Benjamin Liu, Part III: The ’80s and ’90s

by Michelle Millar Fisher, November 2011.

The last installment of our conversation with Benjamin Liu, where he discusses the ’80s and ’90s, and his desire that “…with the age of the Internet, with this rich archive, I do hope people, in digging that archive, would recognize those [forgotten] talents.” Audio + transcript below.

Artwrit: So, Benjamin.
Benjamin Liu: Yeah.

We’re going to finish the ’80s and I want you to tell me about the ’90s as well, because I feel like, we were just saying, it’s an underrepresented decade in terms of historiography, or history in general. So, just to say, so you finished working for Andy in ’86 but you still maintained a really congenial relationship with both him and Hugo as well.
I’m sorry?

So you finished working… [both laugh] So you finished working with Andy in ’86 and then you still maintained a relationship with him and after it was very congenial.
No, I came back every Friday actually, which…

…is nice, okay. And then what happened afterward? What was the next decade for you in terms of your relationship with the city and the art scene here? What did you do and how did it change, or differ from what you’d done during your first ten years in New York?
Well, you know, in ’89/’90 actually I discover Bangkok, Thailand by accident. I was asked by Mars, the nightclub here, to design a nightclub in Bangkok. So it was a four-floor… that was a trip to me. That was the beginning of another kind of weird trip of combining all those elements of my life, because, you know, I have this, like, a day personality and a night personality. The day personality would be the… Well, the arts are all like that, you know. So the ’90s actually was a vivid transformation; I kind of merged the night thing into the day.

So, you ended up doing…
I like going to nightclubs, but the nightclub became a day work kind of thing.

In New York and Thailand and other places? Were you traveling a lot of the time?
I actually did only one nightclub, but that was… For me, it kind of made me think that I have a lot of possibilities of other stuff, and then it brought me to the idea of producing stuff, you know? So over time, through the ’90s, I was starting to produce shows—fashion show is one. Actually, the last gig/public appearance that Andy made is a project, a fashion project that I put together with other people. And Andy was hired to be the model, along with Miles Davis. And I didn’t even know he was not feeling well, and so that was… Right after that, he went to the hospital.

And that’s when he passed away.
Yeah. That’s been documented by somebody, I forgot who it is.

So how was it… that’s kind of, like, it comes at the end of the ’80s and the ’80s kind of changes, but…
Yeah, and in the ’90s I actually did a book. That was 1996, I did a book for Rizzoli with my co-author John O’Connor and he used to be the advertising art director—that’s different than the art director—at Interview magazine, so I knew him through time. So he actually—he already did a book by himself about Phillip Johnson, the architect. So he came to me actually and said, “Do you want to do a book on Warhol?” And I said, “Yeah, let’s think what that is, you know?” And I always thought, from my own perspective, it’s interesting to get to know other people that have worked for him and that kind of know him, ’cause a lot of the things that people know about is, a lot of those people are what we called social friends, you know? And I notice there’s a huge amount of that, so we’re trying to cut through that. So through my diligent research, I was able to track down some older assistants that are even before the pop era, like when he was an illustrator.

Yeah, and so when did you publish the book, which date was that?
That was 1996.

By Rizzoli, it’s called Unseen Warhol.

And in a more general sense, how did things change decade by decade? I mean, I’m very new to New York, and so how was your first decade in New York different from the second one? How did the ’80s differ from the ’90s?
Well, I noticed that… Take for instance nightlife—I noticed that a lot of nightlife is really run by businessmen.

Now? Or in the ’90s as opposed to before?
The ’90s was a start of that, ’90s was the start of it. And I really think it’s the outcome of the go-go ’80s, which we heard so much about, you know? The go-go ’80s, meaning—I don’t mean Gagosian. [both laugh] Go-go ’80s, I mean, you know, the art superstar, the money, the aura of money that surrounds art. And that’s still very prevalent. And that kind of affected all the other parts and components of it, you know?

And it becomes very regulated within a scene.
Exactly, and I think that’s why you have even a big book like The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Tom Wolfe, really categorized… Yeah.
Exactly, that kind of encapsulated that era. And I think it kind of made its comeback again, don’t you think?

