Episode 1 - The Dawn of Day’s End

May 5, 2021


Episode 1 - The Dawn of Day’s End


Carrie Mae Weems: In 1975, an artist determined to make something new went to a warehouse building on Pier 52 on the Hudson River in the Meatpacking District. That artist was Gordon Matta-Clark.

He went in with a ladder and chain saw and cut a trench into the floor of the warehouse.  He also carved a massive new-moon shape into the building’s end wall. This flooded the space with light, resulting in a work of art unlike any other. Gordon called it Day’s End.

At the time, the piers were a gathering place for the queer community of New York, and images of the time show men sunbathing naked, reading books, having sex there. Historically, the piers had been a place of commerce. Now they were on the brink of collapse, waiting for a bankrupt city to demolish them. And within a few years, many of them were torn down, including Pier 52, and Day’s End disappeared.

By 2015—four decades later—just like everything else around it, the Meatpacking District had changed dramatically. Surprisingly, it now had even a new museum: the Whitney Museum of American Art. As the Whitney was putting the finishing touches on its own new building, the artist David Hammons came for a visit. Talking with Adam Weinberg, the Museum’s Director, David was looking out the window as Adam pointed out the spot where Day’s End once stood. A few days later, a sketch arrived in the mail, a simple outline of the building that once stood there, at Pier 52.

That small, simple, elegant sketch has been turned into a massive but delicate sculpture by David Hammons. It emerges out of the Hudson, on the very spot where the original Day’s End once stood, and it’s also called Day’s End.

Bill T. Jones: I think he's a champion for something about what I call the world of ideas. I have been known to say artmaking is participation in the world of ideas. Or art does for me what religion traditionally did. It organizes a seemingly chaotic universe.

Glenn Ligon: He's creating something that nobody would think David Hammons would create. But still, it's so much about David's work because it's about this kind of ephemerality. It's about something that's kind of ghostly, that exists and does not exist at the same time, that riffs on something that riffs on something else, a pier that was here that's not here anymore.

Carrie Mae Weems: Choreographer Bill T. Jones and artist Glenn Ligon have long admired David’s work.

Adam Weinberg: It's a building without doors, without windows, without walls, without ceiling, without floor.

Carrie Mae Weems: Whitney Museum Director Adam Weinberg.

Adam Weinberg: So it's not a building. It's sort of like a drawing because it's a drawing in space, but yet, it's not physically a drawing. It's a sculpture. And I see it also as a container that contains nothing and a container that contains everything. It's . . . you look through it, you see the city, you see the water, you see the light, you see the air.

Carrie Mae Weems: What you don’t see—at least not immediately—is history. But the place where Day’s End now stands has a varied and rich history that, together, we’ll explore.

I’d like to welcome you to Artists Among Us, a podcast from the Whitney Museum of American Art that reimagines American art and history. I’m Carrie Mae Weems, an artist, and over the years, I’ve given a great deal of thought to history and the way in which art can make the invisible visible. I’m also a great admirer of David Hammons. And I’m looking forward to exploring the fascinating ways that his sculpture invites us to reflect on the past of this site—who lived there, who worked there, and then, how it all changed.

If you haven’t heard David’s name before, that’s probably at least in part because he wants it that way. He prefers speaking more through his work than through his words. But his work has a lot to say about social conditions and the structures that constrain us. At the same time, the work is imbued with a profound sense of spirit, magic, and wonder.

David’s work isn’t always about what you see or even what you notice. Often, it’s about what’s invisible but right in front of you.

Tom Finkelpearl: One time, David called me up, and he said, “I’ve done a project at 14th Street Subway Station. Just go over there. You’re going to figure out what it is.”

Carrie Mae Weems: Tom Finkelpearl curated an exhibition of David’s work at PS1 in Queens in 1990. 

Tom Finkelpearl: And so, I went there, and I walked through. It was a construction site. And I looked, and I said, "Oh, this is it," this kind of weird shack. And then I was like, "Enh?" And then I walked all the way to the end of the platform, and there was this stack of metal garbage cans, perfectly stacked, and that was it.

