Richard Bernstein had an impact on art and culture unknown to most people. The late artist left an indelible mark as a cover designer for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, transforming images of movie stars, models, musicians, and other famous figures to the delight of readers. Besides being one of Warhol’s closest and longest-running collaborators, he endures as an influential queer artist whose career includes showcasing in galleries all over the world, and employing the daughter of Pablo Picasso as his assistant.
But to Rory Trifon, he was Uncle Richard.
“We had his artwork around our house, and my grandparents had his artwork around the house,” Trifon, who serves as the president of the Estate of Richard Bernstein, tells Pittsburgh City Paper during a phone interview. “And so, I was very much well aware of how beautiful his art was. I didn't know the context or that he kind of knew Andy Warhol and worked in that whole thing. But I just knew that he was an incredible artist. And he was a very loving, kind uncle.”
Two decades after his death in 2002, Bernstein and his massive body of work has the spotlight again in Andy Warhol’s Social Network: Interview, Television and Portraits, an exhibition currently on view at The Andy Warhol Museum. Coordinated by curator Jessica Beck, the show focuses on the intersections between Interview magazine — considered Warhol’s longest-running project since its 1969 launch — his television work, and his late-career portrait commissions.
A highlight of the multi-floor exhibition gives due credit to Bernstein, whose Interview portraits made between 1972 and 1989 were often assumed to come from Warhol. On top of the many covers he designed, the gallery also showcases his earlier work, including sets of pop art paintings featuring gems and famous jewels, and pills.
“I don't want to pigeonhole Richard to be the artist who only did the Interview magazine portraits,” says Trifon. “So it was important for me to talk about that genesis of Richard's artwork, and how it relates to Andy's as well, and how it all sort of formed.”
He adds that Bernstein did other works that were “kind of outrageous and scandalous,” including one called “Nude Beatles.”
“And it was the Beatles’ heads on these nude male bodies,” laughs Trifon. When the painting debuted in 1968 at the Paris-based Iris Clert Gallery, Trifon says a French judge filed an injunction against it because “queer art at the time was tremendously taboo.”
Trifon says Bernstein’s pill paintings caught the eye of Warhol, who decided to dispense some advice to the emerging artist. “And Andy kind of famously told Richard that he needs to stop painting pills and start painting people because that's what pays the rent.”
When Warhol decided to revamp Interview in 1972, he tapped Bernstein to do the cover portraits. Trifon says the first Interview cover portrait Bernstein completed was of model Donna Jordan for the May 1972 issue.
Trifon and his family inherited Bernstein’s work after his death. Since then, Trifon, who previously had a career in finance, has looked to display the many paintings and other pieces in ways that would properly honor his uncle’s legacy.
He describes Andy Warhol’s Social Network as being four years in the making, but Trifon’s efforts go back even further than that to 2016, when he started cataloging Bernstein’s work. He was instrumental in publishing Richard Bernstein Starmaker: Andy Warhol's Cover Artist, a book that led to a solo exhibition attended by Beck, who began to work with Trifon on the Warhol show.
Some of Bernstein’s art relates more personally to Trifon, who, while growing up as part of a close-knit Jewish family on Long Island, remembers going into New York City to visit his uncle, who lived and worked at the fabled Chelsea Hotel.
“You know, there was one time, I was maybe five or six, where I did actually meet Andy Warhol,” says Trifon. “I didn’t know who he really was, but I just remember this kind of crazy white hair, skinny, slight man who was very quiet. And, you know, looking back now it's, like, oh, that's cool, I got to meet Andy Warhol at Richard’s studio.”
He cites one pop art piece depicting the Tin Man from the 1939 big-screen adaptation of The Wizard of Oz as significant for his family, who watched the film every year when it aired on television.
“And Richard had an expression with [actress and musician Grace Jones] to always follow the yellow brick road,” says Trifon. “So, The Wizard of Oz really has a special meaning for us.”
In terms of Bernstein’s Interview portraits, Trifon cites one of model Cleo Goldsmith as being among his favorites. “And there are so many, there's Mick Jagger dressed as Santa Claus with Iman and Paul von Ravenstein,” adds Trifon. “I mean, politics aside, Richard did one of Nancy Reagan, and she has turquoise hair. I just think it's so outrageous to see the First Lady looking like that.”
Besides being an immensely talented artist, Trifon wants Bernstein to endure as someone who truly captured the excess and glamour-obsessed culture of his time, which fits into the overall mission of Andy Warhol’s Social Network.
“It provides a context as far as how our culture is today — the Kardashians, reality television, you know, really started with Andy and Interview magazine,” says Trifon.
Andy Warhol’s Social Network: Interview, Television and Portraits. Continues through February 2023. The Andy Warhol Museum. 117 Sandusky St., North Side. Included with museum admission. warhol.org