May 27, 2021
David Hammons’ Monument to The Chelsea Piers Rises on the Hudson
The influential artist’s steel tube structure forms a silhouette of the bygone Pier 52, famously known for artist Gordon Matta-Clark’s 1975 intervention.
Across from the Whitney Museum of American Art, artist David Hammons’ new public artwork, Day’s End, manifests artistic and architectural ethereality on a grand scale. The permanent monument, built entirely from thin bead-blasted steel tubes, reaches above 52 feet in height and 325 feet in length. Sitting on the southern end of the Gansevoort Peninsula at Hudson River Park, it forms a subtle silhouette of the bygone Pier 52, which was “sculpted” into its namesake installation by late conceptual artist, Gordon Matta-Clark. The artist’s 1975 intervention, in which he carved massive holes into the industrial shed’s floors, walls, and west side facade with a chainsaw and blow torch, has since become a symbol of the west side piers’ then-ravishing creative scene—even after the building was demolished in 1980.
When Whitney director Adam Weinberg invited Hammons to the museum’s new downtown location back in 2015, he realized the artist was more intrigued by the piers outside the window than the lavish fifth-floor gallery they were in. “I’ve learned over the years that David is about indirection—not direction—always turning things upside down or inside out,” Weinberg says about the museum’s decision to spearhead the $18 million artistic and engineering marvel.
Day’s End stems from a six-year-long collaboration between the museum, Hammons, and Guy Nordenson, structural engineer and principal of Guy Nordenson and Associates, who tells Metropolis that Hammons’s “great tailors make the fewest cuts” philosophy was their main motivator in achieving the sculpture’s aesthetic refinement. Hammons selected a humble shade of the Super-Duplex steel from Belgium to absorb and reflect the light; the tubes were bent in Italy with the intention of conveying a continuous single line drawing in the air, and their overall assembly was completed in Toronto. Installed in three weeks, the structure sits where Matta-Clark’s intervention was located—workers even found the pier’s original timbers during construction.
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Nordenson’s building strategy is somewhat of an iceberg. The tubes sit on 8- to 10-foot-long concrete bases, which oscillate in visibility depending on the tide, but the form’s true foundations are steel piles that extend as deep as 150 feet into the bedrock. “Choreographing Hammons’s geometry,” according to Nordenson, required cambers to resist gravity in order to achieve the artist’s ideal thinness. “We focused on responding to artistic elements more than simply solving the technical challenges,” he says.
Despite its grandiosity, the project started with a simple sketch Hammons sent to The Whitney. “We had talked about back when Gordon had created his original cut piece somewhere out there, but we were unaware that we’d soon receive a tender drawing which simply said: ‘a monument to Gordon Matta-Clark,’” Weinberg remembers. After the Whitney’s public opening on May 1, 2015, the museum director finally realized that the drawing was “a message in a bottle”—a mysterious proposal which has become indicative of the famously allusive artist’s work. From selling snowballs at Cooper Square to urinating on a Richard Serra public sculpture, the artist’s work has relied on sensitive gestures to prompt awareness for social issues, or in this case, a bygone history.
Most recognizable in the artist’s Body Prints from the late 1960s, imprints—of a person, building, or community—have always fascinated Hammons. The Drawing Center’s current exhibition of the series exhibits his use of bodily impression to defy impermanence. “These works are not so much images, as remnants of an actual body, and in that, according to the artist, they are not just commemorative, but sacred,” explains the exhibition’s curator, Laura Hoptman. She believes Day’s End, “returns the essence of this inspirational part of New York’s landscape to a city that never needed it more than it does now, as we reopen, rebuild, and reimagine our post-pandemic world.”
Blending the evocative nature of Hammons’s practice with cutting-edge engineering, however, was the real challenge. Nordenson and his team spent a summer studying the maritime ecology and history of the pier with a group of students from Princeton University. They researched archival photographs to determine the original building’s exact location and scale. Hudson River Trust, which currently oversees the peninsula, has not permitted new construction on the site since 1990, “so we worked with a state senator and made an amendment that the monument would sit exactly where the former building was located,” explains Weinberg. Governor Cuomo eventually signed the permission and even allocated $4 million from the city budget for the project.
“This is a ghost, a platonic form that avoids shutting its surrounding down,” Weinberg adds. “It’s a democratic public artwork about acceptance, of the trees, boats, seagulls, cars, and the debris.” Soon, oysters might claim the monument’s authorship as well. The research showed the team that the Native Americans harvested foot-long oysters on the site, and the museum hopes they will return to claim the tubes as their home.
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