On the occasion of the big book AREA about the great nightclub, and the AREA show at The Hole Gallery on Bowery, here are 2 pieces I wrote on the club, one from ’04 and one from ’06.
Forget the Van Halen Reunion; Bring Back Area!
Do you ever walk or drive by an old haunt that’s been closed down and turned into something else and you wish that you could just walk through the door and it would be the way that it used to be?
I used to get that feeling when passing the deli on Park Avenue South that was once Max’s Kansas City. I’d wish I could walk in, past the salad bar and cases of colt cuts, and by the time I got to the end I’d be in that famous back room with it’s red Dan Flavin lighting and I could take a seat at the round table and wait for Andrea Whips to jump up on it and scream “Showtime!” as she pulled off her blouse. It’s a sort of site-specific nostalgia that happens to New Yorkers when they hit a certain age. When I pass by Ross Bleckner’s building on White Street where I once spent part of every night in the amusing shadow of the mysterious Dr. Mudd, I might think about the maps under glass on the first floor bar, or the DJ booth on the second where I used to segue from Rose Royce’s “Car Wash” to a McDonald’s theme with the same beat and chord changes, or the stuffed alligator hanging in the hole cut between the third and fourth floors. I still get that feeling when I pass that old spot on Hudson Street where Area, but it’s a little different. Most clubs in New York went through a lingering illness before they passed away which allowed us to get used to the idea that they wouldn’t be around forever. Area went out on top of its game, like NFL running back Jim Brown who retired at 30 after an MVP season. In its time Area was the Most Valuable Club. Even if you showed up on an off night, or too early, the installation was as interesting as what what you’d find in any gallery—and if you waited long enough, the crazies would always show up.
Area had a magic aura of success from beginning to end. When it closed you wanted it to please come back. When someone did try to reopen the space a year or so after the club closed it was a brief success, I think because people missed Area, but it soon failed. The only good idea they had was installing an ATM machine. If Area had an ATM machine it would have given out counterfeit money.
Area was full of ideas. It was a night club run like an art project, although its creators always upped the ante. They didn’t settle for what most artists would have settled for. They always went for the extravaganza. Perhaps because Area’s perpetrators were from California they brought Hollywood’s bigger-than-life scale and blockbuster ambition to conceptual art practice. Steve Mass’s Mudd Club had introduced themes to the nightlife, changing décor to create a mood—like genuine poverty. But Area made its installation art with Disney-like production values. When you were at Area you were on set. But Area wasn’t really a Hollywood thing—it was more a radical dislocation and apotheosis of New York art world sensibilities. Area briefly fulfilled the unacted upon agenda of Pop Art, by extending art’s reach and amplitude. Area appropriated, transgressed, conflated, reified, deconstructed, reconstructed, quantified, tropified, encoded, syncretized, and paradigm shifted, while simultaneously wowing, freaking, gassing and jacking up. It was like Andy Warhol, Chris Burden, Dennis Oppenheim and meeting Sibyl Burton, Sherman Billingsly and Owney Madden. It was the best of at least both worlds.
The Area crowd was a perfect median between uptown and downtown. It pulled in the
downtown denizens from their grungier haunts and it lured young, adventurous swells well below Canal Street for a perfect date between beauty and the beast.
Historians may not remember, so I will, that area invented the high concept invitation. Studio 54 and others tried it, even Barneys New York did it pretty well, but Area was first and best.
Area was scientific. Area was the perfect medium. It was bigger than Mudd and smaller than Studio. It’s medium size—arranged bicamerally, like congress, except into a disco room and a sitting and talking room instead of a house and senate—allowed it to achieve critical party mass continually. In the Northern disco area one frugged or its equivalent amid monsters or monster trucks or hired swimmers or in a nuclear reactor. In the Southern drinking and conversing area one drank and conversed in a clean, well decorated space touched with exotic from fake million dollar paintings to genuine sharks, rays and piranhas.
At a time when eating was clearly out of fashion, Area threw elaborate, silly dinner parties, prognosticating the next trend just over the even horizon—the supper club. I don’t remember the food, but it was very decorative, as was the eccentric hostess, a German accordion playing fashion model. Jean-Michel Basquiat spun bebop, cool jazz and Ellington on the turntables, and no one minded the good music because of who was playing it.
Area may not have been the first club with a mixed crowd in the loo. But it was the first club with an officially unisex men’s room—a very nice contradiction in terms. What a brilliant stroke when they put a full liquor bar in the bathroom. It’s rare thing when practicality and satire converge.
