New York

Richard Bernstein, John Stamos, ca. 1984, airbrush, gouache, and collage on board, 23 × 18".

Richard Bernstein, John Stamos, ca. 1984, airbrush, gouache, and collage on board, 23 × 18".

Richard Bernstein

Jeffrey Deitch

Richard Bernstein, John Stamos, ca. 1984, airbrush, gouache, and collage on board, 23 × 18".

Regime change is never good for the court painter. And shortly after Andy Warhol died, Richard Bernstein lost his gig as the artist for Interview magazine covers. (Four more of his covers, already in the can, appeared after Warhol’s death.) Was he always competing with Warhol, the one who many assumed was behind Bernstein’s covers? Yes, but the artist also served as a bright antipode to the portraitists of the New York Post, arbiter of both celebrity and criminality, and the house organ of Warhol’s dark antithesis, Donald J. Trump.

Warhol’s layers and print techniques brought his portraits toward the placid. Faces in his matrix go still, their humanity strained through the dusty, quieting mesh of xerography. Bernstein started with the photographic layer and worked up from there, using airbrush, gouache, pencil, and collage to create his ideals. Warhol made the famous look like they never existed. Bernstein made his subjects appear as if they had just been pulled out of a vaguely pornographic ad campaign for Austrian cookies, all putti blush and lollipop eyes.

In his treatise On Portraiture from Life (1549), Portuguese portrait master Francisco de Holanda wrote, “And when one day you paint the portrait of some person, if you should only succeed in executing the eyebrows with all your skill you will not have accomplished little.” Bernstein ran with this idea. His 1970s work echoes Warhol’s—silhouetted, colored, and framed photos with hard chromatic fields—while simultaneously undoing the influence. In two covers from the summer of 1975, Bernstein shows different actresses—Florinda Bolkan and Dalila Di Lazzaro—in very similar poses, both with their right arms raised, and draws out their physical joy. In the 1980s, Bernstein honed his style. Rosiness is his punctum, the dial he turned further than anyone else. Arraying the face as a diabolical triangle of lips, cheeks, and eyebrows, Bernstein created a language of highlights, always white. Everyone is more or less frosted on a Bernstein cover, both glowing and numb. Isabella Rossellini, with an orange mouth and a short bob, glowers from the center of New Wave aesthetics, while Mariel Hemingway emits too many lumens to match the red checkerboard tablecloth behind her. Everyone finds her most radiant version of detached satisfaction. They all look high as hell.

The 2018 Rizzoli book on Bernstein, Starmaker, gives you behind-the-scenes mechanicals and rubber cement, and the story: ascent, endless clubbing, death. In the show here, “FAME,” white walls and architectural symmetry were used to present Bernstein’s strategies. Taken together, the sixty-nine Interview cover portraits, all hung roughly at mirror height, emphasized how much the portraits don’t look like us, and also don’t particularly look like people. The dictum about fifteen minutes of fame that never stops being true is canceled out. Bernstein’s famous faces are handmade and deeply rooted in place and time.

What strikes me about these in the aggregate is how New York focused the Interview covers were. Half of the names were obscure at the time, evidence that Interview was going to parties you couldn’t get into. For example: Apollonia van Ravenstein (in her own excellent words, “the model of the minute or the year or whatever”), Klinton Spilsbury (the most lone of rangers), and Ron Duguay (played a sport or something). Now these covers are different evidence, suggesting that the Interview of the 1970s and ’80s acted as the skeleton key to a kind of fame tied to a handful of clubs and limited in life span. Fifteen minutes? Bernstein could make fame last for a month.

Sasha Frere-Jones