The Life and Times of Alvin Baltrop @Bronx Museum of the Arts

JTF (just the facts): A total of 172 gelatin silver prints and 14 c-prints, measuring between 2 1/2 x 2 1/2 inches and 11 x 14 inches (paper size), floated in black frames and hung salon style on dark gray walls in the museum’s side gallery. The works on view, for the most part original prints made between 1969 and around 1986, are all undated and uneditioned. (Installation shots below.)

In conjunction with the show, the Bronx Museum and Skira have published a companion catalog (here, 224 pages, 200 color illustrations, 9 1/2 x 11 inches, $50 hardcover), edited by exhibition curator Antonio Sergio Bessa, with essays by Bessa, Douglas Crimp, Adrienne Edwards, Allen Frame, and Mia Kang.

Comments/Context: Alvin Baltrop (1948–2004) had only two shows of his photographs during his lifetime—both of them in East Village bars rather than conventional art venues. Black and bisexual, he had few connections to the overwhelmingly white art world of his day, and his subject matter, the multi-ethnic gay subculture of Manhattan’s far West Side during the 1970s and ’80s, had little currency while he was alive, even among galleries showing homoerotic photography.

In the 15 years since Baltrop’s death from cancer, however, recognition of his work’s aesthetic and documentary value has grown. On view at the Bronx Museum, which is also the home of the Baltrop Archive, this exhibition presents nearly 200 photographs drawn from the artist’s estate and private collections.

Baltrop was born in the Bronx and began taking pictures as a teenager, using a camera given to him by an uncle. He joined the US Navy in 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War, serving as a medic on the destroyer USS William V. Pratt, and the show opens with a selection of images made during his three years of service.

Based largely in the Mediterranean, the Pratt and its crew never saw combat. Instead, Baltrop’s pictures show men engaged in military exercises, engaged in mundane tasks, or relaxing in their quarters. These are interspersed with more intimate shots, like a close-up of a man’s eye, and—more flagrantly—one of male genitals. Though the images show Baltrop still finding his way as a photographer, they anticipate much of his later work, particularly in their depictions of a closed, all-male world, and the palpable intensity of the photographer’s desire for its inhabitants.

Baltrop received an honorable discharge in 1972, at which point he returned to New York, attending the School of Visual Arts for two years. Beginning in 1974, he began to photograph the gay cruising sites along the Hudson River in Lower Manhattan: the bars along West Street; the loading docks in the Meatpacking district; and, particularly, the abandoned piers at the end of Christopher Street which, by the early 1970s, had become known as places for anonymous sex.

For Baltrop, the piers were a revelation. “You could find a spot, a room, a section of pier, a rooftop where it’s open and nobody was”, he once told filmmaker Joe Lovett. “You could put down your blanket. . . . You have a bottle of wine. . . . You’re out there with the breeze right off the river, the sunlight is banging down on you, and you’ve met somebody you can have sex with. . . . It was like a drug. It WAS a drug.”

Unlike many of the photographers who took pictures at the piers during these years—including Arthur Tress, Peter Hujar, Stanley Stellar, Leonard Fink—Baltrop became as much a participant as an observer, immersing himself in the life of the piers and their population of gay men looking for pleasure, hustlers for a mark, and runaways for a place to sleep. Eventually, he gave up his job as a cab driver in favor of freelance work that gave him more time there, occasionally even living out of a van parked nearby.

As in his Navy pictures, Baltrop’s images of the piers alternate between close-ups—of friends like drag queen and activist Marsha P. Johnson, of young exhibitionists in the buff, and of blow jobs in progress—and long shots in which men sunbathing or having sex are dwarfed by the vast industrial landscape around them. While never rendered insignificant, the sexual activity depicted in Baltrop’s photographs is made unsensational, literally and metaphorically part of a larger picture.

It’s very much the larger picture that emerges in this, the most comprehensive survey of Baltrop’s work to date. Baltrop did not shy away, for example, from the piers’ obvious dangers. As well as sexual encounters, he photographed building collapses, fires, and bodies dredged from the river by police or discovered in empty rooms. Nevertheless, in this post-Stonewall, pre-AIDs moment, the overriding feeling in the photographs is one of liberation.

Artists as well—including Gordon Matta-Clark, Joan Jonas, and Mike Bidlo and David Wojnarowicz—were taking advantage of the unregulated space of the piers to make projects, and captured in some of these photos are Matta-Clark’s sail-shaped cut at Pier 52, well as the homoerotic work, featuring cavorting men and dolphins, of the muralist known as Tava.

What really stands out in this show, though, is how much the piers themselves—the cavernous, dimly lit interiors of their warehouses, their sagging docks, and their mountains of wood trusses—are as much a subject of interest as their denizens. In these photographs of nighttime parking lots and shadowy hallways, arrays of steel trusses and grids of factory windows, Baltrop emerges not only as a extraordinarily gifted and documentarian but as a master of contrast and composition.

By the end of the 1990s, as a result of financial hardship and failing health, Baltrop had stopped taking pictures. On his death he left a trove of thousands of images in the form of battered prints, negatives, slides, and undeveloped film, preserved only through the efforts of a friend, the painter Randal Wilcox. That his work is now getting attention is at least partially due to a growing acceptance of work by African American and LGBTQ artists from the same art world from which he was originally excluded by virtue of his color, class, and sexual orientation. Long overlooked, Baltrop is finally getting his due as one of the most visionary photographers of his era.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. Alvin Baltrop is represented by Third Streaming (here). Baltrop’s work has little secondary market history in the past decade, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Alvin Baltrop, Bronx Museum of the Arts, Skira Rizzoli

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