The Brooklyn Museum’s latest offering Studio 54: Night Magic, curated and designed by Matthew Yokobosky, Senior Curator of Fashion and Material Culture, could, for some discerning spectators, be alternately called Studio 54: Lite. The curatorial focus is, of course, on fashion and design, so adjust your expectations as such. It’s about meticulous attention to lavish aesthetic details and party collateral, and in this regard, it delivers and delights.
While 54’s star-crossed founders Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager were laissez-faire about liquor licenses and finances, they were at their savviest in terms of controlling the narratives of their enterprise via the press. In the Night Magic version of the story, a conscious choice has been made to avoid the darker hedonistic realities of the 70s and 80s, which inform the less than shiny present we have today. Instead, expect a glittery, ice creamy version of history that is geared toward the fashionista cum object fetishist, with a quieter room dedicated to the devastation of the AIDS epidemic, unto which one of Studio 54’s beloved founders, Steve Rubell, also sadly succumbed.
To the harshest of critics, Night Magic will come across as a cherry-picked, sanitized offering with little to no trace of Roy Cohn, the notoriously ruthless lawyer to Rubell and Schrager. Cohn was also Trump’s advisor / attorney / facilitator / mentor / mafia hookup back in the day, only to be abandoned by Trump when he was no longer of any use and died (in unrelenting denial) of complications from AIDS in 1986. According to Schrager, though Trump frequented Studio 54, he never once saw him dance. Not even a little Y.M.C.A. arm wave. And look at where we are now. Nobody is dancing unless nobody is watching. And where’s the fun in that?
In any case, you may want to further round out your education on these matters with the documentaries Studio 54 and Where’s My Roy Cohn? by Matt Tyrnauer, the latter of which features Cohn’s delightful collection of frog figurines and stuffed animals that were probably also confiscated by the IRS alongside his houses, cars, and a plane.
I want that feathered tiara Roy Cohn wore to 54 and I want it now!
Night Magic is, of course, an (arguably unforeseeable) untimely and unbecoming exhibit to have on at one of the bleakest moments in our lifetimes, when even the divey-est of dives like Pyramid are closed indefinitely. Who knew it would come to rooftop dance floors, which are, let’s face it, a poor substitute for the joyful claustrophobic alchemy of rubbing up against other sweaty, porous bodies? Gone are the days of making out with strangers on a sticky dance floor that hasn’t seen so much as a Swiffer pad touch it in decades. Gone is the risk of touch. And gone are the days of risk-taking exhibition-making, lest we offend anyone with the harsh lighting of reality.
Night Magic is foremostly about the gowns, the leather, the accessories—the sturf. The disco music, which ricochets throughout each room, serves to further enhance a palpable sense of bygone-ness. There are circles demarcated around the exhibition floor with “DANCE” written across them, looking like stark empty voids in the flickering discotheque simulated lighting. Even before COVID happened, did we really need another Studio 54 show, especially if it’s only up for telling half-truths? How can we reconcile high-end fashion spectacles in these times of athleisure wear and austerity?
While I have no intense desires nor financial means for any kind of acquisitions, what I’m about to outline would be stolen with a view to redistribute their market value for more practical purchases. There was certainly enough in there to temporarily distract from the mounting apocalypse outside. If frivolity is what we get, frivolity is what we do, so these are the things I would steal from Studio 54: Night Magic:
1. Jerry Hall’s fur coat
In general, I am very disappointed in Jerry, who left Bryan Ferry for Mick Jagger and wound up with that evil mogul shrimp Rupert Murdoch. She’s the epitome of poor life choices and there’s too much Jerry-loving in this exhibition for my liking. I’ll take Bianca Jagger with her birthday doves and horses on any given day (coming to think of it, where are the taxidermied doves when you need them in this show??).
I’ll also take Roxy Music over The Rolling Stones on any given day. Clearly, all Jerry Hall must be in it for these days is the sex. All the same, I’ll steal the fur and take it to Buffalo Exchange for store credits. There are way better coats on offer at this exhibit to carry us through this forthcoming winter season. Plus, it’s probably real fur and that’s just tacky. More on the coats, later…
2. The Polaroids of Stevie Wonder’s birthday party for his secretary Mary Ann Cummings and her 300 guests in 1977
It would be a birthday present for my mum, a huge Stevie fan. She brought me up good on Stevie, Anita Baker, George Benson, Luther Vandross–all the good stuff–all the while blissfully unaware of her cultural appropriation.
