There never was a Max, it was nowhere near Kansas City, but around 40 years ago a place called Max's Kansas City was as "real" as it got. Two exhibitions open in Chelsea this week celebrating the place that was, the art that still is, and the glorious people that made Max's a NYC legend.
Artists and activists, poets and philosophers, and of course musicians, were drawn to restaurateur and art-lover Mickey Ruskin's new establishment in 1965, and it was soon, physically and spiritually, the center of "downtown" -- attracting artists like DeKooning, of the reigning New York School, up from their lair at the Cedar, and waves of younger artists being inspired by the company while changing the paradigm.
Ruskin was known and loved for trading bar tabs for art, and Max's soon was hung with such stuff as curators' dreams are made of, works by John Chamberlain, Dorothea Rockburne, Frank Stella, and so many other notables of their generation. A taste of this is on view at Loretta Howard Gallery, and as befits the inaugural exhibition of her new spacious gallery in Chelsea, it is a knockout array of both monumental and intimate works.
Artist Forrest Myers, whose works appear in both shows, describes the "zeitgeist" of the original Max's (1965-74) as a unique and vibrant time in history -- anti-war, civil rights, women's liberation, and gay rights movements cross-pollinated with the sexual revolution, infusing their meeting place with a "spirited aura." In these same fertile times art movements arising and expanding included: Pop; Colorfield; AbEx; Art & Technology; Minimalism; Conceptual Art and Earth Works.
NASA's moon missions inspired the artists. Myer's "Moon Museum" project sent drawings by six artists -- Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, David Novros, Claes Oldenburg, John Chamberlain and himself -- all on a computer chip, along on Apollo 12 in 1969. The original remains on the moon, a copy is on view in "Max's Kansas City" at Stephen Kasher Gallery. i
Also at Kasher is Myers' jukebox, transformed into a unique installation by a chance meeting that could only have happened at Max's. A presenter from a laser trade show spent an evening of discussion, and drinking, with the science-savvy artists at the bar. As he left, he handed Frosty his demo laser, saying, "You should have this." Myers set it up in his studio across Park to beam onto a mirror affixed to a speaker on the jukebox, which sent light, pulsing to the music, through the room.
The title of Loretta Howard's show, "Artists at Max's Kansas City, 1965-1974: Hetero-Holics and Some Women Too" reflects the testosterone-laden energy at the bar. Nevertheless, female artists found a way into the group -- Lynda Benglis, Brigid Berlin and others...
"At that time it was difficult, if not impossible for a young female who wore lipstick and dressed up to be accepted and taken seriously as an artist," said Colette, who made her first art sale to Miles Davis after meeting him at Max's.
I wanted to be acknowledged for my art by those big macho artists that were omnipresent, usually at the bar, and eventually received it [from] most that mattered to me -- Robert Smithson, Carl Andre, Malcolm Morley, Larry Rivers, Al Hansen, Robert Watts, Willoughby Sharp, many more... Robert Rauschenberg was especially open and supportive.
Colette, who recalls first being treated as a VIP at Max's for her street paintings and performances, said "I also received my tabs from Mickey, who I hardly spoke to but supported me -- not only at Max's but the other places he opened."
Mark Wiener was a very young photographer launching his commercial career with his studio near Max's, which was in his words, "unlike any other "local" we haunted, it was this energy that drew us there." He remembers being amazed by the lighting, not realizing at the time that he was viewing the work of groundbreaking artist, Dan Flavin, who today is one of Wiener's favorite minimalists.
Mark was most at home in the back room, with artists like Alice Cooper, Johnny Winter, and Rick Derringer after photo sessions at the Record Plant. Wish you had been there? At Stephen Kasher Gallery, you can glimpse the past and its people through the over 100 vintage photos taken at Max's, and other works by the artist regulars, in the exhibition, as well as the book it is launching: Max's Kansas City: Art, Glamour, Rock and Roll.
"Seeing the pictures of David Bowie and Abby Hoffman and the aristocracy of Max's," said Wiener, "stirs memories of wonderful conversation and confrontation."
And what about falling in love? Artist Paula DeLuccia told us Max's "is where I met Larry Poons, to whom I am currently married... in December of 1973, the first time I was there with the painter Sherron Francis."
Uncredited photos courtesy of Resolve40. All rights reserved.
correction made from "singer Betty Davis (wife of Miles)" to "Miles Davis" as Colette's collector