Introduction by Elizabeth C. Baker
Certain Manhattan bars, in their heyday, played an important role in the New York art scene. They were often as much intellectual and professional hubs as they were locales for alcohol, food and fun. Some came to be art bars by happenstance, others by design. Each had its own character. They coexisted at different times with jazz clubs, discotheques and restaurants.
The Cedar Tavern (also known as the Cedar Street Bar) dates from 1866. Its best art years were the 1950s, when it was on University Place, near the Tenth Street galleries and the studios of many New York School artists. The locus of carousing, arguing and fighting among the leading lights of the period, the Cedar figures prominently in biographies of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell and doubtless others to come. The goings-on were alcohol-soaked; egos clashed; feelings about art and other issues could be explosive. Nearby, Dillon’s gained popularity among artists as the Cedar faded. As a recent arrival in New York in the early ’60s, I found Dillon’s more interesting than the Cedar. The downtown jazz clubs, particularly the long-established Five Spot, on Cooper Square, drew many artists. Another, slightly later, jazz bar was Bradley’s; it kept artists coming to University Place from 1969 to 1996.
The art bar came into its own in 1965, when Mickey Ruskin, a former lawyer, opened Max’s Kansas City on Park Avenue South near 18th Street, then a desolate part of the city. But space was cheap, and many artists and photographers had studios in the area. The Cedar Bar and Dillon’s were no-frills places for drinking; Max’s, a well-appointed bar and restaurant, was several cuts above that.
The new bar was launched with a huge party for the who’s who of the art world. Once open to the public, the place got attention. Magazines and tabloids loved the ’60s art world and its watering holes. Mickey traded art with a number of prominent artists in exchange for an open food-and-drink tab. There was a big Donald Judd piece on one wall; a crushed-steel Chamberlain stood near the entrance. There were works by Frank Stella, Neil Williams, Robert Smithson, Robert Rauschenberg, Carl Andre, Larry Rivers, Lawrence Weiner, Dorothea Rockburne, Larry Poons, Alice Aycock, Adrian Piper, Lynda Benglis and on and on. Most of the restaurant was well-lit—you could see the art on the walls. The back room was dark. Dan Flavin’s red fluorescent corner piece cast a bloody, somber light. It was dedicated to the Vietnam War dead. Another light work involved a red laser beam rigged by Forrest (Frosty) Myers that started in his studio a block away and, redirected by mirrors, traveled down Park Avenue and through Max’s plate glass window. Inside, the beam bounced off a mirrored speaker attached to the jukebox, and proceeded overhead the length of the space and into the back room, pulsating to the music against the back wall. Mickey himself was always on hand, keeping an eye on things.
Art, as the ’60s moved into the ’70s, was difficult, innovative and ambitious. Many artists were writing about it. It was continually talked and argued about, as was politics, in that period of war, assassinations, civil rights struggles and sporadic urban violence. The art world shared in the turmoil of the wider world. I fell into Max’s orbit early on, through two artist friends, David Budd, who had a studio close by, and John Chamberlain. I never regretted the hours I spent there. Even when Max’s was jammed, the sound level never precluded conversation, whether serious, salacious, hilarious or just a way of passing the time of night.
Upstairs, music programming brought in a different public, which seldom mingled with the downstairs crowd. When Max’s changed ownership after nine years, much of the art crowd followed Mickey to other places he opened. As early as 1967, he started an annex in a space across Park Avenue called the Longview Country Club, later (when the artist Les Levine was brought in) dubbed Levine’s. There was also an unsuccessful Upper East Side branch, Max’s Terre Haute (1969-71). Post-Max’s in 1974 came the LoCal, on Waverly Place (retrospectively notable for the fact that Julian Schnabel cooked there); the Lower Manhattan Ocean Club, on Chambers Street (1976); and finally One University Place. It closed when Mickey died unexpectedly, in 1983, of a drug overdose.
The gallery district in SoHo got started with Paula Cooper in 1968, and Ivan Karp’s O.K. Harris a year later; by 1971, 420 West Broadway was a blue-chip enclave occupied by Leo Castelli, Ileana Sonnabend, André Emmerich and John Weber. Holly Solomon, Richard Feigen and Ronald Feldman were also in SoHo. Soon there were so many galleries that you couldn’t see them all in one day. Yet there was nowhere to eat or drink.
