Matthew Yokobosky is the curator of “Studio 54: Nightlife Magic,” an exhibition about the storied New York nightclub that was to have opened at the Brooklyn Museum on March 13—before the coronavirus caused the museum to close and put the exhibition on hold. As the institution’s senior curator of fashion and material culture, Yokobosky organized the show in tribute to a disco club that glimmered in 1970s-era Manhattan at a time when—as an exhibition description states—“a nearly bankrupted New York City hungered for social and creative transformation as well as a sense of joyous celebration after years of protest and upheaval.” Prior to the Brooklyn Museum, Yokobosky worked as an associate curator of film and video at the Whitney Museum.
Anthony Haden-Guest is the author of The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night, a history of New York revelry published in 1997. He has also written frequently for publications including New York, Vanity Fair, and the Financial Times, and is the author of additional books including True Colors: The Real Life of the Art World (1998) and Bad Dreams: A True Account of Sexual Obsession, Fantasy, and Murder (1981).
In January, Haden-Guest and Yokobosky joined ARTnews for lunch at the Norm, a restaurant in the Brooklyn Museum, to discuss the “Studio 54: Nightlife Magic” exhibition, whose future is now unclear. (The Brooklyn Museum joined other institutions in New York in closing last week, and will remain closed until further notice.) —Andy Battaglia
ARTnews: For each of you, what is an early formative memory you recall of engaging with art?
Anthony Haden-Guest: I’m thinking about a later phase in life when I was a young adult in the ’60s, when the main event in art was Pop and Minimalism. The art world was very small then, and the main visual language was photography. We all revered Henri Cartier-Bresson, Irving Penn, photographers like that. Fine art was like poetry—a special interest. But if we’re going to talk about art and nightlife, I think that Studio 54 was a major artwork in itself. It was not a club that focused on art—being there was a performance.
Matthew Yokobosky: The image that popped into my head was the painting I had in my bedroom growing up which was a small version of Thomas Gainsborough’s Blue Boy (ca. 1770).
Haden-Guest: That was famous … media-famous.
Yokobosky: It is like the Mona Lisa—you know, it becomes famous by reproduction. When I was working on the David Bowie show [“David Bowie Is,” which traveled to the Brooklyn Museum in 2018], we had the cover for David’s Tonight album, which he said he wanted to base on The Green Lady, a painting of a Chinese woman done in green [also known as Chinese Girl, by Vladimir Tretchikoff in 1952].
Haden-Guest: That was a Pop painting. Or, it was not quite “Pop”—but it was popular.
Yokobosky: For a long time The Green Lady was the most famous painting in England because every Chinese restaurant had a reproduction of it. For a lot of art, that is how you get the word out.
ARTnews: What kind of purview did you set for yourself for “Studio 54: Night Magic”?
Yokobosky: I focused on the 33 months that Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager owned Studio 54 and the lead-up to that. The exhibition has about 650 works in it—250 are photographs, 100 are fashions of the period. It also has an emphasis on set design as well as lighting design. There are also a lot of artifacts in the show…
Haden-Guest: What kind of artifacts?
Yokobosky: There are invitations as well as things like, for Andy Warhol’s birthday in 1979, Steve Rubell gave him a whole roll of drink tickets with a ribbon around it. They have it preserved at the Warhol Museum so we’re borrowing that. I have sketches and drawings from Yves Saint Laurent for an “Opium” party that they had at Studio 54. I have a great selection of photographs and costumes of a performance artist named Richie Gallo, who worked with Robert Wilson a lot in the early ’70s.
Haden-Guest: Richie Gallo—I remember the name.
Yokobosky: They also called him Lemon Boy. There were two designers named Ronald Kolodzio and Philip Haight and they had a store together called Genesis. Philip was Richie Gallo’s boyfriend at the time and, for one of his birthdays or holidays, he made him a sequined glove—just one. Richie used to go to Studio and hold his hand up and twinkle it under the lights…
Haden-Guest: Are you going to tell us that’s where Michael Jackson got the idea?
Yokobosky: That’s what everyone believes. Michael was there a lot, and the show of course covers celebrities like Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, Bianca Jagger, Jerry Hall, a lot of models. Then there were interesting people like Larry LeGaspi, who designed the costumes for music groups like Kiss, Labelle, and Parliament-Funkadelic.
