Liza Minnelli and the Perfect Work of New York Art

by Peter Piatkowski

newyorkcity1979_400Liza Minnelli’s recently reissued concert album, Live in New York 1979 (titled initially Live at Carnegie Hall), isn’t merely a concert album. It’s an artifact of 1970s celebrity culture, particularly 1970s New York celebrity culture. Gotham in that decade was a very different place from the gentrified Wonderland it is today. The city faced some of the worst financial stagnation in its history and saw rising crime waves. In a New York Times article, Edmund White wrote that New York the 1970s was “the last period in American culture when the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow still pertained, when writers and painters and theater people still wanted to be (or were willing to be) ‘martyrs to art.’” White would also point out, that despite the social and financial quagmire of the city, the decade was “more democratic” and “a place and a time in which, rich or poor, you were stuck together in the misery (and the freedom) of the place, where not even money could insulate you.”

And the long queues and velvet rope of Studio 54 were a microcosm of 1970s New York, with its complete disregard for wealth and status. Studio 54 was a disco elysian playground where the rich and famous hobnobbed with the upcoming-and-coming and the wannabes. Sure, on any given night, revelers at Studio 54 might spot Dolly Parton, Bianca Jagger, or Jackie O. Still, the nightclub was refreshingly a quasi-meritocracy (as envisioned by owner Steve Rubell) whose entry policy was so arbitrary and convoluted that even celebrities found themselves turned away at the door. At the same time, superstars inside would boogie with patrons beautiful enough to warrant admission.

studio54_1979_400The musical theater scene of the 1970s was an odd moment of transition, leaving behind the old-fashioned, vaudevillian Americana of the first half of the 20th century and embarking on the new decade with an eye toward what was happening outside the comfy environs of a lush theater. In a Retrospective for Playbill, Ruthie Fierberg and Felicia Fitzpatrick characterized the time as “an interesting time for musical theater; the sound was changing. Shows with rock scores like Jesus Christ Superstar and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Godspell, and Evita popped up alongside funkier scores of The Wiz and Pippen. Katie Gutierrez summed it up by writing,

The change in musical theater in the 1970s was largely due to the changing times. The country was going through a period of great social and political turmoil, and the arts were reflecting that. The traditional musical theater forms were no longer as relevant or as popular as they once were. The audiences were changing, and they were looking for something new and different. The 1970s was a time of great change for the country, and that change was reflected in the musical theater. New styles were developed and new voices were heard. (Bright Star Musical)

If any performer personified that odd push-and-pull for contemporary and classic theater, it would be Liza Minnelli. The Liza Minnelli of the 1970s is a study in contrast. Not quite a legend but no longer an ingenue, she was the scattered epitome of the 1970s celebrity. Minnelli wasn’t merely famous for her work, but she was also famous for who she was. She wasn’t just Liza Minnelli, the actress or singer. She was also Liza Minnelli, the professional celebrity. In a world before Kim Kardashians, Paris Hiltons, and Nene Leakeses, celebrity for celebrity’s sake was a side hustle that “real” performers took on to supplement their “real” work.

And so Live in New York 1979 is a great soundtrack and souvenir of that time—just one of many from that time that now inspires nostalgia. The music is beside the point. Its mere existence and what it chronicled is what matters. It’s a relic of a glitzy moment in a city that was coming to terms with its own identity. Recorded in the hallowed Carnegie Hall, the album is the perfect work of New York art.

minnelli_warhol_jagger_400Andy Warhol, the man who may be credited with (or blamed for) creating celebrity culture, did the album cover. Though a brilliant artist, Warhol was just as interested in fame as he was in art. In the 1970s, he became, at once, the outsider and the insider. His celebrity afforded him passage and entrance to the starry environs of fame culture, yet his insecurities kept him somewhat apart. His published diaries are a history of this time, and he recorded an exhaustive account of encounters with 1970s-era superstars who gravitated towards his orbit. Minnelli was one of those superstars, a Studio 54 compatriot of his, partying the night away at that mythical nightclub, the two frozen repeatedly in time with multiple photographs of the two of them, crowding together, their faces slack and blurred with exhaustion (and under the influence).

