The Man Who Made ‘Everyone Look So Famous’

Posted September 8, 2018 12:50 a.m. EDT

“They had faces then,” says Norma Desmond, the silent-film star burning out in “Sunset Boulevard,” a tragic lament for a more gorgeous time gone by. They had faces then, we could say just as well of a more recent era, that rich era in the 1970s and ‘80s when Interview magazine ruled the newsstand, its oversize, Technicolor covers a parade of stars.

Diana Ross. Mick Jagger. Debbie Harry. Cher. They had faces then — or did they just have Richard Bernstein?

For 16 years, between 1972 and 1988, when we saw Interview, Richard Bernstein was the first thing we saw. Whoever appeared on its cover, beneath the lipstick-scrawl banner, there they were as Bernstein made them: pop gods with airbrushed aura.

Many people assumed the covers were by Andy Warhol, whose name appeared along the top. (Andy Warhol’s Interview was rechristened Interview in 1977.) But they were the work of Bernstein, a Bronx-born painter who turned every portrait sitting with a star or socialite into Interview gold.

“They have a lot of connections to Andy’s portrait style,” said Jeffrey Deitch, the gallery owner and art dealer who will exhibit 69 of Bernstein’s original pieces for Interview covers through Oct. 27. “But Andy said Richard could do it so much better.”

The Deitch exhibition coincides with and celebrates the publication of “Richard Bernstein: Starmaker,” a new book on his life and work by Roger and Mauricio Padilha, who have previously applied themselves to Bernstein’s fellow scene makers Antonio Lopez, Chris von Wagenheim and Stephen Sprouse. (Norma Desmond is mentioned in the prologue.)

Bernstein, whose travels took him from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn to Swinging London to the backroom of Max’s Kansas City, the Factory and, eventually, Studio 54, was a decadeslong fixture at most any party worth attending, and host of plenty. His Chelsea Hotel home and studio, the hotel’s former ballroom, was the place to be once Max’s closed for the night, and one of his most famous paintings is of the empty Max’s backroom, silent and glowing under its Dan Flavin light.

He partied with the rich and fabulous, sliding precipitously into drugs in the process, then painted them when Warhol and his editors decided they were ready for the Interview spotlight. They sat for the photographers of the day — Bill King, Francesco Scavullo — but their photos were painted (over, or entirely) by Bernstein, a liberty unimaginable today.

“He was great at glossing the gloss,” said his friend David Croland, a fellow artist and party regular, and onetime boyfriend of both a Warhol Superstar (International Velvet, née Susan Bottomly) and Robert Mapplethorpe. “Stars are glossy to begin with. That’s why they’re stars — they shine a little brighter. And Richard made them shinier.”

The brothers Padilha remembered seeking out Interview as kids at magazine shop in their local mall. “The covers were so iconic, we became obsessed,” Mauricio Padilha said.

And when Interview appeared to fold in May (it has already undergone its own complicated rebirth, after filing for bankruptcy, restarting and last week announcing its first issue in its newest incarnation), Instagram was flooded with memorials to its greatness. Many of them, Mauricio Padilha noted, were of Bernstein vintage.

A Bernstein book had always been on the Padilhas’ wish list but didn’t come to be until a message reached them from Bernstein’s nephew, who invited them to the family home to see the basement archive.

In it were not only Interview covers and ephemera, but also early and late work barely seen or recognized: Pop paintings, late abstracts. An early series called “Pilules” (“Pills”), though not entirely unknown (the Hirshhorn Museum owns two), had an especially strong impact.

“It’s that old pop art thing — paint what you see every day, paint what you know,” Roger Padilha said. “Andy painted soup. Richard painted quaaludes.”

Along the way, Bernstein’s path crossed those of many. Paloma Picasso assisted him. Peggy Guggenheim attended one of his openings.

Though gay, he was briefly engaged to Berry Berenson, the socialite sister of the model and actress Marisa; she left him for Anthony Perkins, whom she met on an Interview interview. Bernstein and Berenson nevertheless remained close until her death in 2001, in the 9/11 attacks.

“Richard had a really long run,” said Corey Grant Tippin, an interiors stylist, who traveled for a time in the Warhol circle as a model and makeup artist. “He was always there.”

A changing of the guard at Interview in 1988 ended Bernstein’s regular run. Typecast as a magazine portraitist, he struggled in the years that followed. He had a fruitful collaboration with Grace Jones, who commissioned him to create art for several of her albums and singles, but of the many other celebrities he had immortalized at Interview, few wanted to purchase his portraits when he later came calling.

He descended further into drugs, developing a heroin addiction by the end of the 1980s, and contracted HIV. He died at 62 in 2002, from complications of AIDS, according to his New York Times obituary, though friends said that a note found with him in his apartment read, “do not resuscitate.”

His acolytes believe the time is ripe for his resurgence, and New York Fashion Week began with a party in his honor, attended by some of the old guard he had once partied alongside: Pat Cleveland; Carmen D’Alessio, the erstwhile publicist of Studio 54; Dianne Brill, once the queen of New York night life, who had flown in from Zurich for the occasion.

“I feel like a historical figure tonight,” Brill said. “Like George Washington of New York!”

Deitch is working with Bernstein’s family to sell some of the Interview art he made by hand — almost unthinkable in our age of Photoshop — with scissors, paste, pencil, gouache and paint.

“This is such an amazing chronicle of that time,” Deitch said. “Two hundred years from now, people will look back at this period and be so enthralled. It’s our version of the Italian Renaissance, this whole pop era.”