How Richard Bernstein Created Interview Magazine’s Iconic 1980s Covers

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Richard Bernstein’s Portraits for Interview Magazine Warhol
Fran Leibowitz, September 1981Courtesy of NeueHouse and copyright of the Estate of Richard Bernstein

A new exhibition in New York showcases the work of Richard Bernstein, who immortalised Cher, Stevie Wonder, Fran Lebowitz and more on the cover of Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine

Who but Richard Bernstein (1931-2002) could create portraits for the cover of Interview that embodied the spirit of Andy Warhol’s pop art empire with a perfect blend of glamour and panache? The consummate insider, Bernstein cut a dashing silhouette among the jet-setting circles in New York, London and Paris, his beguiling beauty matched by his intoxicating ability to transform luminaries like Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Grace Jones into glittering icons.

The new exhibition, The Interview Magazine Covers, 1972-1989: Richard Bernstein’s Portraits for Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine, celebrates the artist’s indelible influence on the culture of celebrity chic, which continues to captivate the world half a century later. Featuring portraits of Cher, Mick Jagger, Peter Beard, Stevie Wonder and Fran Lebowitz, the exhibition brings together 24 portraits from the full collection of 189 that illuminate Bernstein and Warhol’s signature collaboration during the golden age of magazines.

Bernstein’s arrival at the magazine signalled a new era of print: one infused with the pomp of Hollywood, the prestige of fine art and the whimsy of fashion. Every month, his tantalising portraits dominated newsstands, the oversized tabloid announcing itself in signature lipstick scrawl, and often mistaken for the hand of Warhol himself. Working with editor Bob Colacello, art director Marc Balet and photographers like Bill King, Francesco Scavullo, Albert Watson, Greg Gorman and Matthew Rolston, Bernstein transformed a classic silver gelatin print into a masterpiece of paint, airbrush, gouache and collage. 

Warhol was well aware of Bernstein’s gifts, and more than willing to lean upon them when necessary. “Fred brought in the pictures of Liza and they were horrible,” he said in the 8 August 1979 entry of The Andy Warhol Diaries. “I mean, they were clear and sharp, but Liza’s not fat and they made her look fat, and like a drag queen. The expressions were all wrong, too. Richard Bernstein’s going to have to do a big creative job on them for the Interview cover.”

And Bernstein did exactly this with the grace and elegance of a visionary. Born on Halloween 1931, his talents were evident from a young age and nurtured by his mother, a classically trained pianist. “My grandparents were very glamorous, beautiful people themselves and I think Richard always carried that with him,” says Rory Trifon, the artist’s nephew and President of the Estate of Richard Bernstein.

From the outset, Bernstein was destined for greatness as he took centre stage with his very first New York solo exhibition in 1965, where he met Warhol. The two recognised each other as kindred spirits and forged a bond that would continue until Warhol’s death. After travels to Paris and London, Bernstein returned to New York and settled into his new digs in the former grand ballroom of the legendary Chelsea Hotel in 1968, where he lived and worked until his death at 62 in 2002.

Bernstein readily fit into the eclectic mélange of artists, eccentrics, and outcasts who called the Chelsea home, while making his way through the world of fashion with then-girlfriend Berry Berenson, granddaughter of Elsa Schiaparelli, and later introduced Berenson to her future husband, actor Anthony Perkins. A regular at Max’s Kansas City and Studio 54, he did as much seeing as he did being seen, giving him an intuitive understanding of the spirit of the times.

Equally comfortable at West Village leather bars and society dinners at the Plaza Hotel, Bernstein moved fluidly through different worlds, developing an exquisite sensitivity to the people he encountered along the way. “Richard intimately knew the people on the cover. He was friends with them, and you can see his love coming through in the artwork,” says Trifon, who points to Bernstein’s relationship with Grace Jones, which extended into their collaboration on multiple album covers.  

But to Trifon, there was a Bernstein no one else knew: that of Uncle Richard, the devoted family man. “We were a very close family growing up and saw each other every Saturday, on the Sabbath at my grandparents’ place on Long Island,” Trifon remembers. “They lived in a condo development with beautiful grounds and we would always go for walks with Richard that ended at a willow tree. One particular day, he had hung all these crystals on the willow branches, so that by the time we arrived, there were rainbows all over the floor of the forest. It was an incredibly wonderful moment.”

The Interview Magazine Covers, 1972-1989: Richard Bernstein’s Portraits for Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine is on show at at NeueHouse Madison Square in New York until 30 June 2024.