PRINT April 1981

Last Call at Max’s

BETWEEN 1965 AND 1974, Max’s Kansas City was the central meeting place for the personalities, professions and mixtures of mediums that characterized the culture of the period. Painters, poets, photographers, filmmakers, musicians, sculptors, underground actors, art critics, curators, dealers and collectors convened at Max’s, mixing with fashion designers, fashion photographers, models, Hollywood actors and actresses, film directors, politicians, millionaires and “ordinary” people.

The 1960s was a period of social and esthetic mobility, a time when boundaries between the art world and the rest of the world were in flux, with the outside world wanting entrée to art and artists’ newfound cachet, while artists were seeking greater integration into society. Thanks to the Beatles and the consequent anglophilia, new popular music and fashions were spotlighted in the mass media, heightening the public hunger for newness and experimentation. Popular musicians were important role models, setting life-style patterns (a ’60s concept) and fashions for the youth of bourgeois society. JFK’s youthful optimism, coupled with futuristic space exploration, created a climate of unlimited faith in the new.

Pop art opened this homogenizing decade. During the ’60s, the public which found Abstract Expressionism incomprehensible relished Pop art’s banality, a fact that contributed to the burgeoning mass appetite for art and culture. There weren’t many New York bars in the mid ’60s that liked artists, since the status of artists with middle class society, while on the way up, was still insecure. Artists in the ’60s inherited bohemianism’s rejection of bourgeois values from the Abstract Expressionists, though many of these latter artists were by that time financially successful. It was apparent that artists could earn good incomes, but at this time few, if any, of the new generation did. Owner Mickey Ruskin’s welcoming, deep respect for artists and his ability to enjoy an extremely wide range of people made Max’s a hospitable gathering place for society’s fringes. (Soon, the fascination of media image-makers with artists, combined with the ’60s appetite for newness, would integrate those fringes into bourgeois society.)

Neil Williams, John Chamberlain, Larry Poons, Frosty Myers, Larry Weiner, Paul and Ethel Hultberg and a handful of others attended Max’s opening at Park Avenue South near 17th Street on December 6, 1965. Fashion photographers and models began frequenting the bar and restaurant. (Many of them had studios nearby.) Fashion and art had been mixed on the pages of America’s taste-making magazines since the early ’60s, but before Max’s there was no place where artists, models and fashion photographers got together. Artists were regarded by the fashion people as celebrities because American art received extraordinary international acclaim in the ’60s, and fashion loves celebrities. The fact that most of the artists who frequented Max’s in the beginning were so unlike media stars only intensified their appeal. Another, better attended opening took place in January, 1966, and by spring Max’s was a success. That summer, while filming Chelsea Girls, Andy Warhol began to frequent the place, cementing fashion’s fascination with it. Typically, he would arrive with a party of about 20 superstars, buying them dinner rather than paying them. He traded art for credit with Mickey Ruskin, so he would just sign the check. Among his group then were Viva (Susan Hoffmann), Brigid Polk (actually Brigid Berlin) and Edie Sedgwick. Society’s fringe encircled Warhol, too: transvestites, hustlers, go-go dancers. Warhol, a painter, sculptor, printmaker, filmmaker, operator and entrepreneur, was charismatic not only because he worked in many media, but also because he filled many social roles: artist, voyeur, socialite, star. Warhol’s prescience of performance contributed to Max’s being a stage, but he wasn’t the only image-conscious regular. One reason for going to Max’s was to see and be seen, combining voyeurism with exhibitionism and foreshadowing performance art. Fashion models, extravagantly dressed in the latest trends, mixed with glamorous transvestites, costumed rock musicians, actors and actresses—their “media” their own “messages.”

