The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston prides itself on “exhibitions that exemplify the art of today.” What, advice then, to make of a CAMH show dominated by black-and-white pre-digital-era photographs taken by a deceased, virtually unknown artist to document a demi-monde that no longer exists?

Organized by the museum’s senior curator, Valerie Cassel Oliver, Perspectives 179 –Alvin Baltrop: Dreams Into Glass fits into a recent pattern of CAMH historical reclamation projects such as her 2010 retrospective of Fluxus artist Benjamin Patterson and last year’s survey of Stan VanDerBeek, a new-media innovator whose experiments, though prescient, were quickly left in the technological dust. (Telephone murals, anyone?)

But while the alive-and-active Patterson and the long-dead VanDerBeek were pioneering figures during their artistic heydays – even if they soon slipped below the art world’s radar – Baltrop, a conventional though brilliant documentary photographer, was more of a pioneer in the Lewis-and-Clark sense of the word. That is, if Lewis and Clark were black, urban bisexuals whose expeditions took them not to the 19th-century West Coast but to the abandoned, dilapidated piers of Manhattan’s West Side during the 1970s and 1980s.

Alvin Baltrop, Untitled, 1975-86. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy of the Alvin Baltrop Trust and Third Streaming, New York.

And the frontiers he explored weren’t geographic – although his photos’ physical settings often appear as sparsely populated as wide-open terrains, and as fraught with danger and even violence as the Wild West – but sexual. The gay-liberation wave of the sexual revolution had unleashed a level of abandon that’s nearly unrecognizable to most people who came of age in the wake of the AIDS pandemic, which by the mid-1980s prompted the city to demolish or close the structures over the protests of Baltrop and others.

“Acts and expressions of the utmost intimacy took place among strangers who met in a public arena – and they could therefore be witnessed, whether from a distance or right up close, by someone who was also a stranger but might become an intimate, too,” writes art historian Douglas Crimp, a curator, critic and participant in the unpoliced public spaces Baltrop documented, in the catalogue. “The striking casualness with which all of this took place and the frankness that made it available to Baltrop’s camera make these photographs deeply moving records.”

Alvin Baltrop, The Piers (male portrait), 1975-86. Gelatin silver print. Collection of Dr. David Colbert, New York.

Of course, the sex pictures, as Randal Wilcox, Baltrop’s friend, assistant and the executor of his estate, notes in the afterword, make up only a fraction of his piers photos, which also record the architecture, interventions by artists such as Gordon Matta-Clark, crime scenes and portraits.

Indeed, the interplay of light and shadow, velvety tonalities and rigorous compositions of Baltrop’s images stand up to the modernist photographers who influenced him, even as his pictures’ diaristic qualities invite comparison with such contemporaries as Larry Clark and Nan Goldin. (The show also includes early photos from Baltrop’s time in the Navy, his street photography and late pictures taken in hospice; he died of cancer at the age of 55 in 2004.)

“The limited narrative of the piers today (sex, art, and more sex) is fashioned by those who went there because they had a choice to,” Wilcox writes. “But many others went to the piers because they had nowhere else to go, and it was their stories that Baltrop largely related through his photographs: the stories of children abandoned by their parents, homeless men and women, the mentally ill, and those anonymous corpses who would regularly float to the surface of the Hudson River.”

Still, a little sex goes a long way, and the sex in some of Baltrop’s pictures went a long way toward shutting him out of the art world, some of whose players feared that his visual candor “would substantiate the public’s prejudice against those infected in the pandemic,” as Cassel Oliver writes.

Baltrop’s sex photos haven’t stopped being scary even now that AIDS is a manageable chronic disease rather than an automatic death sentence. The wildness Baltrop captured hasn’t so much vanished as migrated to air-conditioned settings, where barebacking parties are facilitated by hookup websites and smartphone apps, to the dismay of many who remember the plague years. Some old-timers also lament the changing emotional tenor of promiscuity, which has seemingly morphed from the cruisy camaraderie Crimp describes to a kind of cyber-driven consumerism.

Also morphing are sexually transmitted infections that antibiotics cured cheaply and easily in Baltrop’s youth. With little connection to the recent past, are some of today’s young gay men living their own variation of the heady, naïve days Baltrop captured, one that might portend another version of the dark days that followed? I don’t know, but that possibility, along with a return to documentary photography by some younger artists, makes Baltrop’s silver-gelatin time capsules more contemporary than they appear at first glance.

– DEVON BRITT-DARBY


Perspectives 179 –Alvin Baltrop: Dreams Into Glass
Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
July 20-October 21