Disco Days and Starmaker Nights:
New Book, Exhibit and Film Recall Glam 70s NY
By Sandra Schulman
The glittery disco era has been put in the mirrored ball spotlight with the release of a new book of the art from Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine cover artist Richard Bernstein along with an exhibit of his original artwork at Deitch Projects. A new documentary on Studio 54, the 70s disco that all the Interview cover stars hung out at, finally tells the real story from the only person who could tell it, co-owner Ian Schrager.
Many of the Bernstein Interview cover stars – Grace Jones! Liza! Bianca! - got their groove on at Studio 54. The long closed club has taken on a strange glittering glow of nostalgia over the decades as the big, flashy pre-AIDS dance club that took it’s cure from the energy of underground gay clubs and took it over the top to the mainstream – if you could get past the velvet ropes that is.
The story has been told in fits and starts over the years but never as fully as it has been in the new film Studio 54. Co-owner Ian Schrager has the real inside story and finally agreed to talk to filmmaker Matt Trynauer.
“Over the years I was hoping to forget it,” Schrager says in the film of the club he ran with an irrepressible college buddy named Steve Rubell in 1977. “I was always embarrassed by it.”
The unlikely duo –Rubell was short and (closeted) gay, Schrager tall, straight and handsome - ran the club by the seat of their polyester pants for just 30 manic months before being busted for failing to pay taxes on hundreds of thousands of dollars they skimmed off the nightly take.
Manhattan was a different place then, on the verge of bankruptcy but looking to dance it off. What really spun their disco ball was bringing gay, straight, famous, looking to be famous, and other characters together in a mothballed former theater turned CBS TV studio turned dance mecca on 54th Street.
The ride was short and wild with drugs, bribes, mob men, and two sets of books that hid the skim for a while. Too flashy for their own good, the police and IRS crashed the party and sent the two to jail, but they shortened their time by ratting on other club owners who were doing the same crimes.
Rubell died a few years after the jail stint of AIDS though the diagnosis was hidden by his doctor brother Don Rubell who is now a mega collector in Miami. Schrager has gone on to major success as a boutique hotel developer, but decided at age 72 to tell the real story. The film works best when following the camera from outside on the street where competition to get in was fierce to the dark mirror lined hallways that lead to the increasingly thumping beat. Turn the corner to the dance floor and it’s all there. The soundtrack features the big dance club hits, and watching the ecstatic dancers is a thrill, although knowing what all that energy of abandon will soon lead to casts a hangover shadow.
The details of the downfall come fast and furious with some too funny to be true revelations such as the fact that they never even had a real liquor license, instead they applied for nightly “catering permits” every day for years. The skimming was big, unabashed and downright greedy with duffel bags of cash stuffed into cars and driven away almost daily. Schrager still seems bemused by his former life of disco crime, though humbled by the toll it took. The film is now streaming on Netflix.
Starmaker: Andy Warhol's Cover Artist is the new glossy tome by Roger Padilha and Mauricio Padilha, with a Foreword by Grace Jones, Afterword by Jean-Paul Goude. Bringing together the work of American artist Richard Bernstein, it illuminates his larger-than-life portraits for the covers of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, as well as his fine art, movie posters, and album covers created from the mid-1960s to the 1990s.
It was generally thought that Warhol created the covers himself, but Bernstein or Bill King took the photos then Bernstein transformed the images with pastels, stencils, and airbrushing. In the early years, the clean covers had no side bar tag lines or other words to clutter them up, only the Interview name header and the month, preferring to let the portrait speak for itself. The book features his Interview covers of Madonna, Grace Jones, Mick Jagger, Cher, Calvin Klein, Michael Jackson, and Aretha Franklin, and Bernstein’s rarely seen fine artwork, album covers, and editorial work for Time, Vogue Italia, New York Magazine, and Playboy, along with intimate anecdotes and interviews with his closest friends and collaborators.
