On the Beach: Battery Park City Back in the Day of Sand, Sun, Art and Fun

Susan Rethorst and Dancers perform an untitled work in 1982 in which the dancers moved, in silence, up and down the dunes. The performance was part of Creative Time's Art On the Beach. Photo: Robin Holland/RobinHolland.com

May. 06, 2013

As the weather warms, sunbathers and picnickers will again settle onto the lush, green lawn of Battery Park City’s Rockefeller Park, far removed by time and real estate from the empty, windswept landscape that came before. In the 1970s and early 80s, the sun-worshippers who trekked across the West Side highway and crawled through an easily passable fence found an expanse of landfill and sky, seemingly all to themselves.

Only the Twin Towers, soaring high above the dunes and grasses and river, was there to remind them that this was Manhattan.

“We felt like we were getting out of the city, that this was our beach,” recalled Suellen Epstein, who lived nearby with her then-boyfriend, James Biederman. “In lieu of taking a train out somewhere on weekends, we’d walk over with food and the Times and a bed sheet and we would sunbathe. I don’t remember ever going out to a public beach.”

While sunbathers were few and literally far between, it was a program of site-specific installations and performances, called Art on the Beach, that brought the most visitors to the landfill from 1977 to 1985. Produced by Creative Time, the organization that has commissioned public art for nearly 40 years, Art on the Beach allowed performers, visual artists and architects to create and collaborate in the wide-open spaces.

The opportunities came at the right time. “A lot of people were performing in train stations and in parks. This was a period where we were looking for new spaces to explore, to try out,” said Frank Conversano, a comedic performer and dancer who staged an impromptu game involving two teams converging over the dunes. “The beach is always a special thing, especially if you don’t have to go far away to get there.”

“You had these very natural elements of sand and wind and grass and sky,” recalled Charles Dennis, a performance artist who also choreographed a piece for the site. “So you had a real outdoor experience even though it was a man-created natural landscape.”

Few people were on the beach more than photographer Robin Hol­land, who Creative Time hired to document the art and performances.

“It was not only an amazing place to go because it was a beach in Manhattan, but because the work was amazing,” she said. “Just great art and architecture and performance, and it was free!”

Holland lovingly recalls performances on the beach at sunset, and the way the light played on the Twin Towers high above. “Oh, it was beautiful,” she said.

“If I didn’t have pictures to prove I was there,” the photographer added, “I’d think I had dreamt it.”

Do you have memories of the Battery Park City beach? Send them to tribeditor@tribecatrib.com.

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