Area was also visionary in terms of casting. Most successful clubs have had appealing employees, the bartenders at Studio had go go boy looks and mixological skills, the bartenders at Mudd looked like underage candy striper hospital volunteers. And what was that club with Bruce Willis? But Area was the first club with a real cast. Bartenders, doormen and bouncers were just the beginning. They had actors, models and professional tableaux vivant poseurs many of whom went on to be even more famous than during that fifteen minutes of notoriety. The human art object gig was such a good act Andy Warhol got in on it. Often Area’s cast was provocatively dressed or undressed, but when nudity was featured it was never tasteful and always thought provoking.
This high glamour quotient rubbed off on the clientele and I must say that Area was without a doubt the most glamorous club to exist in New York in my lifetime. Studio 54 was Shea Stadium compared to Area.
When something like Area comes along you think “This is a first!” Because you’re an optimist. The unfortunate reality is that usually when you think “this is a first” it’s really a last. Here was an idea that seemed to suggest a brilliant future, where nightlife and art would merge. They did, for a brief time, but every emulation of the Area concept has been a cheap imitation.
Area promised a new world where Art was a place you could go that stayed open late, served drinks and had dancing and where you might just get lucky.
Area (published in T Magazine, 2006)
I remember Area’s opening night theme was “Night” and there was a welder in the middle of the dark dance floor showering everyone with sparks. The dancers loved it. I remember at “Surrealism,” the ante-room where you paid your admission had been transformed into a rest room complete with toilets and urinals in homage to Duchamp. “Gnarly” had skulls, bones, monster trucks, a drag racer, skateboard ramp with live skaters, a strobe-lit electric chair and a speedboat with a giant gargoyle driving it in the swimming pool, and I remember watching Matt Dillon watch a pack of real outlaw bikers swarm around a completely nude biker chick. Maybe he was calculating his odds of moving in. There was a film loop of the exploding heads in Scanners and in the Gnarly bathroom there was a scale model bowling alley populated by real cockroaches.
I remember for “Natural History” the club had ordered a bunch of live armadillos, but they died from the heat in transit in Amarillo, and then the replacement armadillos turned out to be sex maniacs who wouldn’t stop doing it in their vitrine. Other vitrines held live owls, pythons, and six foot long Malayan water monitors. I remember some of the snakes escaped and were never found. I remember at “Sex” the chic fashion editor Ellin Saltzman standing with her daughter Elizabeth in front of a vitrine in which two people dressed in rubber were giving each other enemas to the great amusement clubowner Eric Goode, Elizabeth’s boyfriend. I remember “Normal Night” when DJ Johnny Dynell played the Top 40 and announced each record with dedications.
I remember for “Sports” the loading dock pit in the disco room was filled with a trampoline and drunks were bouncing off in all directions. Didn’t we have lawyers back then? I remember each night you’d walk through this long, long corridor to get to the club itself. The scariest corridor was “Future,” when it was it black with the biomorphic-tech look of H.R.Giger’s Alien ship and you expected to be physically invaded by a vampire lobster at any moment. I remember for “Art,” Andy Warhol stood in one of the entrance hall vitrines motionless, as a living sculpture. Andy was back in a display window, where he started. And every time I pass 157 Hudson Street in Tribeca, I remember seeing the mob at the door, dressed for Halloween in June, lobbying the doorman with their elaborate costumes and thinking “How am I going to get past all of these people?”
Area was a night club that was like art. Andy Warhol often talked about business art being the next step after art, and this seemed like it, although the creators of Area never pretended their elaborate installations had the intent of art. Yet Area was unprecedented in ambition, invention, attention to detail and sheer fabulosity. It was riotously successful yet insanely oblivious to profit, and then suddenly it was gone. Once it was a 13,000 square foot nightclub with a dancefloor, two bars, rear projection screens, a swimming pool, eight display windows and a tank full of live sharks. Now it’s a pile of pictures of a lost dream world that still stands as the mythic peak of the pre-AIDS golden age of staying up too late and having too much fun. Unless you were there you can’t really imagine what it was like. Not only is it long gone, so is the world that made it possible.
Back then New York was the ground zero of art. It seemed the abode of most artists and the destination of every would-be artist. It was also economically depressed which meant that kids could live here and work miracles on a shoestring. Which was the story of Area’s four Californian founders: Eric Goode, Shawn Hausman, Darius Azari and Christopher Goode, four young friends who came here like the rest, to have fun while getting famous. They had thrown theme parties in California, but they didn’t want to just be impresarios, they wanted to make history and do something amazing. Eric Goode, who today creates hotels and restaurants, recalls: “At that time clubs were driven by music, punk or alternative rock or disco. Area was a purely visual. It was based on Happenings, on what Allan Kaprow and Jim Dine and Claes Oldenburg did. In high school we read about New York and Happenings and tweaking peoples senses, shocking them. That was the genesis of how we thought clubs could be more fun.”
