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The Original ‘Day’s End:’ Gordon-Matta Clark’s “Anarchitecture” on Pier 52

In the 1970s and 80s, the Hudson River piers of Greenwich Village contained a multitude of abandoned structures. The once-bustling commercial waterfront had gone almost entirely dark, leaving countless piers to fall into disrepair. Artist and activist Gordon Matta-Clark (1943-1978) saw the potential in these structures to make a statement, forcing the city to reckon with its past and present. One of these structures, the former marine waste transfer station at Pier 52, became the site of his 1975 work, ‘Day’s End.’

Trained as an architect at Cornell University, Matta-Clark rejected conventional notions of building design and usage. Instead, he embraced the concept of “anarchitecture,” a term he coined to describe his unconventional approach to spatial manipulation. In 1975, he used a chainsaw to cut two windows into the western wall of the transfer station that faced the Hudson, flooding the cavernous space with light from the sunset on the water.

Day’s End, Gordon Matta-Clark, 1975. Image: Whitney Museum of American Art; Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Despite the deceptively crude nature of the tools he used, Matta-Clark’s guerilla artworks were always carefully planned. They were also a part of his activism. Matta-Clark continuously protested the ‘white flight’ of the 1970s that left New York City neighborhoods neglected once white upper and middle class residents left for the suburbs. His iconoclastic approach to buildings was a confrontation of urban neglect and unsustainable, irresponsible development.

Schematic for Day’s End, Pier 52, 1975. Canadian Centre for Architecture, gift of Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark. © 2021 Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Matta-Clark working on another project, Splitting, in 1974. Image: Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark, David Zwirner Gallery.

Matta-Clark’s work became a natural part of the environment at Pier 52. Many of the people who  frequented the spot did not realize that the enormous holes were an artwork. The piers were a site for a number of clandestine activities, including sex, sex work, and drug sales. They were also a gathering place for the marginalized queer communities of the city; the abandoned waste transfer station was one of the more popular spots for socializing and cruising.

It was not the neglect, but the newfound usage of both Matta-Clark and the queer community that drew the attention of the police. They issued an arrest warrant issued for Matta-Clark after he was discovered illegally ‘sculpting’ the warehouse, and the city filed a lawsuit against him. Both the charges and the lawsuit were eventually dropped, however.

Pier 52 in its earlier life as a marine transfer station, 1951. This transfer station was located next to the Gansevoort Destructor Plant. Image: New York Public Library.
Gordon Matta-Clark, Day’s End (Pier 52) (Exterior with Ice), 1975. © Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Matta-Clark passed away from cancer at age 35 in 1978. The original Pier 52, along with Day’s End, was demolished the following year. Most of his works no longer exist in their physical forms, since most were site-specific and located in abandoned buildings. However, the small amphitheater at La Plaza Cultural that Matta-Clark helped create with CHARAS still stands today.

Artist David Hammons remembered the original Day’s End when looking out on the dramatic transformation of the contemporary waterfront, which now includes the Whitney Museum of American Art. When speaking with then-executive director of the Whitney, Adam Weinberg, in 2014, he decided to commemorate it with a skeletal, sketch-like monument that rises from the water next to Gansevoort Peninsula, tracing the outline of the old warehouse against the Hudson River skyline.

Day’s End, David Hammons, 2021. This sculpture is an homage to Matta-Clark’s piece and the abandoned warehouse that made it possible, which has since been demolished. Image: Timothy Schenck, for the Whitney Museum of American Art.

To explore more images of the Greenwich Village waterfront in the 1970s and 80s, explore the Jack Dowling, James Cuebas, and Robert Frisch Collections in our historic image archive.

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