Except for Fanelli’s. Though never famed for its food, the bar is unique for its old-New-York history and for its survival. Founded in 1847, it is the second oldest in Manhattan, after the Bridge Cafe (1794). Unrenovated, it still occupies its original premises. One Saturday in 1970, Fanelli’s doorway on Prince Street looked out on a now-forgotten SoHo episode, an unannounced street action/performance by the Turkish artist Tosun Bayrak. The empty cobblestone street between Mercer and Greene was covered with undulating expanses of brown paper. Water was poured from the top of buildings on the south side of Prince; suddenly, the cascade darkened: bucketfuls of blood, not water, were coming down. Naked performers emerged from under the sheets of paper; sexual encounters were enacted; animal entrails were thrown about; and, finally, a swarm of white rats was released. Inured to local art antics, few of Fanelli’s regulars left their barstools to watch. Jaded neighborhood residents drew the line at rats, though, and were angry. The uptown friend to whom I was showing the new art neighborhood felt that he had had a good afternoon.
Clearly, SoHo needed a larger, newer art-world gathering place. The Spring Street Bar, at the intersection of West Broadway and Spring, became that place when it opened early in 1972. Just as Max’s improved on the Cedar’s grub, Spring Street upped the ante with a French/American menu. The clientele included the usual art world mix. Over time, SoHo filled up with bars and restaurants, but the Spring Street Bar was where “everyone” went, until it closed in 1983.
Slightly north of SoHo, on Eighth Street, a bar/restaurant called One Fifth (at 1 Fifth Avenue) offered a seductive counterpoint to SoHo’s industrial chic, having installed the Art Deco fittings of a decommissioned ocean liner, the Cunard Line’s RMS Caronia. The owners were Kiki Kogelnik, an Austrian-born Pop artist, and her husband, George Schwartz, a doctor. Later they restored the historic Keen’s Chop House in midtown, and opened the NoHo Star, still a lively scene. One Fifth drew a multi-generational audience of artists, journalists, poets and downtown celebrities (1975-ca. 1986); it was also a frequent venue for Larry Rivers’s East Thirteenth Street Band.
The punk scene produced the long-running CBGB’s (1973-2006) and many other venues in which music ruled with varying degrees of vitality and complexity. The Mudd Club, founded by Ross Bleckner and friends in 1978, was the most interesting and art-centric one; it lasted for three years. Discotheques came and went, pulling many out of the bars and onto the dance floor. Area, on Hudson Street, featured thematic installations by artists (among them Basquiat, Holzer, Kruger, Schnabel, Haring, Hockney and Helzer).
In the 1980s, the East Village saw a brief but intense flowering of small store-front galleries. Another crop of young artists—Kiki Smith, Richard Prince, Jeff Koons, Peter Halley and others—got started there. On Sundays, intrepid collectors prowled the streets with no prime art hangout for respite. There was also a move to Tribeca, where the neighborhood bars included Puffy’s, Magoo’s and El Teddy’s. With movie and financial people colonizing the oversized lofts, Tribeca was ready for an upscale restaurant. Keith McNally had worked at One Fifth, and in 1980, with Lynn Wagenknecht and his brother, Brian, he opened the Art Deco-style Odeon restaurant and bar. Odeon brought in artists, writers, curators, filmmakers, creative types of all sorts, and to a degree it still does. Danny Emerman opened Barocco in 1987; it was the other classy art world spot in Tribeca. With the SoHo galleries migrating to Chelsea in the ’90s, his Bottino (1998) became the new gallery district’s first art restaurant/bar. Despite the arrival of many others, it remains the principal art world gathering place there.
In 1985, Florent, on Gansevoort Street, opened as a 24-hour bar/restaurant in an area of late night gay and transvestite bars and all-night meatpacking plants. Animal blood ran in the gutters. Roy Lichtenstein, with a nearby studio, had a regular table there for lunch, marked by a map of Liechtenstein on the wall, drawn by the artist-proprietor, Florent Morellet. Eventually the rent soared, and after 23 years Florent ended its run in 2008.
At Max Fish, on Ludlow Street (1989), predating by many years the current Lower East Side gallery-and-night-life boom, the proprietor, Ulli Rimkus, held rotating art exhibitions and music events. Permanently on view were paintings by Walter Robinson, a bronze Tom Otterness creature, a John Ahearn full-figure sculpture and an etched window by Rita Ackermann. The bar closed this past summer, victim of yet another neighborhood transformation.