Shawn Hausman, who today designs hotels recalls “We were going to open this place for two years and that was going to be it. We didn’t want to be club owners. We wanted to do something different and the audience for it seemed only to be in New York, which had such a cross section of types. We got bored with things quickly and we wanted to do something and get it over.”
Area opened in September 1983. The first theme was “Night.” Thereafter a new theme was introduced every six weeks, more or less, (themes like “Future,” “Suburbia,” “Confinement,” “Red,” “Natural History,” Faith,” “Science Fiction,” Gnarly,” “Disco,” and “Fairy Tales”) until the club closed, after 25 complete build up and tear downs, at the end of 1986, with the theme “Childhood,” a nice symbolic touch suggesting a life lived backwards. Where did the themes come from? Goode and Hausman agree: fighting, the four partners threw out ideas then hashed it out. Eric Goode recalls: “We tried to make each theme as different as possible from the one that preceded it. We liked diametrical opposites. We also liked themes that were vague or cryptic, like Red or Confinement.”
The premiere of Area was announced by a pharmaceutical-looking capsule which arrived in a jeweler’s box with the instruction: “Place capsule in glass of hot water and allow to dissolve.” “Disco” was announced by a phonograph record, “Suburbia” by an slice of Velveeta processed cheese food; the “Natural History” invitation was enclosed in a real egg shell; “Confinement” beckoned with a Chinese finger trap; “Gnarly” was heralded by a corrugated paper box which, when opened, set off a mousetrap that smashed open an ammonium capsule, which might have revived anyone who fainted at the shock of the mousetrap snap, but which did not amuse the United States Post Office.
Houseman recalls “I’ve never been in a rock band but I would imagine our way of working was a little like that of a rock band. We would have these brainstorm meetings and come up with the themes. Then we would brainstorm about the installations for the various areas and performances. Eric and I were perhaps more involved in resolving the ideas, but we each did crucial things, and we did them in our own ways, which hasn’t really changed. Eric would be doing windows, inside a display doing the whole thing himself, I’d be managing a crew of twenty people doing windows. Maybe Chris would be taking care of the business end of things, which we weren’t really prepared for at all. Darius was the mechanically minded one; he did effects driven things. He was also kind of the cheerleader. If you came by on Wednesday before an opening at 3PM we’d be in despair saying “there’s no way this one is going to get done,” and he’d be saying “We can do this!”
The elaborate sets of each theme were constructed as much as possible in an upstairs work room, then the old theme was taken down and the new one completely installed over three twenty four hour days by the owners and their art department. “It suited our temperaments,” says Hausman. “We thrived on that tension and having a round the clock schedule.”
The art department was a large collection of eccentric talents that was always in flux. It included brilliant and sometimes slightly mad talents like Kenny Baird, Michael Staats, Mark Garbarino, Serge Becker, and Reno Dakota who had wild imaginations and the obsessive ability to work three days straight through. Becker went on to partner with Eric Goode in other clubs and restaurants and currently owns Joe’s Pub and LaEsquina, the high concept Mexican restaurant. Garbarino went on to design horror prosthetics in Hollywood, and Reno Dakota made the film American Fabulous. The crew numbered about fifty. “I didn’t know how they could work straight threw twenty four hours a day,” Eric Goode say. “I later found out half of them were junkies. But I always liked reckless abandon. That’s why when we hired extras we’d always get the real people. It didn’t look fake because it wasn’t. When we did “Gnarly” we got real bikers; when we did “Sex” we got real perverts.”
There were other key team members. Eric Goode remembers Joe Dolce, today the editor of The National Star, “writing the ridiculous press releases for each theme. I tortured him. He also did quasi-PR.” Jennifer Goode, the sister of Eric and Christopher, was the team researcher and designated shopper. Her shopping list for “Suburbia” included 100 boxes of cereal, Fluffernutter, Goobers, a washer and dryer, plastic pink flamingos, an oak veneer bedroom set, a toilet, Astroturf, Spic and Span and Tide. She and the rest of the team could frequently be seen scrounging on Canal Street, looking for arcane fixtures.
