In 1983 a nightclub opened in Manhattan unlike any before it. Minimally named “AREA,” the club would set a new precedent not only in the nightlife world, but also in the art world. More precisely, during its relatively short reign from 1983-1987, AREA represented a heady commingling of these two worlds. While its chronological precedent was Studio 54, then the Mudd Club, AREA’s decidedly artistic roots went back to Zurich’s 1916 Dadaist club Cabaret Voltaire, and to the “happenings” of the 60s, notably, Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable. But AREA out-did them all.
Itself a consistently changing work of art, AREA underwent a total installation makeover every 6 weeks. The address, 157 Hudson Street in then-pioneer Tribeca, stayed the same, but inside the 33,000 square foot space was completely transformed according to designated themes. Installations incorporated elaborate sets, dioramas, machinery, taxidermy, live animals, tableaux vivants and performers in character, along with club goers who themselves often participated, wittingly or otherwise, in bringing the theme to life.
Behind AREA’s creation and ongoing metamorphosis were founders Eric Goode, his brother Christopher, Shawn Hausman and Darius Azari, four childhood friends who took their art-fueled let’s-put-on-a-show zeal to the level of an unnatural history museum. Among the many changing themes were: Religion, Sex, Fashion, Suburbia, Fellini, Science Fiction and Food. To give an idea of how involved the installations were, for Food, the club’s indoor pool was filled with alphabet soup, while Religion featured a life-size burning cross, and a functioning confessional with resident confessor.
AREA’s invitations were themselves art pieces. The grand opening invitation contained a blue pill that when dissolved in water disclosed the party details. The guest list was legendary: Grace Jones, Billy Idol, Madonna, Sting, Cher, JFK Jr., Bianca Jagger, Boy George, Federico Fellini, Prince and Diana Ross all partied there.
AREA regular Andy Warhol set up a polaroid studio where he’d shoot portraits of the “beautiful people,” while artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Francesco Clemente, Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring not only hung out at the club, but hung works in it. Avant garde electronic rock band Indoor Life performed there, and the band’s singer (myself) compiled theme-oriented music mixes for the club lounge where the likes of Bowie and Iman sipped cocktails. Legendary New York DJs Johnny Dynell and Justin Strauss kept the crowds in thrall on the dancefloor, while in the notorious same-sex bathrooms, anything could and did go on. Outside the club, throngs waited hours, often in vain, hoping to get in. They only had three years to try.
When AREA closed, creative director Eric Goode was left with a ton of art, photos, paraphernalia and press. As he put it, “What had been conceived as impermanent had left an indelible mark.” This then would be recycled 30 years later into the book “AREA: 1983-1987”, a 368-page tome spearheaded by Goode and his sister Jennifer, and published by Abrams.
Of course, there had to be a book launch party…
This is where the club metamorphosis comes full circle. For one night, The Hole Gallery, on Bowery opposite The New Museum, was transformed into a veritable time capsule worthy of the Morgan Library, but much more decadent and fun. Now, people too young too have experienced the club in its day, could have a super-concentrated taste of it, as well as mingle with actual AREA alums.
Outside The Hole, artists and scenesters lined up much as they might have for the club. Inside, among the featured displays was Warhol’s “Invisible Sculpture,” a piece he installed in the original club that consists of an empty pedestal. Cocktails were served in Campbell’s soup cans while nudes in sex-doll masks danced against a Barbara Kruger mural. Co-curated by Jeffrey Deitch together with Eric Goode, Jennifer Goode and Serge Becker, this was Mr. Deitch’s first exhibition post-LA MOCA. “Area was of its own time,” he said, “but also way ahead of its time.” The show also included works by Basquiat, Clemente, Scharf, Haring and others — many created originally for AREA.
At 9PM the party moved to the nearby Bowery Hotel, where AREA survivors mingled with young wannabes in a joint effort to recreate some of that 80s decadence. Mirrors on cocktail tables were piled with copious lines of fake cocaine, while nude or nearly nude dancers presumably simulated drug-induced expressive dancing. Vintage AREA house photographer, Ben Buchanan was on hand documenting the evening. One famous AREA veteran, Calvin Klein, reminisced: “It was a different experience every time. You never knew what to expect.” Eric Goode added, “The late ’70s and early ’80s were a very special time in New York – it was a think tank of artists. The city was very lawless. Places like AREA would be impossible to pull off today.”
Indeed that golden decade of ravishingly decadent yet sophisticated nightlife came to end with the advent of AIDS, club kids, and the real estate overhaul of Manhattan. At least we have the AREA book.
Publisher’s notes: I remember well the first opening of the club where my then assistant, Ben Buchanan, traveled down to Texas with a trailer-tractor truck to pick up the laboratory fixtures of Kerr-McGee plutonium plant complete with radioactive containment chambers. A fabulous setting! At another time I recall entering the club in complete darkness, walking on tire inner tubes. There was no limit to the creativity that we enjoyed. By far, my best nightlife memories in New York. Did not hurt that I was best friends with the manager (the author of this piece). I shot the ‘artist’ installation for Time Magazine.