PRINT October 1985


Art jockeying in the Sistine Discos.

WHEN STEVE RUBELL, NIGHTCLUB IMPRESARIO and excon, speaks, The New York Times listens. “Artists are becoming the stars of the 1980’s, like the rock stars of the 1960’s or the fashion designers of the 1970’s. People who used to go to singles bars on First Avenue now go to art openings on Avenue A. I don’t create things,” said one of the men who made Studio 54 and now the Palladium, “I jump on them.”

Now that Steve Rubell has jumped on art—has it been mugged? Can art, fine art, big art, become the centerpiece, the core, of the big discos and still be big and fine? Can you make Peter Max career-choices in the ’80s and still make it to the Whitney on time? Is Jean Michel Basquiat the ’80s Jimi Hendrix? Is Keith Haring Elton John? Is Kenny Scharf the Grateful Dead? And who does that make Francesco Clemente—Bob Dylan? Joni Mitchell?1

Artists have been doing nightclubs almost as long as they’ve been doing ecclesiastical ceilings, and pretty much for the same reasons. In London, Wyndham Lewis and Spencer Gore decorated Frida Strindberg’s Cave of the Golden Calf nightclub in Vorticist style in 1914. For Dada it was the Cabaret Voltaire, in Zurich in 1916; for Pop it was Andy Warhol in New York in the ’60s, running his own nightclub, “The Exploding Plastic Inevitable,” within a nightclub, the Dom, complete with light show, films, a band (the Velvet Underground), and whip dancers. Also in New York, until it closed a few years ago Max’s Kansas City was filled with works by John Chamberlain, Dan Flavin, Larry Rivers, Frosty Myers, Neil Williams, Brigid Polk, Larry Zox, Les Levine, and Brice Marden, among others.

Club art is not new—what’s new is the scale of it and the fact that it is not there so much to look at as to be photographed in front of. The Palladium and Area are likely to be seen regularly around the world on Entertainment Tonight or Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Has something happened to get painting out of its solitary confinement? Are people looking at this art in the dark, or just rubbing shoulders with it? Even if the club is empty, some of the big names are still there. The paintings are celebrities.

The Palladium lists Henry Geldzahler as its “art curator.” His previous gigs were as New York City’s cultural commissioner and as 20th-century curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Geldzahler’s curatorship at the Palladium is significant in that it could pioneer a new career in nightclubs. Once discos’ only creative jobs were the DJs’. Now there are lighting designers and VJs (video jockeys). We can only hope that the title “curator” will stick and not become AJ (art jockey).

After years of sporadic experiment the nightclub as gallery seems to have arrived with a club called Kamikaze which a few years ago found itself large and empty. Noting SRO attendance at group shows in galleries, Kamikaze decided to try out a few themselves—in the club. It worked. They had enough wall space to hang dozens of artists’ work, each artist brought in dozens of friends, and presto—a full club.

Many of the artists who are the “rock stars” of the ’80s got their start in nocturnal art in the ’70s at Club 57 and the Mudd Club. Club 57 was run by and for artists, and when a new theme was decided on for the place Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring might redecorate it in a day or two. What they did was spectacular, but it wasn’t really new, either—it was a perfection of what populist psychedelic sub-fine artists were doing in the ’60s under the influence of black light and its pharmacological equivalents. For the artists it was a chance to create an environment rather than a detail in a decorator’s environment, to paint up a world.

The Mudd Club offered art as life style, with proprietor Steve Mass attempting to make everything about his club artistic, even the door policy—I once saw him order that fat people be charged by the pound. Performance art coexisted with music on the stage of the Mudd Club without being billed as performance art. The club was a happening, often organized around elaborately realized themes. Toward the end of its life the Mudd opened a gallery floor which was curated, briefly, by Keith Haring.

The appeal of art clubs like Club 57 and Mudd was not simply the environment and the entertainment—these were places where people could come and rub elbows with artists and share in the certifiably interesting. In life style, where art might rub off a bit. It was hoped that the art would rub off, not just esthetically, as it does in a museum, but socially, even physically. Patrons would party like artists, hoping to live the artist life style, hoping, perhaps, to be something like artists in their spare time.

When there is a significant rise in the number of nonartists with time and money on their hands, the ranks of art swell with neophyte participants who would once have been patrons, but who now, after years of elbow-rubbing in art nightclubs, will paint, write, photograph, and even perform “art.” And if they do not actually participate, it’s likely that they will live in a loft with good light in case the impulse should strike.

Painter and nightclub-decorator Wyndham Lewis wrote, “Being born in a stable does not make you a horse. But living in a studio produces in some persons a feeling that they should dabble and daub a little.” Are those now flocking to Avenue A galleries and to the Palladium newly enlightened esthete converts, eager to patronize the daring, rebel artists so recently removed from painting on subway cars? Are they eager to be those artists? Or do they just want to get laid artistically? This remains to be seen, as it remains to be seen whether partying at the Palladium, Area, Kamikaze, and the other art discos will produce a new wave of nocturnal light in painting. But in the meantime painters are making work for public places and we await the Sistine Disco. Museums can offer painters credibility, seriousness, and silence, but the discotheques can give them an ambience of ecstasy.

Glenn O’Brien is a writer who lives in New York. He contributes regularly to Artforum, Interview, and Spin.



1. Is Neil Jenney Bruce Springsteen? Is Francis Bacon Joe Cocker? Is Cindy Sherman Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner, and Madonna?