Warhol’s image of Minnelli captures the diva at her most 1970s: her jet-black hair is a pixie-cut helmet, her eyes rimmed by lashes thick like scrub brushes, her lips an exaggerated cherry red. She’s very real in the picture but rendered artificial through silk-screening. She looks like a painting, a disco-era Mona Lisa. Warhol’s portraits of celebrities became emblematic of his complicated view of celebrity. His famous work, Gold Marilyn Monroe (1962), flattened Monroe’s image, removing her humanity, and turning her into background filler – she became ubiquitous pop culture wallpaper. His depiction of Monroe made her analogous to the tins of soup from his Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962). Both subjects represented American, capitalism, and mid-century American pop culture.

By the end of the 1970s, Warhol became a prolific portraitist, taking the rich and famous and transforming them into candy-colored cartoons. His subject ranged from dignitaries and royalty to politicians and literary giants to pop stars and supermodels. These pieces weren’t necessarily great works of art, made to hang in art museums, but instead became commercial postcards.

lizaminnelli_liveinnewyork_150The album art of Live in New York City 1979 came from the portrait Warhol took of Minnelli in 1978. It was a gift to the singer, who was a friend of his, the two running in similar social circles. According to Minnelli, the portrait was a present Warhol gave her in honor of her Tony award for the Kander-Ebb musical, The Act. In an interview with former Christie’s chairman and international head of Post-war and Contemporary Art, Brett Gorvy, Minnelli talked about the history of the portrait and its production. And she astutely encapsulated the power of the work by saying the work “brings back every memory I have of that event, and of that period of time.”

And what of the music of Live in New York City 1979? The 2021 reissue brings the show to its entirety to listeners. The setlist is a mix of the Great American Songbook, musical theater, pop radio, and 1970s cinema. It’s a survey of popular music of the mid-century, and Liza Minnelli straddled that transition from the pre-rock era of pop music with the rock-and-roll generation. It wasn’t always an easy compromise between the two musical movements. This conflicted persona speaks to what I earlier referred to as the Liza Minnelli of the 1970s. She sings the songs her mother made famous, and she sings the songs of her close pals, John Kander and Fred Ebb, but then she also includes 1970s soft rock mainstays like Barry Manilow, Melissa Manchester, and James Taylor in the mix. So, sure, it’s a history cache of sorts, or maybe it’d be more accurate to describe the somewhat confused setlist as a mixtape.

None of the songs in the show is shocking or startling—that’s not the kind of performer Liza Minnelli is. Instead, she’s curated a setlist that operates much like her celebrity: it sorta glides alongside her, existing as its own thing. Her artistry is more about pretend, so it makes sense that her choice of material feels more like costumes than inspired song choices. Some of the tunes included in the show were from her last triumph, The Act, a star vehicle penned for her by Kander and Ebb. By most critical accounts, the show was a dud, little more than an excuse to have Minnelli on stage again. As the New York Times’ arts critic sniffed, “[The Act] is not really trying, in fact, to be much besides a device to show off Miss Minnelli… [the show is] nothing more than a display of talent devised to display Miss Minnelli exercising a gift far beyond talent.” But The Act wasn’t merely musical theater. It was the ticket to be, as Liza Minnelli was quite fashionable in 1979.

It’s interesting to imagine people attending this concert. Ensconced inside the plush, revered Carnegie Hall (where Minnelli’s mother Judy Garland had triumphed some 18 years earlier) while the outside world of New York with all its mythic grittiness carried on, audience members were treated to a couple of hours of celebrity entertainment. This glitzy show captured what it means to be a celebrity in 1970s New York. Crowds were watching a woman who grew up in Hollywood, a cinema princess who would become an Oscar-winning movie star. And yet, some of the lucky members of the audience—if they were beautiful enough or fabulous enough—may have boogied on the same dance floor as she on some random night in Studio 54. Like the artist herself, Live in New York 1979 is a remembrance of a distinct time and place, an item to be secreted in a time capsule.

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