Today, the city’s art world is no longer geographically cohesive, nor is it egalitarian. Artists’ bars seem less central, for many reasons. Various bars and clubs host itinerant parties convened via social media, drawing artists, musicians, dancers, performance artists—participants in an electronically prompted floating world that still offers opportunities, in Lawrence Weiner’s words, to “continue the conversations.”
THE FIVE SPOT
The Five Spot was a jazz club on St. Marks and Third Avenue. I used to go there a lot, even before I truly knew I was a painter. When I was 18 or 19, I was living in Philadelphia, but I’d come to New York every weekend to go to the Village Vanguard, to the Five Spot, to Slugs. I’d hear people like Charlie Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Thelonious Monk and Sun Ra. At that point I wasn’t going to the Met. I didn’t know anything about the art there. I wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t know what that meant. I knew I didn’t want to be a musician, though. I didn’t even want to hang out with musicians—I just liked the music.
This was in the ’60s, so pretty much the world was still segregated. In the black world, you had people—bourgeois people—who seemed official. Then you had the jazz musicians, who were something totally different. To this day, if you’re a black person traveling in Europe, people will say, “Are you a jazz musician?” Because the musicians were like the ambassadors; during the First World War, Second World War, they brought that music to Europe. I remember one time I was on the road with David Hammons, and we entered a club and the people who were at the door asked us if we wanted to play. We were these two black guys who looked sort of bohemian and people assumed we were jazzmen. We should have gone up and played, but we couldn’t play at all.
In terms of the art world and the Five Spot, it was the sort of place where artists went after they went drinking. I read about how de Kooning would be at the Cedar and then go hear some music afterward. The music was always this late night kind of affair. In those days, you could go hear live music in small rooms; you were really right there. There was nothing like listening to that live music, because it was that one time and that was it. You couldn’t repeat it. It was like a ritual, it was just magic. That’s why the Abstract Expressionists and the poets all wanted to hear that music. In the club there was real creativity, and there was a real intellectual rigor that people picked up on and could take back to their studios. It wasn’t like academia, and it wasn’t like the museum where they have all the art figured out—you know, you go to this room and everything lines up. With jazz music, nothing lined up.
By the time I got to New York to live in ’68, after graduate school, I had avoided the draft and come through the race stuff. But the Five Spot was still there, lingering, even though it was the end of that downtown bohemian jazz scene. But once the club scene shut down, you had the lofts. The jazz loft. Ornette Coleman had a place on Prince Street where he’d have concerts; people would come over, lay pillows out on the floor and the musicians would play. And that was incredible. I mean that was even more incredible because you had no club owner. The jazz musicians controlled themselves. The jazz club was really a mixture of a bunch of hipsters: old bohemian, black and white hipsters. The loft audience consisted of younger, college-educated artists.
The music set the tone for me and my paintings. Still when I paint, I listen to Miles Davis. But there weren’t too many African-Americans living downtown involved with painting, or at least they were very few and far between. Now the music thing was really just about black culture, and the painting thing was not; I was trying to negotiate both. I kind of knew what the jazz was about, but I didn’t know how the jazz fit into my studio, and it took me a long time to get the music into the work. I had to spend a lot of time just involved in painting, painting, painting before I could make music and color my subject matter.
I’m old, and I started in the art world in the late 1950s in San Francisco and in New York. I’m afraid I associate with bars going to back to Vesuvio in California and the Cedar Tavern in New York. I went to high school on 15th Street and First Avenue. I worked at night on the docks at weird hours, and got off and went to the Cedar. I was probably a loudmouthed, young-Turk kid, but I might have had something to say. And I was involved in civil rights, so I knew a lot of people that way.
Dillon’s, the bar down the block from the Cedar, was a little rougher. The Five Spot was a place where there was absolutely exquisite music, and at the same time it was reasonably open to young people. You could drink at 18, so most people could get in when they were 16 because they looked around 18. As long as you bought that bottle of beer and sat quietly at the bar, you basically could listen to anybody you wanted to hear play.
There were some bars on the Lower East Side where the music was all canned, but it was all pretty integrated—black and white together. If you knew anyone at these bars, this is where you hung out. And then Dillon’s closed, and there was this place people went called the Wagon Wheel, also on University Place, just as an interim. Then the Ninth Circle opened, which was run by Mickey Ruskin and a partner. And they were amenable to artists. Some of the artists had tabs, which meant they could buy drinks for people. And they’d get peanuts. And from the Ninth Circle, Mickey Ruskin went and opened Max’s Kansas City. And that was Max’s.