Haden-Guest: Schrager had an incredibly good eye as a designer, but fine art was not his thing. Jean-Michel Basquiat gave him a drawing and he gave it away. But then he brought in Julian Schnabel to design one of his later projects, so he wised up. Steve Rubell told me that Jean-Michel, when he was beginning to catch fire around the time of the Palladium [another club that Rubell and Schrager later opened in New York, in 1985], offered two paintings for $50,000 each. Steve told me how much he regretted the mistake of not buying them.
ARTnews: Matthew, what makes the present era particularly receptive to an exhibition about Studio 54 in a museum setting?
Yokobosky: I have been working in museums for 35 years, and art has kept becoming more environmental. Video art came to be popular—in the ’90s, every artist had to make a video—and art museums moved away from just sculpture. The museum became more of a theatrical space, and exhibitions now are rarely just paintings on the wall. As it became more theatrical—and Studio 54 of course was a nightclub in a theater—it allowed me to talk about it within the museum context and get it approved.
ARTnews: Jeffrey Deitch came under a lot of fire for proposing a disco show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2012. Were you self-conscious about that?
Yokobosky: I talked to Jeffrey. Representing music and music clubs in a museum is still kind of a new experience. But bringing a club into a museum setting is now possible because we have been through periods where we have had artists like Jason Rhoades, who would do an installation where, on a timer at 2 o’clock, a version of “Car Wash” would start playing in a gallery…
ARTnews: Anthony, the history of disco has weathered different waves of regard and disregard? Where are we on the spectrum now?
Haden-Guest: Studio 54 wasn’t just about disco—certainly not just about disco music. It was a moment of intense curiosity. New York at the time was tiny little communities: Brooklyn, the Upper East Side, this and that. And suddenly, with New Journalism, everybody was curious about other people. And that played into Steve Rubell’s door policy. It wasn’t just rich people. Everyone wanted to see what other people were like. It was a multicultural moment, and people are very nostalgic for a hopeful, optimistic time in the culture that disco represents. It wasn’t just about disco music, which actually I wasn’t crazy about. I preferred New Wave. But it goes back to how different and interesting everybody was in New York. And there was all this energy coming in from foreigners, Euro trash, the women’s movement, the gay movement—all these things exploding in a cyclotron at the same time. People are nostalgic for that—even kids who weren’t there.
ARTnews: Matthew, as you delved into the subject deeply, what did you find surprising?
Yokobosky: When I first started, I went and read everyone’s book—including Anthony’s The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night—and what I was really interested in is how they created the experience of Studio 54. So I went and I found the set designers and the lighting people and as many of the audio people as I could and learned how they transformed a theater—which had been an opera house and then a CBS sound stage for a lot of years—and turned the idea of a theater into a nightclub. I was very much interested in how they were able to use theatrical devices to create an ever-changing environment that made people lose their sense of time. In a lot of interviews at the beginning, Steve Rubell would talk about the fact that they we were going to have sunsets and sunrises and snowstorms and all these things happen in one night. I think that, in combination with the lighting, the set changes, and the music, you just kind of got there and just got into this timeless cocoon. You would become swept up in it all.
Haden-Guest: That makes me think of something I never really thought about: the whole notion of experiential art, I think that started at Studio. Just to be there was transformative. Wandering around the floor, not looking for sex or anything but just experiencing and looking at people who were always interesting. It wasn’t all drugs—I did very little of that, and in memory it’s not even particularly relevant. There was an innocence about it, too.
Yokobosky: New York in the ’70s was grimy and gritty. Movies like Dog Day Afternoon captured it, and Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. New York City was a rough town and hadn’t had a nightclub in like that in probably 20 years. When Truman Capote started going to Studio, he was saying, “Oh, it reminds me of the Stork Club where I used to have lunch every day, or El Morocco.” The designers didn’t really have a place in New York City that they could go do research to make Studio, they went back and looked at earlier nightclubs—how they had been written about or photographed—at the library. Richie Williamson, who designed the “Moon & Spoon” [a famous mechanical contraption that would deliver a bump of cocaine into a moon sculpture’s nose over the dance floor] and a lot of other sets at Studio, talked about how often they went to the library and looked things up.