And so, I called David back afterwards, and I said, "That was it, right?" And he said, "Of course, that was it," right? And it wasn't . . . he hadn't done anything. He had just sort of intervened in the city, to get people to go to the place and look at this thing.

Glenn Ligon: David's made work out of helium balloons. David's made work by putting a fax machine in the gallery. David's sold snowballs on the street. David makes paintings. David makes sculptures. David makes interventions and books.

Carrie Mae Weems: Again, Glenn Ligon.

Glenn Ligon: All of that gives you this possibility that anything you think of fits into one's practice. So I often say that I'm a painter. But really, what I want to do is make lots of different kinds of things. And David is kind of the artist that gives me a kind of permission to do that. 

Carrie Mae Weems: The permission that Glenn is talking about is not only important to us makers. It’s also important to the viewer. It offers the viewer a chance to see the many different things that can be art. David has been making work publicly for decades. It’s never been about decorating a site. It’s really about engaging the city—sometimes channeling its energy and sometimes resisting it. 

Glenn Ligon: I lived in downtown Brooklyn, I think in the mid-eighties. And I lived near the big post office in downtown Brooklyn. And for weeks on end, I would see this guy out in the park in front of that post office nailing bottle caps onto this giant telephone pole. And I just thought, "What is this?" And then when the giant telephone pole was stood up, I realized, oh, it's an artwork. And that guy was David Hammons, and he was making this piece I think called Higher Goals.

In Higher Goals, Hammons transformed forty-foot telephone poles into basketball hoops, making the nets impossibly high and out of reach.

Glenn Ligon: In retrospect, I think what was amazing about that is he did it outside. He didn't do it in the studio and then bring it somewhere. It was important for him to do it on-site, and that's what he did.

And so that kind of idea that you make your work in public was quite extraordinary, I think. And it's sort of demystified by seeing that making happen. So literally, I saw him doing stuff on telephone poles in the park, and I didn't think he was an artist. I just thought, this is some crazy guy tapping the tops of beer bottles . . . beer bottle caps into telephone poles for weeks on end. And then it's like, "Oh, art." But I loved that, that line between crazy guy and art was very porous. But also, I think he's one of those artists that really takes his clues from the street, or from the environment.

Kellie Jones: In that time, people were still fighting to be seen, because even some of these so-called alternative spaces in downtown New York were not showing the work of Black people, people of color, et cetera.

Carrie Mae Weems: Making work in the streets meant David could claim the opportunities he saw without waiting for an invitation from a museum or a gallery. He did, of course, have some exhibitions, especially in a gallery called Just Above Midtown. But at the same time, he preferred working in the streets, in places like vacant lots, basketball courts, parks, and on street corners. And as opposed to buying materials, he preferred found objects: gum wrappers, chicken bones, wine bottles, bottle caps, and even snow. David’s move to the street was a critical gesture—a rejection of the mainstream art world and all of its traditions. But beyond that, it also expanded his audience to include anyone who happened to be passing by. One of the beautiful things about David is that he offers the audience the richness of an art experience, whether they know they’re looking at art or not. I think he’s a master. Kellie Jones is an art historian who’s been friends with David since the early eighties.

Kellie Jones: He's using telephone poles and decorating them with patterns made from bottle caps, in '86. But these are also related to something that is really kind of . . . not into street work or types of works, but something called “Bottle Trees” that he does, where he upends bottles, liquor bottles, cheap liquor bottles, that are strewn around in the urban space, and upends them on trees, just in abandoned lots and so on.

You don't have to go to a gallery to see this. It's something unknown, but you look at it, and you say, "What's going on there?" And it makes you stop and think.

Carrie Mae Weems: Hammons once guessed that he spent about eighty-five percent of his time out on the streets. He said, “When I go to the studio, I expect to regurgitate these experiences of the streets, of all the social things I see—the social conditions of racism. It comes out of me like sweat."