I remember getting off the plane, because I was going back and forth to Europe in the ’60s and early ’70s, and very often I’d stop at Max’s before I went home. I’d get off the train at Union Square and stop at Max’s. I’d see people and find out what was going on in the world.
Remember, there was no Internet, no faxing. This interaction was a form of networking, and maybe that’s not a bad word. The point is you’re making art, you’re making music, you’re making things for other people. You have to put yourself in touch with other people. I don’t think you went out to relax. You went out to go to a bar. And it was almost an obligation by the time it was Max’s. Everybody that was part of this amorphous scene, trying to change society, put in two or three nights in a bar, just to continue the conversations. The mise-en-scène set by artists, and the lifestyle that they are able to engender, is part of being an artist. It’s not the bohemian thing, it’s not the party, it’s the idea that they can engender a lifestyle that stays within some kind of concept of their own needs.
It is part of the work. Artists meet artists, and everything becomes exciting. One artist and another artist have an argument. A third artist takes them to this studio in the middle of the night, the three are quite drunk and they have a conversation. The two artists that were already at it keep bitching to each other, until it becomes obvious, through the workings of the third artist, that they’re all on the same side of the barricade. And once that happens, the conversation changes, and then often friendships are made-tight friendships, because they came about by having to really discuss the problem between them, which was about art.
I had my first hallucination the first time I went to the Cedar Tavern. I walked in and it was deliciously full of beer and whiskey and important-looking, casual, tough men. And there was a man sitting at the third booth with a halo over his head—a luminous halo, like a traditional painted halo. It was otherworldly but very present and distinctive; it wasn’t about to fade away. I was so astonished and bewildered that I said to my friends, “Who’s that man in the third both there with the halo?” Well, they didn’t see the halo, but that was Bill de Kooning.
That was around 1960, when I was 19 or 20. Being young and good looking, I got introduced to all the guys, and they bought me drinks. Maybe de Kooning eventually did, but Kline definitely did and so did Guston. They were mildly hitting on me; I was pretty the way they liked them, but I was awfully earnest and they weren’t sure about that.
I had no money at all, but I could have a beer for a while, and sooner or later some gentleman—or not-gentleman—would come and say, “Can I buy you a drink?” And I would often say yes. And sometimes he was appealing enough that I would go home with him. There were no commitments; it was a happy adventure. It was a wonderful time because in the early ’60s there was no AIDS, and people would look at each other across the bar and decide they should go home and have sex and maybe never see each other ever again.
MAX’S KANSAS CITY
The Cedar Tavern was mythologized by the major male painters. It was superseded by Max’s Kansas City because Max’s opened up wild avant-garde territory. The women at Max’s were not as powerful or as domineering as the men, but they were active there, whereas at the Cedar you could only be a witness, or a lay, or somebody’s girlfriend, or somebody who shared an apartment or loft with a painter. It was like that.
Max’s is where you went when you were high, or wanted to get high. Warhol had his own special table in the back. Rauschenberg had his own special table. And Mickey Ruskin was on the door. Mickey looked like a derelict. His sweaters were always unraveling at the sleeves. He always looked distracted; he might have been on some kind of drug. But he controlled the entrances and exits. In those days, when ordinary bourgeois couples came, Mickey would hear them say, “We read about this bar in the New York Times and we couldn’t wait to come here. We’re from the Bronx.” And Mickey would look very stern and ask, “Are you here to drink or to eat?” “Well,” they’d say, “we’d like to drink and eat.” And Mickey would shake his head, “I’m so sorry, the chef has left for the night. I suggest you come back in a couple weeks.” So they’d be gone forever.
It was for the artists, always for his artists. Mickey always put a great big spread on the table. There’d be meatballs and spaghetti and little things you could have for free. You’d buy one beer and get fed. When people ate steak, which they often did, the poor artists would observe that. And we would ask the waitress if there was something we could have to take home later for the dog. We went home with pockets full of bones and steak: the leftovers. It was wonderful. We were living off leftovers of other people’s meals. I never felt any prohibition against that. I just never did. Still don’t.
I was sitting at the bar one time and talking to Larry Poons. He asked me what was going on. I said, “Well, you know, it’s such a struggle. I’m working as an artist’s model and washing dogs on the side.” “But what’s your rent?” he asked. It was $43 a month, and that was for a huge loft on 49th Street. And he said, “Well, I can help you with that: here, take this.” He put $100 down, and that was it. And that was very typical for the time. Every time an artist sold a work they gave a huge party. Rauschenberg, Warhol—they’d just provide everything to drink and smoke, and we’d dance until the next day.
