx for his first building cuts in abandoned tenements, “Bronx Floors,” 1972–73; his 1975 Day’s End; and Hammons’s present-day revision of the latter. Baltrop’s photographs, importantly, document the life and joy that Matta-Clark refused to see on a pier he once noted was “overrun by the gays.” If Hammons’s Day’s End is, as the Whitney has described it, a “ghost monument,” then Baltrop’s ghost—eclipsed in life by figures like Robert Mapplethorpe, whom Baltrop personally despised—is present here too.
Day’s End is not the first time Hammons has built a structure on the West Side waterfront. In 1985, he worked with Angela Valerio and architect Jerry Barr to build a version of a house titled Delta Spirit for Creative Time’s “Art on the Beach” project in the final summer before the dunelike landfill site produced by the excavation for the World Trade Center disappeared beneath Battery Park City. Hammons’s structure served as a set for Sun Ra and his Arkestra, among other musicians, to perform. As he told Jones, Hammons called it Delta Spirit because of his admiration for the improvised architectures in the South: “That Negritude architecture . . . Nothing fits, but everything works . . . everything is a 32nd of an inch off.” Only a handful of photographs of Delta House exist. Though the Whitney would doubtlessly be thrilled to present these pictures in a comprehensive retrospective of Hammons’s work, bestowing the artist’s oeuvre with an “official” institutional history and fixing it in the canon, Hammons refuses to indulge such historicization. With Day’s End, a monument dedicated to a different artist, named for that different artist’s iconic work and gesturing at lost local narratives and histories by memorializing their erasure, Hammons dramatizes his own disappearance, putting forward a pristine meditation on a vanished past—one that the museum either has failed to, or structurally cannot, archive—and from which he himself remains conspicuously, devilishly absent.
Peter L’Official is the author of Urban Legends: The South Bronx in Representation and Ruin (Harvard University Press, 2020). He teaches at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.