Coinciding with the release of Starmaker, Jeffrey Deitch presented a retrospective of Richard Bernstein’s work called FAME at his downtown NYC gallery in Fall 2018. The exhibition featured 69 original cover paintings for Interview and a selection of Bernstein’s lesser-known early and later works that had not been seen since the 1980s.
Richard Bernstein was born in NYC in 1939. He received a B.F.A. from Pratt Institute, and a M.F.A. from Columbia. He loved the work of the 1960s and that influenced his art.
Bernstein moved into the Chelsea Hotel in the early ‘60s and lived there until his death in 2002. With his movie star looks, drive and talent, Bernstein quickly moved in to the Warhol Factory and Studio 54 scenes. After his years at Interview, (1972 -1987) he remained active as an art director in the fashion and music industries while continuing to make his own art.
Someone who was there to help document it all was Bobby Grossman, who worked as a photographer and assistant to editor Glen O’Brien at Interview and his cable show TV Party. Grossman is compiling a book of his 70s and 80s images and recently completed a year long promotional tour with Richard Boch’s Mudd Club book to exhibit a slide show along with readings.
Photo by Bobby Grossman
Grossman says he “met Richard Fall 1975, I was friends with Andre Leon Talley. Andre introduced me to Warhol, he had been working for Diana Vreeland at The Met, then at the Factory working for Andy and Interview. I met Richard, and we hit it off. We had a few mutual friends and a common love for Pop Art. Richard critiqued my illustration portfolio and gave me constructive criticism and some good advice. He put together a list of art directors, and a few of his friends phone numbers, and I was good to go! He knew he was helping me out and pointing me in the right direction.”
Grossman was living at the Chelsea Hotel and would often see Bernstein in the lobby. “I’d bump into him, and we would give one another updates on our current projects,” he says. “Richard offered me a job as his assistant. It was convenient and an ideal solution to supplement my freelance work. At night, I was busy hanging out at clubs and taking pictures and by day working for Richard. Every month, I’d drop off Richard’s cover art to meet the deadline.”
Like many, Richard spent time at the Hamptons - where Warhol had a large complex in Montauk - and Fire Island. He was very social, according to Grossman, and his crowd was mainly the celebrities at Studio 54. Grossman met many of the cover stars including Grace Jones, Dolph Lungren and Divine.
Grossman contributed to the “Starmaker” book and the Sunday NY Times ran his photo of Richard Bernstein and Warhol when they reviewed the book.
“I enjoyed being interviewed by Roger for the book. When I was contacted for “Starmaker”, it felt like everything was coming full circle and, once we began talking, I was flooded with memories. Roger and I shared a few good laugh about Richard. You’d walk into Richard's studio, and there was a four poster bed covered with a fire engine red blanket with his Max’s lithograph above the bed on the wall. The bed was surrounded by art, canvasses, easels, supplies everywhere, airbrushes, spray paints, books, stacks of newspapers and magazines. Then — a closet sized bathroom. This bathroom had a sink and a toilet, no tub or shower. Richard would begin each day at the Y across the street from the Chelsea, since that’s where he would bathe, and I’m sure he worked out.
The last time I saw Richard was at a rooftop memorial for Fred Hughes in July 2001. Many of Richard's friends were there. To name a few —Christopher Makos, Brigid Berlin, Sylvia Miles, Victor Bockris, Marissa Berenson and her sister Berry (a close friend of Richard’s who died 2 months later on the Boston plane that hit the World Trade Center - 9/11.) I hadn’t seen Richard in many years, so it was nice spending time reflecting and catching up. Richard admitted at times he was probably very difficult to work with, which made me feel better about ending our work relationship. Last month, when I visited Deitch Projects, I was overwhelmed with emotions; viewing art I worked on and hadn’t seen in 40 years. I’m thrilled that Richard has again been recognized, and we have the Stargazer book and FAME show to represent him.”