My favorite story was when I’m sitting at the bar with Janis Joplin drinking bourbon. I adore her, but she’s not very communicative. And Bob Rauschenberg comes in and sees us together and whispers in my ear, “I just love her work. Bring her back to my table, will you? Let me buy you drinks.” And I say, “OK, Bob, yeah.” So I say to Janis, “There’s a wonderful artist who asked us to come back to his table. He’ll buy us drinks and it’ll be really nice.” She says OK and we go back to Bob’s table. Bob says, “I love your work. And I’m also from Port Arthur, you know. I think we’re just so remarkable, that we got away from there.” Janis is scowling. And she whispers to me, “Who’s that dude and what’s his deal?” She didn’t get along with Bob. She never heard of Rauschenberg and wasn’t interested in another fan.
There were different areas of Max’s where different things happened. My group—Richard Serra, Nancy Graves, Brice Marden, Dorothea Rockburne and Mel Bochner—sat on the right side of the banquettes. In the back room, left corner, there were red booths, and that was Andy’s part. And then Rauschenberg had the space to the right of that.
This was where you went after openings. And there were often knock-down, drag-out fights where you’d have to defend your judgments. Helen Marden, Brice Marden’s wife, was a former waitress there. She and Brice came down after a Rauschenberg opening at MoMA. Serra said, “How was it?” And Helen said, “Fantastic!” He said, “Why? What makes it so fantastic?” She said, “It was just fantastic.” So he said, “No, what was so good about it? What was it about?” And he pushed her so far that she threw a drink in his face. I drove Serra home afterward, and he said—I didn’t even ask—he said, “Was I that bad? Was I that aggressive? C’mon. Why can’t she please be particular about this?” This is what it was like every night.
We would play this game where you would empty the contents of a salt shaker and make a thin layer of salt on the tablecloths. Then you would have to make a drawing of someone’s painting or sculpture. Just drawing it with your finger. And everyone guessed within three seconds. It was amazing that everyone’s work could be reduced to a few shapes. To make a Rothko you draw three sort of fuzzy things. For Pollock you do just a little la-la-loop. For Still you start drawing a few sparks then you’re done. Then the figurative ones. You could do a Wayne Thiebaud pretty easily—you just draw a piece of pie. This game went on forever and you’d try to trick the other person, but you just couldn’t do it.
You could get a tab from Mickey Ruskin by trading an artwork. I wasn’t important enough to get that, but there was a Chamberlain sculpture at the front of the bar, a big huge crushed steel thing, and people would put their coats on it. It sort of became like a haystack by the end of the night—if you had put your coat on it early in the evening, you would have to dig down until you found it.
I never went to Fanelli’s. We called Fanelli’s the Losers’ Lounge.
Max’s Kansas City was the bar of the 1960s. The whole world went there. I met Janis Joplin and the Doors. Norman Mailer came by. Not that he was a regular, but everybody who was anybody eventually dropped in.
My first encounter was with John Chamberlain. This was in 1968, or maybe 1967. He came in one night a bit tipsy, and I was sitting there with Warhol—we had a back table every night. Warhol said, “Oh, he’s great, you should get him.” OK, so I got him. And then we had quite a relationship; I could see there was some greatness about him. Not only physically, but he was a poet of some sort. He thought differently and he acted differently. I taught him how to dress; I used to dress in violet, so I dressed him in orange, a complementary color. Chamberlain was my main love at the time, and I owe this to Max’s Kansas City, which welcomed all of those artists.
The soul of the place was really Mickey Ruskin. He loved art and would feed the artists, who were usually penniless. They could have free meals, and the food was decent: hamburgers and things. Eventually, in exchange, Mickey would get some artwork. He had a Chamberlain and I think a Frank Stella.
Warhol was the mentor of our table, and because of that we all got free drinks. Nico, of course, was always with us. Taylor Mead was there, too, naturally. And so was Andrea Whips, a sweet little lamb who eventually jumped from a window. She was always stoned, and she would get up on the table and pull her skirt up and say, “I’m from Hollywood.” Of course Paul Morrissey was always there.
It was a very interactive scene—a place for networking. Nowadays you go to an opening and it is all about networking, and this was the beginning of that. One night Taylor Mead and I met someone who cast us in Midnight Cowboy—I was typecast as an underground superstar and put in a blonde wig.