The first regulars from the art world came from the Park Place Gallery and the Green Gallery: Ed Ruda, Leo Valledor, Tamara Melcher, Mark di Suvero, Frosty Myers, Tony Magar, Peter Forakis, Dean Fleming and Robert Grosvenor from the former; Dan Flavin, Larry Poons, Donald Judd and director Dick Bellamy from the latter. Ruskin was extremely supportive of his artist clientele, most of whom were living on very small incomes. At times the late afternoon free chicken wings and other hors d’oeuvres would be the only meal of the day for artists between sales. Ruskin traded art for credit with Chamberlain, di Suvero, Myers, Ruda, some of the Green Gallery artists, Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland, Malcolm Morley, Dan Christensen, Sol LeWitt and Michael Heizer, among others, assuring a nucleus of art clientele. Personal and business telephone messages were routinely exchanged at Max’s and odd jobs could always be obtained, enabling artists to earn money without it interfering with their work. The extras for the party scene in Midnight Cowboy, filmed in 1967, were recruited from Max’s at the rate of $40 a day plus lunch. Because the artists were becoming a major attraction, Ruskin’s hospitality benefited Max’s as much as it did the artists.

Suzy, Eugenia Sheppard and the Village Voice celebrated Max’s in print, gaining for Max’s a media status unprecedented among artists’ bars. At Max’s every night was different. People of various sensibilities gathered in different parts of the bar and restaurant, and although everyone moved about, the amount of mingling varied. To the left of the front door stood the bar, where serious drinkers among the color-field painters, Greenbergian enthusiasts and expressionist-biased sculptors located themselves. These included Larry Poons, Neil Williams, John Chamberlain, Michael Steiner, Larry Zox, Dan Christensen and occasionally Mark di Suvero or the art critic Clement Greenberg. Jules Olitski, Willem de Kooning and Ronald Bladen were sometimes at the bar, too.

To the right of this all-male group stood Jeannie Blake, on the other side of a John Chamberlain sculpture and a cigarette machine. Blake was married to Tom O’Donnell, a peddler of balloons and other ephemera at parades, circuses and outdoor events. He made a good living at it, and many admired this couple’s quirky, independent way of life. Blake was one of the few women to be a regular in the art crowd, though there were also, on occasion, female models, poets and teeny-boppers. The art world was a man’s world, and the difficulties facing women artists trying to enter it were almost insurmountable. For Eva Hesse, a Max’s patron until her death in May, 1970, breaking into this man’s world was a struggle, as it must have been for the other women artists.

A row of tables stood farther over on the right, parallel to the bar but partially separated from it by a six-foot-high wall. Before 1969, these tables were frequently occupied by the same group that was often situated at the bar, but afterwards, almost every night from 11 or 12 o’clock until closing, this was Robert Smithson’s territory. Carl Andre, Richard Serra, Mel Bochner, Don Judd, Larry Weiner, Joseph Kosuth, Ted Castle, Michael Heizer, Keith Sonnier, Dan Graham and Dorothea Rockburne were also often there, and occasionally Sol LeWitt. LeWitt remembers, “Smithson was the real catalyst. He had a way of provoking people, of provoking discussion. It was very important because it forced people to defend themselves and to qualify their own ideas.” Apparently, Carl Andre and Smithson disagreed about almost everything, sometimes loudly, but their discussions effected the sharpening of ideas and were never dull or stupid, two things Smithson could never forgive.

This group’s art was idea-oriented, and all kinds of ideas were discussed—not just art ideas, but those from other disciplines as well. Various writers were popular at different times—Barthes, Ehrenzweig, Wittgenstein, Levi-Strauss, Robbe-Grillet. Not everyone read the books, but they read the reviews in the New York Times. Relationships between language and visual images were a major concern of these artists as opposed to the Greenbergians at the bar, but despite this there does not seem to have been too much antagonism between the two groups.

Dorothea Rockburne usually went to Max’s around one o’clock in the morning, to talk with Smithson. She enjoyed his attitudes, his brazenness and humorous impudence, and the constant demands he made on himself to identify and reidentify things, especially social things. Keith Sonnier’s primary reason for going to Max’s was the discussions Smithson would catalyze. Smithson wasn’t the only provocative intellect in this group, but he was the most regular habitué. Jackie Ferrara had known Smithson when he was a teenager, so they often talked about old times, like the time they were both at a party for Jack Kerouac in 1959. That had been a major occasion for him as a young man, Smithson told Ferrara.

Ruth Kligman, who was with Pollock in his fatal automobile accident, was sometimes at the table. She and Smithson were close for a while. Candy Darling, the stunning transvestite and Warhol superstar, was occasionally part of the group, too. She starred in Tennessee Williams’ Small Craft Warnings, and when she died of cancer in 1974, Zsa Zsa Gabor eulogized her as “one of the world’s most beautiful women.” Both she and Brigid Berlin were important links between the back room and the front.