And then there was a team of regular performers, most spectacularly Bernard Zette, a man who impersonated beautiful women from Marie Antoinette to Marilyn Monroe to Jackie Kennedy; Christina Downing, an ultravixen costume artist who bared it all for art; Michael Anderson who went on to play the midget on Twin Peaks; the almost equally diminutive David Yarrritu who later played with the band ABC; and Jeffrey Strouth, who played a wild range of characters from John Travolta in the Disco theme to Lewis Carroll’s Caterpillar. “We didn’t tell them what to do,” Goode say, “We’d just decide on the theme and they’d come up with something amazing.” Years later Strouth starred in Reno Dakota’s documentary American Fabulous in which he recalls sitting in a vitrine dressed as the Wonderland Caterpiller, answering telephone calls from clubgoers outside the glass, then taking heroin and sleeping in full costume in subzero weather in a Trans Am parked on Avenue C. Artist Jeff Vaughn created ingenious, otherworldly slide projections for each theme; apparitions might be a better word. The dancefloor DJ duties at Area were handled with thematic sensitivity by Johnny Dynell, while the lounge room often had Anita Sarko spinning, but sometimes featured Jean-Michel Basquiat at the turntables, playing Miles, Duke, Bird. He did it for fun; he already had money. Future performance art legend Karen Finley was a waitress in the lounge.
A few of Area’s themes were curated more than they were constructed by the team. Goode, who showed his work in galleries at the time, recalls: “Art, ironically didn’t hold up that well as a theme, but it managed to get a lot of attention. We got a lot of great artists to do things: David Hockney flew in to do the pool and Michael Heiser put his meteorites on the dancefloor. Andy Warhol did the t-shirts and an invisible sculpture, Jean-Michel Basquiat did a window. Keith Haring painted a big thing on the dancefloor. Barbara Kruger painted on the wall “When you hear the word culture you take out your checkbook.” Alex Katz, Jenny Holzer, Tom Wesselman did windows. Larry Rivers did a great sculpture that lit up of a guy getting…(censored.) We threw in Peter Max and Leroy Neiman. It was an incredible group that participated. We took a picture to commemorate it that’s now in the Warhol museum.”
Fashion was curated likewise, drawing on talents like Bill Blass, Stephen Sprouse and Way Bandy. One of the most spectacular themes, was part “readymade.” Shawn Hausman’s father produced the film Silkwood and when the production shut down the nuclear reactor set was going to be tossed out so Shawn and Eric Goode flew to Texas and drove it back to Area in a 24 foot Ryder truck.
No matter what the theme at Area, one consistent feature was it’s radical restroom concept. There was a men’s and a ladies’ as usual, but no one enforced appropriate attendance. These were the “Bright Lights, Big City” years but there were many other strange things going on in the big loos.
“There was never really a bar in the bathrooms, that’s a legend, but they were a club within a club,” says Eric Goode. “They were the first truly co-ed bathrooms. Stephan Lupino set up a studio in there, photographing people with their clothing off. There’s a famous photo of Chuck Close’s big penis that was taken there.”
Sex was big at Area. AIDS was mostly unknown, although we had heard of something called Gay Cancer, it wasn’t yet feared. At either end of the large “ladies room” were rooms holding a rear projection systems so that films could be seen in the lounge or on the dancefloor. Often people would sneak in and have sex in the space between the projector and the screen, giving hundreds of people on the other side of the screen a wild shadow show. It was too crazy to last.
I suppose Area was also too interesting and too labor intensive and too…well not unprofitable but non-profitable… to last. Goode recalls: “We wanted to keep it in a constant state of flux. We didn’t have the budget we would have wanted but for the time some themes were actually pretty big budget. I think Science Fiction cost a hundred thousand dollars. We weren’t motivated by money because every bit of money we made we would put back into the club. At the end of the day we walked away with very little.”
The two years came and went. The partners wanted to close. The investors wanted to sell, but sell what? The concept? Area was really the team that made it, but they pressed on into a third year. Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, an Area regular, opened Palladium, clearly inspired by Area but vast in scale and mass-market in reach. Azari and Hausman returned to California. Hausman says “New Yorkers are so fickle. It became more about who was throwing the big party and people didn’t care about the themes as much. It was over.” Suddenly, it wasn’t there and the party moved on to less inspired but more hyped venues.
For years after Area closed I felt a twinge of nostalgia when I passed site. When something like Area comes along you think “This is a first!” because you’re an optimist. The unfortunate reality is that when you think “this is a first” it’s often really a last. Area suggested a brilliant future, where nightlife and art would merge. And they did, for a moment, with reckless abandon.