ARTnews: What was Richie Williamson’s background?
Yokobosky: Richie studied art in Texas. He moved to New York in the late ’60s and became an exceptional airbrush artist—this was before Photoshop. When he first came to New York, he did macramé moons and was a partner in a store called Eve’s Lost, for which he airbrushed moons on T-shirts and stuff. Richie had also designed one of the backdrops for Kiss concerts. But Richie had been making moons for 10 years.
ARTnews: Was the notion of transforming the idea of a theater into a club a conscious decision, or not necessarily?
Yokobosky: They weren’t looking for theaters. Steve had had two previous nightclubs, and then he became partners eventually with Ian on a nightclub they had in Queens called Enchanted Garden. While they were doing the club in Queens, they started doing research and going to all the other nightclubs that were going at the time: Le Jardin, Flamingo, 12 West. Anthony has probably had been to all of them! They were there identifying who were the best DJs, who were the best sound designers, who were the best people for all those different things they were interested in.
They had a hard time getting people to come to Queens, so they looked for a space in Manhattan and found this theater, which at the time was owned by CBS and was known as Studio 52—because it was CBS Studio’s 52nd studio. When they were looking for the name, they obviously couldn’t call a nightclub on 54th Street Studio 52, because people would be confused. So they named it Studio 54. But one of the great things about the space as a sound stage was that, because lights were so hot back then for television, they had to have a really good air-conditioning system. Most nightclubs is in the ’70s didn’t have air-conditioning at all. Studio 54 had the best air-conditioning up any nightclub in the ’70s. So when you see photographs of people, no one is perspiring—because the weather is fine!
ARTnews: Antony, is that your memory of it? Were you aware of that at the time?
Haden-Guest: I was not aware, no—but I don’t have vivid memories of perspiring.
ARTnews: What earlier clubs do you think were an influence for Studio 54?
Haden-Guest: Before disco the clubs were a different genre of club. There was Le Club…
Yokobosky: I read about Le Club. There was also Arthur’s, a nightclub that was owned by Sybil Burton, who had been married to Richard Burton.
Haden-Guest: Do you know where Arthur’s got its name from? Somebody was interviewing the Beatles and asked Ringo Starr: “What do you call your hair?” He had a mop top, and he said: “Arthur.”
ARTnews: Matthew, what did you learn about Studio 54 that you think people might not necessarily know?
Yokobosky: For me it was discovering people like Richie Gallo. I thought I knew the entire history of performance art, and I don’t remember coming across Richie Gallo before. The story about him with the one glove and how he spent his early years performing with Robert Wilson in things like The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin and Einstein on the Beach. He used to do these performances—for example, he would go in front of Van Cleef & Arpels and make a perimeter with lemons on the sidewalk, and would perform right there. Then he decided that he wasn’t going to do street performance anymore and that Studio 54 was going to be his place, so he would spend hours getting ready to go to Studio 54. When he didn’t have the sequined glove, he would have a knife—he would wear waders and a sequined bodysuit and pull this knife out of his and twinkle it in the light. He was a real find.
Haden-Guest: There were also ordinary people who developed very weird lifetime personas just for Studio—like Rollerena [a regular famous for clubbing in roller skates] and people like that who literally gave their lives to it.
Yokobosky: And people like the makeup artist Sandy Linter, she went there every day and then wrote a book called Disco Beauty: Nighttime Makeup.
ARTnews: Did the art world have much of an influence on Studio 54?
Yokobosky: It did, if we think of the art world broadly enough to include design. Halston went to Studio 54 all the time, and he began to think more about designing clothes for discotheques. He installed strobe lighting and disco lighting in his atelier, so that when he was designing an outfit, he could see what it would look like under disco lighting. Calvin Klein tells a story about being Studio 54 at four o’clock in the morning and someone came up to him and said, “Have you ever considered designing jeans?” It is not that Calvin hadn’t made jeans before, but he hadn’t made designer jeans. There were a lot of conversations that happened between people because of this environment that Steve and Ian developed and cultivated. It made it a place where people were inspired by each other. When you have a mix of people, it creates an energy and an excitement, and it gets people revved up.