3. The chromed metal Caviar server circa 1930 by industrial design’s “it” girl, Helen Hughes Dulany
I don’t think I’ve ever had caviar, uncultured swine that I am, but if I did, I know where to put it to take that first decadent mouthful.
4. The Walter Dorwin Teague “St. Tropez” Double Old Fashioned Glass, circa 1933, made by Steuben Glass, Corning, New York (1903-2011)
Historically holding the classic Prohibition-era old-fashioned, this glass was made for the “7 and 7” highball cocktail, containing Seagram’s Seven Crown and 7-Up. I have no real need for sugary cocktails these days. There’s no dancing component to justify downing those extra calories, but I would love a couple of these delicate hand blown glasses to nurse my shots of vodka with lime on ice in the summer and a dark nutty rye in the winter. Close by these lay the Anchor Hocking Glass Company ribbed cocktail glasses and the Frederick Carder Goblet and Champagne Glass, circa 1934. These might be more your speed, but champagne has never been my jam.
5. Ron Galella’s portrait of Grace Jones and Andy Warhol at Studio 54
Although it was the Grease premiere party, Olivia Newton-John was looking merry with her ice cream, and the entrance halls were lined with high school lockers with attendants doling out pomade for guests to slick their hair, Grace Jones was the outshining highlight for me, in her shimmering gold eyeshadow and large brimmed hat, caught in a candid prelude to a pose with Warhol and his camera. Every night is Grace’s night.
6. Larry LeGaspi’s Gauntlet Gloves, 1978, black cotton and lamé
These are actually quite practical for our times, given you have index finger coverage for pushing those pesky elevator buttons, yet free thumbs to accommodate chronic iPhone scrolling. Fashion conscious meets COVID conscious.
7. Richard Bernstein’s “poppers” wallpaper of 1975
We could all use a brief high these days. I feel that Emily and I may have battle to the death on this, but conveniently for us, the curator has supplied two screen prints, one of which presents poppers as floating, banana-like amoebas. I wonder if there has been any further research in the use of amyl nitrite as a stress reliever. Could be a way to take the edge off the monotonous routine of our daily existence—fun for the whole family! The poppers print was used in decor designed for Rubell and John Addison’s nightclub in Boston, 15 Landsdowne Street Discotheque. Bernstein also designed a poppers print dress and a glow stick head piece worn by Grace Jones during a performance at the Ziegfeld Ball, followed by an after-party at 54… Every night is her night…
8. Donna Summer, I Remember Yesterday, record sleeve with 12 inch vinyl, 1977
Styled by Norma Kamali and released just seven months after her previous album, Summer and Grace Jones were churning the disco hits out back then. Do yourselves a favor, click here for the studio version of I Feel Love and come back here after…
9. Ron Galella’s photograph of Grace Jones’ NYE performance, along with the record sleeve from Fame and mask from “Warm Leatherette” record single release, designs and illustration by Richard Bernstein
Directed by Rod Link and dressed by Norma Kamali in a gold-dusted brown leotard with attached gold lamé unitard and leggings, armbands, and cloak, Jones’s NYE performance kicked off at 3am, emerging from a cobra’s mouth, gradually removing layers of the ensemble, performing songs from her debut album Portfolio and her banger version of “La Vie en Rose.” Her unique style is no question forever unrivaled, but for me, Jones gets to her most musically captivating beyond her 54 days, from disco to new wave reggae, throughout the 80s and beyond.
My hands down favorites are “Private Life” and her “Love is the Drug” cover (Bless you a thousand times over Andrew McKay and Bryan Ferry), and everything else on Warm Leatherette. An entire exhibit should be devoted to Miss Jones alone, but I’m sure that day will come.
10. The guest list of the Studio 54 opening night with Rod Stewart’s name scribbled in
I like that he was a last minute add on (or afterthought?) and Rod has always been such a style icon for me. No one rocks leopard print quite like he does / did.
11. Antonio Lopez’s diary
I mean, just to obtain anybody else’s private diary other than your own is a boon. Even though a lot of the details are banal: Up at 9.30 am — N.Y.C — quick shower — taxi to 22nd at — bought breakfast — got to studio at 10 am — David & Scott having coffee… I’m like … tell me more! What did you get for breakfast? Croissant? Egg roll? What kind of coffee did Studio 54 types drink? Espresso? Black bodega coffee? Lopez’s writing has a poetic energy to it with all the em dashes. The show itself includes more than 50 costume sketches by Lopez, a fashion illustrator and Vogue contributor. He also tragically died of Kaposi’s Sarcoma as a complication of AIDS. There’s a James Crump documentary about him that I haven’t yet seen. Billy Cunningham, Jerry Hall, Pat Cleveland, and Marisa Berenson were all close friends with Lopez, the latter of which were often called “Antonio’s girls.” Sniff. Dead at just 44. Rubell too was only 45. Ugh. So fucking sad. I’ll keep this one for myself, there’s no re-gifting the priceless.
