Hannah Hoffman
2504 W 7th St, 2nd Floor, Los Angeles
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Alvin Baltrop
November 21, 2020 - January 23, 2021
2504 W 7th Street, 2nd Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90057

Hannah Hoffman Gallery is pleased to present Alvin Baltrop, a selection of works by the groundbreaking New York photographer. Alvin Baltrop brings together an array of black-and-white images that together compose a remarkable portrait of Manhattan’s west piers from the mid 1970s through the mid 1980s. Baltrop approached the life and creativity that flourished on this site with a singular intimacy and curiosity, but his work remained almost entirely unknown during his lifetime. The exhibition also offers rarely seen examples of the photographer’s work in color, tracking his abiding thematic interests and changing photographic style.

Cut off from Manhattan’s usual bustle by the collapse of the elevated West Side Highway in 1973, the piers became a hotspot for gay cruising, drug use, and artistic experimentation. Many artists (including Gordon Matta-Clark and David Wojnarowicz) found material for new work among the area’s decaying buildings. Few, however, matched Baltrop’s dedication to the neighborhood. Working as a taxi driver and then a mover with a van turned makeshift home, Baltrop was a regular denizen of the piers. He made hundreds of pictures there—images that convey the liberating atmosphere of a place unrestrained by traditional mores even as they document gritty realities born of poverty, prejudice, crime, and addiction. Life on the piers was, in his words, “frightening, mad, unbelievable, violent, and beautiful,” all at once.

Baltrop’s pictures are shot through with an arresting tension born of this ambivalence. Photographs of nude Black men lounging in the sun, such as those titled The Piers (man on dock), are a nod to the elegance of antique sculpture. At the same time, they stand as tender reminders of the precariousness of these young bodies in the 20th century. Images of sex acts, including The Piers (blowjob) and The Piers (two men embracing in warehouse), capture a sense of sexual freedom among gay New Yorkers in the wake of the Stonewall Riots of 1969. Yet, the dilapidated settings of these encounters highlight a continued need to hide as prohibitions against homosexuality were still the norm in the United States. Baltrop’s eye for architecture and debris in works like The Piers (figures lying in wreckage) and The Piers (warehouse exterior) shines a light on the liberties as well as the dangers that come with a lack of attention from civic authorities.

Seen in hindsight, Baltrop’s black-and-white photographs of New York’s urban landscape and social underground are a testament to the city’s evolving economic priorities and cultural values. As such, they’ve been the focus of the critical enthusiasm for his work that has developed since his death in 2004. Baltrop’s lesser-known color photographs are equally moving in their empathic vision. The frank but sympathetic view of social outcasts that threads through Baltrop’s piers pictures is also present in Man passed out in planter. The eroticism of his portraits of nude sunbathers is made lush, palpable, and even more intimate in images like Back. In including such works, Alvin Baltrop amplifies our understanding of an intrepid photographer whose work is an invaluable record of a community now gone. 

Alvin Baltrop’s work has been featured in solo exhibitions at The Bronx Museum, New York; Galerie Buchholz, New York; and the Contemporary Art Museum, Houston, among other sites. His images are in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art; The Bronx Museum.