Yeah, although I mean, when we were talking about the dive that the economy has taken, I wonder how far it can come back. But yeah, I think the regulation of things has certainly not disappeared; it’s an increasing gentrification of places as well. I think it changes. I mean, you’ve seen it more than I have, I mean you’ve been here for twenty years, so I think your neighborhood has changed, right?
It really has. I think the neighborhood, you know, to me, I’m kind of happy to hear once in a while something great, like I just heard that Chris Burden moved back.

Oh, great.
I heard this like, a month ago actually at the Hole [Gallery] opening.

To the Lower East Side?
Yes, I know exactly where he lives. I was told. I’m not gonna be snooping at you! [both laugh] He moved into this gothic building at the cemetery on 2nd Avenue. I told you, Austin [Jubin’s boyfriend] was with me that day.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.
And I go, “Oh my god, that’s interesting,” because Chris Burden is a major artist of the ’60s.

Where did he move back from?
From the West Coast if I’m not mistaken.

Okay, I don’t know.
I thought that was interesting. And I’m like, the other day I saw Philip Glass coming out of his townhouse. He’s on East… 2nd Avenue and East 3rd, I think. And I go, “Oh, that’s great.” You know, it’s like there’s something about that part of it, and then the other part that I sometimes don’t like is that people don’t appreciate all the history that went into making things. I think people just only recognize the glossiness of it, you know, meaning the restaurant, the bars and all that kind of stuff, but they don’t appreciate the other side of it, so…

Okay, final question ’cause I know… I want to keep it on time. But, is there anything I’ve missed? Is there an historical moment or an historical memory that you don’t think has made the record? Through the trajectory of things that you’ve experienced from the ’80s to the present, in the art world or with fashion or music, ’cause you kind of intertwine all of those things in what you do. Are there things that you feel haven’t been put on the record that should have, or something that’s missing that people should know about?
I think there’s a lot of people that actually was… I don’t know if neglect is a good word, maybe unrecognized, and was on the wayside. And sometimes they get rediscovered many years later, and sometimes not at all, and that’s why now with the age of the Internet, with this rich archive, I do hope people, in digging that archive, would recognize those talents.

Are there any other names that you remember? Are there specific people or specific moments? Do you think the ’80s has been mined but the ’90s hasn’t, or…?
I think even somebody who’s relatively known, like Ray Johnson, who I think really opens up a lot of doors, is still relatively unknown. I don’t see a major show of his work. I know the gallery who has a lot of his work but that doesn’t count. I don’t see a museum really think, “OK, we’re gonna do that!”

Like a retrospective.
I know that there’s a documentary out there that is seen by people. I know there’s a little show at the Half Gallery that’s kind of, like, being inspired by Ray Johnson. But somebody like that, you know?

Yeah. Do you want Austin’s last question?

Okay. [both laugh] That’s really nice. Austin says, “Can you ask Benjamin, how did you learn such great social graces?” [both laugh] I was like, “I’m not gonna ask him that!” And then, actually, I am, because I think part of what I thought was so fantastic about you when I met you is that you really effortlessly bring together people in a moment. It’s what you do now: You either produce these really kind of high-impact runway shows, or you kind of bring together the right people to create an event. The other time that I can think of is the Interview magazine, where you took over the Standard.
Oh, right yeah, for Interview, yeah.

Before it was, I mean, when it was still under construction. So you had this party going on with go-go dancers and various things to celebrate the re-launch, and everyone was almost in hard hats because they were right at the top of the Standard when there was no walls around it. And so I was like, actually, I’ll ask that question: Where did you get your social graces from?
I think, you know, when you do a big project like that, you have to remember that actually everybody is a component of it, so if one screw is missing…

The whole thing comes apart.
Nothing happens—exactly. So you never undervalue someone.

Even the smallest part of it.
Exactly, exactly. Sometimes you can overvalue someone, too, [both laugh] by mistake. I won’t even tell you half the gossip from that background. We can do it…

Without the microphone.
Someone did call me half-drunk, I think I told Austin somebody… Well, after this interview is over…

We’ll stop with that! [both laugh] Okay, are there any other questions that we missed that you’d like us to answer?

Crew: Nope.

Was it okay?

“Never underestimate your screws.” [everyone laughs]