Take Higher Goals, the sculpture that Glenn Ligon unwittingly observed Hammons making. With its mosaic of bottle caps, it’s a funky but beautiful, masterful piece. At the same time, the basketball hoops forty feet off the ground suggest futility and frustrated hopes.

David made the work in 1986. That same year, Spike Lee’s character Mars Blackmon debuted his beloved Air Jordans, and Run-DMC rapped an ode to Adidas Superstars. It was a big moment for advertisers hoping to use dreams of basketball stardom to make young Black men into high-end consumers. But David did more than simply critique the situation. With David, nothing is ever really that simple. Instead, Higher Goals both embodies frustrated hopes and offers up a tremendous amount of visual appeal. You didn’t have to choose. You could live with both the good and the bad at the same time.

Kellie Jones: He's always about the kind of . . . the social connection with humanity in these works. So it could be transactional, where you're selling people snowballs, or little baby shoes, which he also did in the eighties.

Carrie Mae Weems: Kellie’s talking about David’s great work Bliz-aard Ball Sale.

Adam Weinberg: It snowed. And in a way, maybe a snowball or a snowman is maybe the first act of sculpture that any kid who grows up in the snow makes. It's the first time you actually fashion something in 3-D. What is the simplest version of that? A ball. So here he is, he's making snowballs. 

Carrie Mae Weems: Imagine several dozen balls—snowballs—lying on the ground, arranged in varying sizes from small, medium, and large, laid out on a North African blanket, set up on a street corner in Cooper Square in the East Village. This is where any number of street vendors informally came to sell all kinds of things. And then Hammons once guessed that he was inspired to go there by a man who was selling about thirty sets of false teeth.

Luc Sante: It's one of the great regrets of my life that I did not happen to walk [by], and I walked in front of Cooper Union four times a day for years.

Carrie Mae Weems: Luc Sante is an author and professor who grew up in New York. 

Luc Sante: And somehow, I missed the day he was selling snowballs. I'll never forgive myself. But reconfiguring things you're familiar with . . . I mean, he does that.

Kellie Jones: He's fascinated with the evanescent, with the ephemeral . . . and the tension between all of those things. And it's also fun. Part of his work is, like I said, the social engagement. Art doesn't have to be so serious. Let's have fun with it. And people buy a lot of crazy things.

Carrie Mae Weems: Including—and this was probably not beside the point—art.

Kellie Jones: Why not buy a snowball that's perfect, made with a melon baller or whatever you're going to use . . . an ice cream scoop, make [a] perfect snowball? People will spend a buck on that, or whatever, ten dollars, if they have money. So it's also, there's ways that it deals with commerce, the kind of, "I'm going to sell you this and make money on ephemerality, but I'm also going to have fun with this."

Adam Weinberg: So much of his works are found objects. So many of his works are about hiding, about covering, about what I call hiding in plain sight, you know. I mean things that you can see, but you can't see. There're many mirrors in his work, which are about everything and nothing. I mean, you see everything in it, and whatever you're seeing is constantly changing.

Glenn Ligon: Hammons once said the less he does as an artist, the more artist he is. And so that statement, outside of whatever he's made, has been important. I think about that when I'm making my work. What's the least I can do?

Kellie Jones: It's not just the type of objects he makes because he makes all these different things that for all intents and purposes are just like little junky things, frankly: bottles that are discarded, hair that's discarded . . . things that are just found in everyday that you would just not pay attention to. But he understands how those things relate to our social life and being and how we'll recognize that in them, if he does certain things to them. If I was going to say anything about Hammons it is that he really knows humanity, the social human spirit, and is able to reflect that and talk to us through these works in a way that astounds us, amazes us, makes us laugh, makes us just be very thoughtful and meditative. But that he's able to really connect with us on things that are in our everyday life and make them really sing out with something that's just extra special.

Carrie Mae Weems: With its sleek, stainless steel frame, Day’s End may appear to be different from the improvisational work that David made on the streets. But it shares the same spirit that Kellie describes.

