Chris Bonanos has this pithy pocket history of Max’s Kansas City’s rise from a nowhere neighborhood to the birthplace of a generation of art and music. Founder Mickey Ruskin wanted to open a place where his pals Donald Judd and Larry Poons could hang out:
Poons and Judd started dropping by right away and traded art for food. (The artwork—a Judd sculpture over the bar, Dan Flavin fluorescence overhead—would eventually pay off far better than the restaurant business.) Pretty soon, Andy Warhol started coming in. He wasn’t quite the megastar yet, just a well-known artist who’d sit in the back room at a table full of friends. Some of them were rock stars, and in the coming months, Ruskin would routinely seat people like the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones without recognizing them. The Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls played on the small stage upstairs, becoming regular presences, followed by many others, including a youngster named Bruce Springsteen in 1972. Within a few years, the clientele was an encyclopedia of what we now think of as downtown cool: Debbie Harry, John Waters, Iggy Pop, various Ramones, even more various transvestites. The Warholian merger of art and celebrity, of high culture and low, already gassed up and ready to go, took off in this unprepossessing couple of rooms.
Randy Kennedy’s long essay in The New York Times on the book that occasioned both pieces really should be read in its entirety but he adds these artist sightings:
IF a fiction writer were to sit down and conjure up a Manhattan nightspot where a John Chamberlain sculpture flanked the jukebox and Debbie Harry waited tables, where the earth artist Robert Smithson held court with Waylon Jennings, where struggling artists could cash their checks and pick up their mail, where the New York Dolls and Charlie Rich played (in the same year!) and where an unknown named Bob Marley once opened for a slightly less unknown named Bruce Springsteen, he would probably be scoffed at for fabulist excess. […]
But female artists like Dorothea Rockburne, Lynda Benglis and Eve Hesse also hung out there. The artist and philosopher Adrian Piper did a well-remembered performance piece inside the bar in 1970, walking around with a blindfold and earplugs in a place that was all about looking and listening. Besides the Chamberlain crushed-metal sculpture, a Frank Stella on the wall and a red-fluorescent Dan Flavin work dominating the back room, the bar featured a collage by Ms. Rockburne and photographs by Brigid Berlin. Ruskin also usually deployed women — like the Warhol followers Abigail Rosen and Dorothy Dean, a Harvard-trained editor — to control access at the front door.
Accidental Mythology (New York Magazine)
Revisiting Max’s, Sanctuary for the Hip (New York Times)