Films were a subject of mutual interest to these two crowds. Candy and Brigid both had appeared in Warhol films, most notably Chelsea Girls, one of the first commercially successful underground films. A great resurgence of activity and interest in underground films took place in the ’60s, presided over by Jonas Mekas and his Filmmakers’ Cooperative. Filmmakers Emile de Antonio, Dennis Hopper and even Michelangelo Antonioni attended Max’s, with varying frequency, as did underground stars Taylor Mead, Joe Dallesandro and Jane Forth. Stars of commercial films came too, including Cary Grant, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jane Fonda, Peter Fonda, Michael J. Pollard and Warren Beatty.

Gossip was part of the conversation at Max’s, keeping those who were interested current with the machinations of the art world. Business was also conducted at Max’s, occasionally with art dealers but more often among the artists themselves. Max’s was a kind of clearing house for resources, because so many people in the New York art world went there. One might hear about an available loft or an opportunity to show. Brice Marden recalls that someone might say, “I know a guy who’s doing paintings like that,” and introductions would follow. Jackie Ferrara related that you could tell a lot by what was on the walls at Max’s.

Another zone was the central part of the restaurant. Diners were seated there until about 11 o’clock, but afterwards people who were drinking sat there, too. Brice Marden was usually in the central area, where Barnett Newman, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, Jim Rosenquist, Larry Rivers, Billy Copley, Tony Shafrazi, art dealers John Weber and Seth Segalaub and curator Henry Geldzahler frequently sat, though many of them also moved around, sometimes standing at the bar. Marden had been in New York for about a year in 1963–64, then went to Paris, and returned to New York late in 1964. A relative outsider, he met nearly everyone he knew at Max’s, and notes that you could tell how well an artist was doing by the choice of drink.

The dining area had the greatest mixture, both of artists and others. Bobby Kennedy, Marion Javits, Mel Brooks, Michelangelo Antonioni, Roger Vadim, Marisa Berenson, Cary Grant, Lou Lou de la Falaise, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Penelope Tree might have been sitting at adjoining tables. Once, several nights in a row, a baby elephant from a commercial shoot was brought in, while a chimpanzee at another table sipped a glass of milk.

Some of the actors, actresses and musicians bridged the gap between the dining area and the back room crowd, curious about its underground actors and musicians. Musicians Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Alice Cooper, the New York Dolls, Waylon Jennings and The Velvet Underground performed upstairs. Especially after music was performed, rock stars such as Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Keith Richard, Janis Joplin, Todd Rundgren and Alice Cooper were often around. Bobby Neuwirth and Bob Dylan’s manager, Al Grossman, were part of the music crowd. This kind of mixing endorsed, perhaps inspired, much of the subsequent artists’ interest in working outside their traditional boundaries.

Eerily glowing with the light from Dan Flavin’s red fluorescent sculpture in the left corner, the back room was Andy Warhol’s realm. Gerard Malanga, Warhol’s assistant and superstar, poet and bon-vivant, was part of the back room crowd, and so were Paul Morrissey, John Giorno, Patti Smith and others. Brigid Berlin started the evening in the back room, but later she was all over Max’s, tape-recording the entire range of activity, from conversations with Robert Smithson to back room gossip and Lou Reed’s performance. Warhol, of course, obsessively tape-recorded his life, too. The back room was an important forerunner for a branch of performance art: there the presentation of one’s own image was a major preoccupation. Life and art were integrated, sometimes to the extreme of life-as-art. It often resembled a Warhol film, starring Joe Dallesandro, Viva, Ondine, Louis Waldon, Edie Sedgwick, Andrea Feldman, Nico, Frankie Francine, Eric Emerson and Taylor Mead. Mead was supposedly seen getting up to leave, then falling on the floor. As he pulled himself up, he slurred, “I’m gonna sue this place for everything I owe them!”