So this is the story: David was visiting Adam at the Museum before the Museum opened. They were talking about where Gordon Matta-Clark’s Day’s End once stood.

Adam Weinberg: I noticed he was paying attention to that but didn't think anything about it. And that's, I think, one of the interesting things about David. It's like . . . you might be saying something very casual, and he's taking it a completely different way. And the things that you think you're telling him you think is what he's paying attention to, but actually, he's paying attention to the things that you're not paying attention to.

Carrie Mae Weems: The building that Gordon used to make the original Day’s End was enormous, huge, about the size of a football field. The new-moon shape that he carved into the building’s western wall let in a stream of light, which moved dramatically around the vast warehouse as the sun began to set. This gave the work its name—Day’s End—and its reason for being. When Adam pointed out the site to David on their tour of the new Museum, all of this was ancient history. The warehouse had been demolished in 1979.

Adam Weinberg: So it never would have occurred to us that when we were talking about Gordon Matta-Clark's piece being out there in the water that, within a short time, he would send this little sketch out of the blue to us without any note on it.

Carrie Mae Weems: A few days later, a sketch arrived in the mail from David . . .

Adam Weinberg: I had no idea what he was intending. I didn't think much about it. We put it aside because we were focused on getting the new building open. Then some weeks later, when I looked at the sketch again, I thought maybe this was a message in the bottle and that David was, in his own way, saying something to us, challenging us, enticing us, teasing us, making fun of us.

Carrie Mae Weems: Adam invited David back, and the sketch developed into an idea and, after five years, a work of public sculpture.

Adam Weinberg: He originally called it a monument to Gordon Matta-Clark because he wanted it to be identified so specifically with Gordon Matta-Clark. I asked him in a meeting years ago, "Is it a monument?" I said, "It's really sort of an anti-monument in a way." And then he said to me, "What did Gordon call the piece?" And I said, "Day's End." And he said, "A great tailor makes the fewest cuts. We will call it Day's End."

Carrie Mae Weems: Like the sketch, Day’s End is an outline of what was once. It’s like a spirit or a ghost, something that’s there or not there.

Guy Nordenson: In terms of the structure, it seemed pretty clear actually from David Hammons's sketch what it would be. There were details that evolved over time, but I was excited about the potential for it being quite thin, in the spirit of what the sketch showed, and what that would mean structurally, how that could be done.

Carrie Mae Weems: That’s Guy Nordenson. He’s a structural engineer who has helped artists and architects realize their visions.

Guy Nordenson: When you build a structure like a bridge or this sculpture, then you're out in the elements. Then of course, the corrosion is a big deal. You're out in the salt water. That took a while before we arrived at what we all wanted to use. We landed on a really advanced kind of stainless steel which has a great name, Super-Duplex, which is highly corrosion-resistant and also happens to be very strong and very ductile.

Catherine Seavitt: The thing should appear seamless, so it can be this ephemeral, ghost-like piece. I think that's really been the goal. And the challenge of the work in many ways is how to make it appear almost magical. That it just arrived there and it was effortless.

Carrie Mae Weems: Catherine Seavitt is an architect. She’s been working with Guy to overcome the challenges of building a permanent sculpture in the Hudson, a dynamic, ever-changing tidal river.

Catherine Seavitt: And I think that's kind of what's joyful about some things. They're mysterious. You don't understand how it could be made. But you know, anyone will know, like that must have been a lot of work. But there's a kind of moment when you dust yourself off and you're like, "Oh, it was nothing.”

Kellie Jones: If you're just having the kind of framework of a building that no longer exists, there's a way that it also engages our own imaginations to fill that space, to think about that space, and to really kind of meditate on what's there and what's not there. It's really about meditating on that absence, on that invisibility. Is it an invisibility of people, of housing? Of certainly thinking about Native American sovereignty in those spaces that may not be thought about. That kind of empty framework makes us think about what was there, not just last week, not just ten years ago, but generations ago, before New York.