A lot of art conversation went on there, and we also filmed in the bar sometimes. In that period Warhol would film every single day. It was fairly dark in the back room of Max’s, as far as I remember, and always noisy. But there were pretty waitresses with high heels and miniskirts—lots of leg, you know. Filming was just part of the scene. We would film the conversation we were having, anything that was going on, anyone who was coming in. But that doesn’t mean that the films were really good. In the ’60s, the idea was to record everything. It was the start of the mania for the electronic device.
At the Factory we would receive invitations to—or we would just know about—zillions of parties. So we would go to every single party, because we wanted to be fed and to meet people. Then we would go to Max’s, probably about midnight, and stay there until two or three. Sometime after that we would go for breakfast at the Brasserie on 53rd near Park Avenue, and then we would buy the newspaper in hopes of finding our picture in it, which we usually did. Those papers became our diaries.
In 1978, a friend of mine approached me because he wanted to open a small art bar in the building that I owned and lived in, 77 White Street. I agreed because I liked the idea of having a place where my friends could go—a kind of easygoing place. The Mudd Club opened in September of ’78. I had been gone for the previous summer, and when I got back I was very perplexed, because they had huge speakers in the club and a terrific sound system. Now, since I lived there, I wasn’t thrilled about that. I had the two top floors of the building—five and six—and, at the time, the club was on the first floor. But there were tenants on all the other floors. It drove everybody crazy, these concerts and parties that would go until 4 a.m. It actually drove everybody out; I was the last holdout. I had nowhere to go, so I just kind of adjusted my schedule.
There were only two clubs like this in town, CBGB’s and the Mudd Club. CBGB’s was much more hardcore punk. The Mudd Club was sometimes that, but it was really a mix of everything. A lot of artists hung out there. Blondie got her start there. It was more of a New Wave club, and it just kind of caught on. Steve Mass did the music programming, and he didn’t usually announce or advertise the bands in advance, so you wouldn’t really know who was going to perform. Which I guess was part of the allure—you just had to go.
It was always crowded. There was a lot of beer-drinking, some cocaine-using. I remember the street being blocked off because people would spill out way into White Street, which is very narrow. Nobody was renting space in TriBeCa then, you have to remember. That’s kind of why the club worked.
Shortly after it opened, since there was so much of a crowd, they opened the upstairs. That was supposedly more of a private party. There would be a doorman to get in, and another doorman to get into the second floor. Sometimes I wouldn’t know the doorman and so I’d have to tell them, “I live up there!” But then everybody I knew would start saying they were going to visit me.
When the tenants on the third and fourth floor left, Keith Haring, who had been around working as doorman, started—well, Steve Mass really started it—a little gallery that showed a lot of the graffiti artists and young artists: Kenny Scharf, Futura 2000, all those people. I showed some stripe paintings, which I guess fit in because (a) I was there and (b) they were a bit psychedelic.
You know, the ’70s were dull. Then there was a little bit of energized nightlife that was instigated by Studio 54. That energy crept around and had its art incarnation, which had to do less with exclusivity and more with interaction between different people from the worlds of music, performance, art, theater. The Mudd Club appropriated a lot of the modes of Studio 54—theme nights, for example—in a very funky, downtown setting. And people liked that. Studio 54 was glamorous, and it was contrasted against the downtown scene. That only made the Mudd Club much cooler, so that the people from uptown actually wanted to come downtown.
The club shut down after three years, a short, bright episode—it was kind of a little bit of brightness before the gloom of AIDS and drugs. I ended up staying in the building, and I guess the good part of the club being there was that everybody left. I took the whole building over until I sold it in 2005. Now it’s high-end condos.
I never go to bars; I don’t drink. I never had a nightlife like that. My nightlife was to take people like Kim Gordon to Maxwell’s to listen to rock and roll. Rock music for me is a great joy. I could never play it. I don’t see bands much anymore because I go to sleep early, and I have a lot of damage in my ear. But I still have two hobbies: rock music and architecture tourism.
I used to go to CBGB’s. Its architecture was typical of New York at the time. Everything was in ruins; the club and the music were about that kind of chaos. It wasn’t furnished with anything comfortable. The first show I saw there was the Ramones, around 1977. And after that I became friends with Thurston Moore, who turned me on to Minor Threat. I videotaped them, and made a work that’s available from Electronic Arts Intermix. They’re hardcore.