12. Michael Hanulak, Prostitute and Pimp, 1974
This photograph speaks for itself. What a splendid scene full of drama and intrigue. Photographers seldom get opportune moments like these anymore. Not with them Only Fans gals.
13. Meryl Meisler, Man Carries Judi Jupiter (Film Dress by Meryl) Studio 54, July 1978
Great photo, but I also want the film dress for my Halloween costume this year because it’s always such a perfect time climate-wise to wear bikini tops and the skimpiest skirt you can find. This also reminds me of a flimsy makeshift costume my sister manifested in crepe paper for me when I was ten years old at a dress-up day in school. I wanted to go as She-Ra and oh my what a disaster that one turned out to be as it fell apart before my very eyes and I had to wear whatever clothes were available from the lost property box for the remainder of the day.
14. The Fiorucci Tara Trousers, 1978, clear vinyl
These were re-editioned in 2019 so perhaps an actual attainable option for those of you who have been saving up your unemployment checks for a rainy day (I know how much you’ve been putting away, bitches). Please buy me a pair out of pity too to wear with the Stephen Burrows Halter top in gold, originally modeled by the supreme bombshell Pat Cleveland in 1977. Complete this look with a pair of the divine red leather high heels with grosgrain ribbon by House of Charles Jourdan. And for the colder months ahead you can rug up in the:
15. Norma Kamali, Sleeping Bag Coat, silver nylon, polyester fill, circa 1979
The one on view was acquired by Rubell’s assistant Myra Scheer at a sample sale. This jacket comes with the story of Norma’s destitution post-divorce. Of course, it is made as such that you can sleep in it anywhere, anytime. We all need a jacket this winter that can allow for upward (or downward) mobility and al fresco dining. And for your New Years Eve needs we have the…
16. Richard Gallo’s Ensemble of 1978/79 (Geoffrey Mac, fabricator), made of sequins and elevator blanket
Gallo deserves a documentary of his own, and this NYE moment was captured by Dustin Pittman for all to witness this superhero in action. Pittman also took a breathtaking portrait of Iman in 1978 —yet another diva of effortless style with bouffant tower hairdo and tassel earrings.
17. Yves Saint Laurent Evening Gown, worn by Loulou de la Falaise at the Opium Launch Party at Studio 54, 1978
Black velvet, sequins. Something dignified for me to be either buried or cremated in, I haven’t decided yet…
18. Gil Lesser’s Gala Reopening Invitation of 1978, Printed Plexiglas invitation box with black confetti
The invitation read “Studio 54 invites you to throw caution to the wind and confetti in the air to celebrate its gala reopening.” The black confetti for my funeral. Or mix it in with my ashes perhaps? The Plexiglas vessel can double as an urn / equivalent to an open casket…
19. Christopher Makos, Steve Rubell and Andy Warhol at Calvin Klein’s house, Fire Island, 1979, vintage silver gelatin print
Because where else would you rather have been this summer than CK’s vacation home? This striking portrait draws a stark contrast between carefree vitality (otherwise known as sunbathing) and self-preservation (otherwise known as an umbrella and hat combo).
20. Elizabeth Taylor’s fabled sapphire necklace from the BVLGARI Heritage Collection
According to the press release, the 62-carat Burmese sapphire necklace was given to the actress by her husband Richard Burton on her fortieth birthday and worn at Studio 54 on May 21, 1979, on the occasion of the Martha Graham Awards, honoring Halston. I suspected this was supposed to be the climactic moment of the show given the increased presence of sentinels hovering around. With all due respect to dear Liz, even to look, let alone admire, this level of bling nowadays is as disgusting and shameful as David Geffen’s Instagram posts from the Caribbean on his superyacht. With this spirit in mind, I’ll likely bypass doing business with Sotheby’s. Hello eBay’s highest bidder! With this neck piece, I’ll buy myself and one lucky companion a hightailing ticket outta this country for the winter. I’ll disperse the remaining funds to all ye readers who make it to the end of this accordingly. Send me your bank account details for a direct deposit. I promise to make you feel like you just stepped out of 54.