Glenn Ligon: I think the relationship between David's project and Gordon Matta-Clark is because Gordon Matta-Clark was taking existing sites and transforming them, so that's very much David, too, taking some preexisting thing and working with it, transforming it. But in terms of his, David's project here, what I like about it is you're not exactly sure what he's transforming. Is it the Gordon Matta-Clark piece? Or is it the pier itself as a structure? Or is it both? In New York City, you have this notion of what the piers were, what the West Side Highway was, and the sort of life around the piers.

Adam Weinberg: We live in our memories as much as we live in our life. The way we are with other people is based on our memories of those people, whether the memories are accurate or not. So the memories are alive and objects out in the world, whether we can physically see them there now or not, are part of the subconscious of the culture. We act based on those memories out in the world and in the landscape. I think art functions that way, functions as a mnemonic device that is constantly a reminder.

Luc Sante: Well, an homage is an acknowledgement, an acknowledgement of the past, an acknowledgement of the fact that you were not sprung forth from the forehead of Zeus, an acknowledgement that you stand on ground that's been previously trodden. Any writer, any artist, and any painter, any sculptor, any photographer, at this point, has to acknowledge that their work is only made possible by the work of people who have gone by previously. So an homage is tipping your hat, tipping your hat and holding it over your heart. It's an acknowledgement. What can I say? It's a thank you note across time.

Carrie Mae Weems: Over the next four episodes, we’ll dive deeper into what Luc Sante so eloquently refers to as the ground that has been previously trodden. In our next episode, we will go back to the seventies, to the original Day’s End, and to a very different New York City. 

Betsy Sussler: You would have walked into this dark, empty, musty, funky, smarmy place, site that had, you knew, all the potential in the world. I mean, here it was utterly abandoned on the shore of the Hudson in the West Village, which at the time was a huge gay scene. And gone, "Whoa." I mean, this is vast, and there's something very profound happening there because there's this darkness, but beams of light are coming through little crevices.

Thank you for joining us for the first episode of this five-part series of Artists Among Us, a podcast from the Whitney Museum of American Art.

To learn more about the voices you have heard here, please visit whitney.org/podcast. You’ll also find Artists Among Us wherever you get your podcasts. If you’ve enjoyed listening, please rate the show and share it with your friends.

The Whitney is located in Lenapehoking, the ancestral homeland of the Lenape. The Whitney acknowledges the displacement of this region's original inhabitants and the Lenape diaspora that exists today as an ongoing consequence of settler colonialism.

Special thanks to the artist, David Hammons, whose vision made this project possible. 

Thank you to the City of New York, The Keith Haring Foundation, Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund and Robert W. Wilson Charitable Trust, and the many donors for their generous support to realize David Hammons, Day’s End, and a special thanks to the Joan Ganz Cooney and Holly Peterson Foundation and The Marlene Nathan Meyerson Family Foundation for their support towards the creation of this podcast, Artists Among Us.

Thank you to our host, Carrie Mae Weems.

Additional thanks to our many podcast contributors: Adam Weinberg, Glenn Ligon, Luc Sante, Bill T. Jones, Catherine Seavitt, Guy Nordenson, Tom Finkelpearl, and Kellie Jones. Special thanks to Kyle Croft, Alex Fiahlo, George Cominske, Jonathan Kuhn, Gina Morrow, Elle Necoechea, Sofia Ortega-Guerrero, Aliza Sena, Kathryn Potts, Stephen Vider, Sasha Wortzel, and Liza Zapol.

Original music for Artists Among Us and Day’s End was created by Daniel Carter and his collaborators.

This podcast was produced by SOUND MADE PUBLIC, with Tania Ketenjian, Katie McCutcheon, Jeremiah Moore, Mawuena Tendar, and Philip Wood. It was produced in collaboration with the Whitney Museum of American Art, by Anne Byrd, Jackie Foster, and Emma Quaytman.