I make a distinction between British punk, which I think is leftist propaganda (but actually, you know, the Clash come from pub rock, like Nick Lowe), and the American punk stuff, which wanted to go back to the ’50s, to get rid of people like Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell and the Eagles. In other words, they wanted to get away from a kind of suffering rock-and-roll singer.
The best book on CBGB’s is The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s by Steven Lee Beeber. That actually might be my favorite book. But the more interesting thing about that punk period is the very small artist’s spaces and clubs—not CBGB’s—like Tier Three and the Mudd Club. These were tiny places to perform in, and all the artists had rock groups. The best documentation of this is Ericka Beckman’s film 135 Grand Street. It shows the way people lived.
In the 1970s there was this whole gang of downtown painters that hung out at Magoo’s in Tribeca and also at Puffy’s on Hudson Street. I had an art magazine then called Art-Rite, and I worked at Art in America part-time writing the newsletter. Reading A.i.A., you wouldn’t even see the social part and you wouldn’t even see the market. All of that was hidden in the articles, but the social part—who knew who—was very important to what was happening.
The thing about Magoo’s was that it had art all over the walls—paintings by people who paid their tabs by trading work. The guy who ran the place was named Tommy Chapis, but everyone called him Tommy Magoo. Eventually he sold the bar to a Japanese guy, who packed the whole thing up—all the fixtures and paintings inside—and shipped it to somewhere in Japan, where it was reconstructed piece by piece.
People who hung out at Magoo’s were downtown people: John Torreano, Thornton Willis, Stewart Willis. Jeff Koons hung out there when he was a stockbroker. Steve Keister and Judy Rifka went there. Ron Gorchov, who was definitely the dean of SoHo painters in the ’70s, was at Magoo’s all the time. The bars that attracted abstract painters of the ’70s are being forgotten in the same way the artists who went there are being overlooked. It turned out that the kind of painting they were doing just was not the direction that the art world was going. It was sort of the last gasp before picture theory.
I was also a bartender during the punk era—’78, ’79, ’81—at a bar called Tier Three. It was on West Broadway right next to El Teddy’s, this Mexican restaurant with ridiculous architecture and the Statue of Liberty crown on its roof. That was when the Mudd Club was big. The punk scene moved from Max’s to the Mudd Club, and Tier Three was just sort of an ancillary wannabe bar that wasn’t as popular or as busy. Some nights, though, Jean-Michel Basquiat played there with his band, Gray, and then it was packed.
I knew Florent Morellet because I had a studio on West 12th Street near his bar. He was wonderful. When I started going, maybe in the ’80s, the meatpacking district was nothing but butchers and drag queens. It’s changed so much since then. Florent was open night and day; it never closed. At the time I was going out a lot and it was great to have a place to eat something at four in the morning. For me, being French, I went there for the good wine and the very good meat.
I saw Roy Lichtenstein there several times—a lot of artists were there. Florent was an artist himself and the son of a famous French Conceptual artist—François Morellet. It was a real scene every night, with the artists and drag queens all there together until early in the morning. I remember that every year, on the 14th of July, Florent held an art auction out in front of the bar, I think probably to raise money for the business. This was a very popular event for Bastille Day, and one year, in the late ’80s, Florent convinced me to contribute a piece. I wanted to capture something of the spirit of Marie Antoinette, so I set up a huge guillotine right there outside of Florent—and someone bought it! I wish I still had a picture of that.
My biggest moment at Max Fish was meeting Taylor Mead, sometime around 2001. I heard he was kind of mean, but he would talk to me, so I was thrilled. I just sat down next to him. He was kind of eyeing this young boy across the bar and telling me that he thought he was really handsome. I was amazed that he would confess that to me—that he was fancying somebody at the bar—but you know, I guess he did that all the time!
The Max Fish scene was really important for me when I first came to New York in the late ’90s, when it seemed like everyone was forming bands. My Gang Gang Dance bandmate Josh Diamond worked at the Pink Pony right next door. He curated these amazing improv free-jazz nights in the back of the Pink Pony. We sort of took it over and had all these random, avant-garde sax players. At the time, everyone was broke, so we’d always go there and hang out. Our friend Jaleel Bunton from TV on the Radio worked at Max Fish, so we would kind of mingle on the other side. There was always this sort of dialogue between the two bars.
The first time they put me in one of the art shows at Max Fish was probably 2007, when Max Schumann and Dale Wittig filled up the whole bar with cheap art. None of the galleries in New York ever showed cheap art. Everything at Max and Dale’s shows would sell out; things flew out of there. I put this “For Rent” sign in the show. It’s kind of a racy piece—just these “For Rent” signs that I wrote “my pussy” on. It just looked really good in the bar because it was so flashy. People were really into it.