Less improvisational performances also took place such as Ken Bernard’s play entitled The Moke Eater, directed by John Vaccaro or “The Saturday Afternoon Show at Max’s Kansas City,” which was presented by Hannah Weiner on May 2, 1970. Vito Acconci performed one of his earliest body works, Rubbing, and works by Scott Burton, Ira Joel Haber, Stephen Kaltenbach, John Perreault, Adrian Piper, Brigid Berlin and Marjorie Strider, among others, were also presented.

From the Dadaists at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich to the Abstract Expressionists at the Cedar Tavern in New York, cafe and bar life has been central to the social and esthetic history of modern art. Max’s Kansas City provided a meeting place for artists of various disciplines, both reflecting and catalyzing a unique period of cross-referencing in the New York art scene. Like any idea that is a phenomenon of its time, Max’s was created by the ’60s only to be on its way out soon after the decade turned. The actual place still exists but it only resembles Max’s in name. By now you’d think life at the original bar would be ancient history, but people remember:

Ted Castle says, “Max’s was a neutral territory during the art wars of the’60s, where hostilities could be, and were, realized. It was neither uptown nor downtown, and as such the mixture of people was extraordinary. The maitre d’ would often brag on Sunday about the high quality of people he had excluded on Saturday. There was nothing wrong with it.”

According to AZW Bentley, who worked at and was an habituée of Max’s, “. . . if anything the M in Max’s stood for (scene) miscegenation. It was a good place for love affairs and careers.”

Or to Tony Weinberger, who drank there:

Max’s (where I met and courted my wife, Tanya, in 1970) was more than just the ’60s bar to replace the Cedar Street (where I had bought my first legal drink in 1954). We didn’t drink there only because it had the best pour in New York City (you didn’t exactly get short shrift at St. Adrian’s). Women’s Wear Daily and the rest of the press thought Max’s was only Andy Warhol and the camp back room group. But an artist’s bar is more than merely a painter’s agora. The regulars were not only the poets from Cedar’s like Joe Early and Ken Brown and Joel Oppenheimer (who named Max’s and chose the distinctive Windsor type font) but also artists like David Budd, Jim Monte and Neil Williams who told good stories. Good enough talk so that Max’s undoubtedly had fewer fights than any other bar I’ve drunk in regularly. The chic artists being there in the back room was the draw that brought in the dinner crowd who in turn subsidized the heavy-drinking talkers. The bartenders, from Frank the day man to Peter Berry closing at four A.M., were every bit as good talkers as the drinkers.

Klaus Kertess pretty well sums it up:

If the conversation was not always memorable, if the space was self-consciously neutral, if the food was but passable, if the artists seldom performed in the colorful “bohemian” manner still expected of them by tourists, if there were few traces of culture with a capital c, nor the conviviality of a pub with an occasional brawl, what then was there to make the place memorable? Something, of course, that eluded description or immediate observation. A kind of generosity that somehow pervaded the space. Something that made it possible for a surprising share of the decade’s best minds to exist and exchange, in one space, without always making clanking, ugly sounds when the edges of their egos met. No, it was not the music of the spheres, and there were no fights, of course; and there were those who would have preferred something more civil and those who would have preferred a Maoist cell block or a commune. Still, they all appeared quite frequently. By 1972, only the steadiest of waitresses and customers knew each other’s names any more.

The art world of the ’80s is diverse, and so are the bars. The crowd at Magoo’s is different from the one at Fanelli, which in turn is different from the one at the Spring Street Bar or at Tier 3 or at the Peppermint Lounge or at One University (Chinese Chance, which is co-owned by Ruskin and Richard Sanders), to name just a few. But still almost everyone is on the late-night pub crawl, looking for talk. As usual, there’s more real news in the bars than in the New York Times, but these days there’s no one place you can go to hear everything that’s fit to print, and a lot that isn’t, under one roof.

Bruce Kurtz is an Associate Professor of Art History at Hartwick College, Oneonta, New York.


This article was compiled from conversations with Vito Acconci, Carl Andre, Brigid Berlin, Jeanne Blake, Paula Cooper, Ronne Cutrone, Jackie Ferrara, Sol LeWitt, Stuart Lchtenstein, Brace and Helen Marden, Frosty Myers, Dorothea Rockburne, Ed Ruda, Mickey Ruskin, Tony Shafrazi, Marjorie Strider, Alice and Larry Weiner, John Weber, and others.