Haden-Guest: I think to some extent Studio created Andy Warhol. It really imprinted Andy on the global consciousness in a way that I don’t think otherwise would’ve happened.
Yokobosky: He’s in so many photographs at Studio 54—it really did help get him out there further. During that period he also created some of his most controversial work. He had already made Blue Movie and Blow Job in the ’60s, but when you get to ’77 and ’78 he is hanging out a lot with Victor Hugo, who was Halston’s muse. Andy was suddenly going to clubs in the West Village and recruiting models and he is doing his “Sex Parts” series. There are stories of Bob Colacello saying he’d come into the office the next morning and there would be a stack of Polaroids with all of these sex parts on his desk. Andy also did the “Oxidation” series [paintings made with urine] during that time. Warhol’s sexuality came out in a different way in the late ’70s, and I think that Studio was a catalyst for that.
ARTnews: The door policy was famously selective? Did you ever have problems getting in?
Haden-Guest: I had a contract with New York magazine and I knew Stevie beforehand, so I never had problems. But you looked at that great wave of longing outside…
Yokobosky: One of the great stories about Studio 54 is that for the first New Year’s Eve party, Grace Jones was performing, and Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards from Chic were supposed to be her guests. She told them their names would be at the doors, but they didn’t get in. When they left that night, they bought a bottle of tequila or something and went back and wrote a song called “Fuck Off,” which became “Le Freak.” They sold 7 million records. It was the biggest disco song in Atlantic Records history.
ARTnews: What were bad nights like there? Was it ever just sort of humdrum?
Haden-Guest: There was always a VIP room, which was basically the basement and then the office—both very unglamorous places. But there were always people in those places, so I don’t remember ever drifting around an empty club. At the beginning it was perfectly normal to go there and see people like Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor, and nobody bothered them. But then it played a role in the paparazzi phenomenon and the birth of celebrity culture.
Yokobosky: Steve Rubell often talked about the fact that, in the ‘60s, rock stars were the big celebrities. In the ’70s, the fashion designers were the big celebrities. And in the ’80s it was the artists. Studio 54 was one of the places where fashion designers became really famous. Halston was on the cover of People. Calvin Klein was on the cover of Newsweek. And there were new celebrities that got made at Studio 54, like Margaret Trudeau, the wife of the prime minister from Canada. She was there constantly. She was at Studio 54 the night of his reelection.
Haden-Guest: I think she notoriously had it off with somebody.
Yokobosky: You are absolutely right.
Haden-Guest: I think it was a rock star. It was probably a Rolling Stone—I think it was a Stone.
Yokobosky: There were a lot of people who thought that “Miss You” [the Rolling Stones song about longing for love] was about them. But it’s interesting you bring up the Rolling Stones: Studio 54 is where Mick Jagger first met Jerry Hall. She was modeling a fashion show that was a benefit for the Fashion Institute of Technology. Mick happened to be there and saw Jerry. Also Patti Hansen had her birthday at Studio 54 and met Keith Richards. So both of those romances began at Studio 54.
ARTnews: How much of an emphasis will the exhibition place on Studio 54’s social politics?
Yokobosky: I always prefer to create an exhibition that makes people think, so as they are walking through it with friends they are having conversations. Certainly the politics of the Jimmy Carter era coming after America’s dark period with World War II, then the gay movement and the women’s movement and the African-American movement figure in. There was a lot of gritty city life happening then, and disco and Studio 54 really were connected in helping to rebrand New York. It’s interesting to note that after the blackout of 1977 came the “I Love NY” campaign. The combination of that and things like Studio 54 and Saturday Night Live really helped to give New York City a new face.
ARTnews: Do you hope the history of disco would be reevaluated?
Yokobosky: Not every disco production was beautiful, because it had become such a phenomenon with Saturday Night Fever and there was this voracious public that wanted something new and exciting all the time. Everybody was trying to buy into this moment because it was so much a part of the public consciousness. And anytime you have something that big, it can implode on itself. There was a lot of kitsch around disco, along with all the beautiful things that were done, and part of the process of curating the show has involved sifting through that moment. There is a story that they wanted to shoot Saturday Night Fever at Studio 54 but Ian thought that disco balls and light-up dance floors were passé at that point.
Haden-Guest: But the disco ball is still around…