Max Fish was kind of this place where any band from out of town would go play. And the art people I would see there probably trickled in from other bars nearby. I was affiliated with American Fine Arts, and we hung out more often at Ridge Street or Standard Notions. We called it Ridge Street, but it didn’t really have a name. It was this guy’s apartment that he turned into an after-hours nightclub. There was this sort of S-M chair in the middle of it, and a guy with a peg leg. It was an American Fine Arts type of scene over there. Art Club 2000 would hang out there. And so would Pieter Schoolwerth and Amy Gartrell.
Standard Notions was on Ludlow Street, right down the street from Max Fish. It was where everybody started in the New York nightlife DJ situation. The artist and writer John Kelsey, who was my first friend in New York, would hang out with us there and DJ. Mike Fellows from Rites of Spring and the guys from A.R.E. Weapons would DJ, too. Spencer Sweeney got his first gig there. That’s how all of these people who are big now got their feet in the door.
When I first moved to the city I was living off DJing, and working with Lizzi Bougatsos and a couple of other people in a performance art group called Actress. It was a pretty lively scene back then; people were really open to collaboration. We had been organizing nights of performances and parties for a while when Alex Bag asked me to help install a show at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, and that was the first time I met Gavin.
Not too long after, I was walking by the Passerby—the bar Gavin opened next to his gallery on 15th Street—and I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll just stop in here and see if I can start DJing and putting together performance nights and parties.” So I went in cold and asked him. He said, “Yeah, sure, when do you want to start?” And so I started organizing nights at the Passerby and other nights at the gallery. We had Eye from the Boredoms perform. Andrew W.K. did some shows in the bar with just a keyboard, and then another one in the bigger gallery space; that’s how he ended up getting his record deal. TV Baby played. Mark Leckey had a night called “Golden Voyage,” which was the maiden voyage of his reggae sound system.
At that time, in the late ’90s and early 2000s, it didn’t seem like much was really happening on the young art scene. So everyone would come out to our parties. We would put together a night, hit up a couple of openings and hand out some handbills—this was before social media—and then like 300 people would show up. It was also free, which helps. I would DJ at the Passerby every Friday night. Eric Duncan and Thomas Bullock would do Saturday night; they were called Rub N Tug. They were playing really funky, obscure, kind of sleazy house and disco—whatever had the right feel for the party.
The scene at the Passerby was great because it was a meeting ground for three generations of artists. There would be the very young up-and-comers like Dash Snow—people who weren’t even showing yet. Then you would have the artists who were working and showing, but who were still quite young at that point: Elizabeth Peyton, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Gavin’s whole crew. Rachel Harrison and other artists from all different galleries were there. And then you’d have Lawrence Weiner, who was often there, just chatting it up at the end of the bar. Jeff Koons would be there. And all kinds of musicians: Thurston Moore, Steve Malkmus from Pavement, guys like that.
After the Passerby closed down we started doing this party at the Hole, which was a gay bar on Second Avenue and 2nd Street. That was the real deal. I walked in the place late in the afternoon one day and there was a Hasidic Jew, a Latino tranny and a paraplegic guy in a wheelchair. I said, “This is the place. This is it. This is where we can make it happen.” And that party really blew up, which gave Andrew W.K. and me the idea to open up our own place—to create an actual club with a really good sound system. It would be a place where you could draw a diverse clientele. And so Santos Party House, which we opened in 2008, became a place where all kinds of people come together. And Jim Toth—the sound designer who’s really the glue that keeps the whole art community together—got the sound system dialed in.
Right off the bat, I was doing paintings for some of the parties I organized, kind of in the tradition of Toulouse-Lautrec and the Moulin Rouge. I got excited about a party and made a painting that would advertise the performances. We’ve done a lot of collaborative projects with artists at the club. Urs Fischer did an installation for Halloween a few years ago. And for a gay night we worked together on a 9-foot-tall disco cock sculpture with LED veins and mirrored balls. That was a great party! Peter Doig painted our basement with flag patterns.
The people who see these things might be completely out of the loop as far as the art world goes. That’s something I end up talking about with the artists who do installations, and it turns out it’s a real motivator. The club’s programming is all over the place, so all different kinds of people come through. When Peter did the basement, he was really excited about having it seen by a very diverse group rather than having it exist on a collector’s wall.