Episode #7: Antony Zito from Zito Gallery - The Fabricant Way
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Episode #7: Antony Zito from Zito Gallery

The Lower East Side portrait painter.

Today I’ll be talking to Antony Zito in Governor’s Island.  Zito is a portrait painter and member of the non-profit four heads.  Zito ran a gallery and portrait studio on Ludlow Street through 2006. but gentrification and the hike of rents made him give away the space, not before throwing the party of the year!

He spends his time in Manhattan in his pickup truck and creates pop-up spaces where he paints portraits on the streets of New York and at events.   The New York Post has called his portrait paintings “sensual” and his renderings of people on recycled materials other than canvas have prompted The Village Voice to refer to him as “a master of the found object”.

Both of my parents are artists. I was raised around art my whole life. I think when other kids went to Disneyland, we went to the Met. It was like that. Bedtime reading was like art books, Picasso and Rembrandt. We learned all about the old masters before we were two feet tall, so I always did that.


Jennifer Dopazo:
Hi. I’m Jennifer Dopazo and this is The Fabricant Way. Today, we’re on Governor’s Island, a very special location, visiting Zito. He’s a portrait painter and he’s here because he’s getting ready for his art fair that he and his non-profit organizes every year. Let’s see what he has for us and I’m going to get a portrait painted the first time ever.

Antony Zito: Hi.

Jennifer Dopazo: How are you?

Antony Zito: I’m good. Nice to see you.

Jennifer Dopazo: Thank you for having us here.

Antony Zito: My pleasure. Come on in.

Jennifer Dopazo: Thanks.

Antony Zito: Hi.

Jennifer Dopazo: Really excited to be here in Governor’s Island. Thank you for having us in this very special place. For those that are not familiar with your work, you’re a portrait painter and I just wonder if you could just share with us a bit more of how it all happened, how you became the portrait painter here today.

Antony Zito: Sure. Both of my parents are artists. I was raised around art my whole life. I think when other kids went to Disney Land, we went to the Met. It was like that. Bedtime reading was like art books, Picasso and Rembrandt. We learned all about the old masters before we were two feet tall, so I always did that.

My father was a painter and really my best teacher always. In his studio, I would have my little easel set up next to his and really was an amazing thing looking back on it. I always painted portraits. I always drew portraits. That’s always what interests me. Faces intrigue me endlessly and I think actually whether people know it or not, or want to admit it or not, I think people are obsessed with faces. I think we all are.

There is this level of primal communication that happens in a face that can’t really be explained very easily. One little movement of an eyebrow or just a lip … Very subtle things can mean so much and they can go beyond what people say. You can read someone’s face. They’re saying one thing, but you’re getting the true story from their face. If you try to break it down and explain it, it’s … I don’t know. Maybe the FBI knows how to do that kind of stuff.

To me, I’m just fascinated with sort of describing that in paint. Generally when I paint people, I paid on materials that I find in the street. I like to look at it as collecting raw materials, discarded stuff off the street, and then collecting people to pair with these things. I always like to let people choose an object to be painted on, so there’s some level of collaboration involved.

Jennifer Dopazo: You don’t do photorealistic portraits. You have a very particular style and I’m just wondering how that happened or if you even tried the photorealistic way…

Antony Zito: My father, who I learned from, was a classicist and it was always … Things are always a bit loose and expressive in that sort of … I don’t know if you’re familiar with his work, but it’s all earth tones and it’s all very … You can see the brush strokes. They’re very soft.

I was always enamored with painters like Manet or Van Gogh who really … You can see the brush stroke. You can see the intelligence in the brush stroke. I think it’s vital to a good painting because there’s so much going on when a brush stroke is placed with intent and actually the more bold it is, the more of a chance that’s taken. The more things are left raw and unfinished, the more alive they are.

I’ve always leaned towards a representational expressionism, I guess. The proportions are there. Likeness is there. You can feel the weight and the form, but it’s loose enough that you get some emotional content out of it. I’m way to lazy to do photorealism. I don’t know how those people do that at all. I have friends who are photorealists and I think they’re absolutely insane. I do.

Jennifer Dopazo: You also paint. You do life painting. I’ve seen that you go to events or around the street and I’m just wondering how the whole event on life painting happened.

Antony Zito: It is an odd phenomenon that’s appeared in the world of entertainment nowadays. When I was young, there was no such thing as live painters really. I had never heard of it. For me, it goes back to when I had my studio gallery on Ludlow Street. It was this idea of working in a fish bowl where I’m sitting in there painting and I probably have someone who I’m doing a portrait of, and there’s just a big glass window on the street. Anyone can walk in or look in and …

Doing art in public, for me, was really … It’s always been very easy and I kind of … Rather than being freaked out by people being around, I’m kind of … I don’t know. I feed off it a little bit. It’s like having an audience. Where was my thought? It was in there someone.

Jennifer Dopazo:  About the events and the live painting.

Antony Zito: Yes. A friend of mine started a group called Art Battles and that’s how I got involved in this really intense live painting. We did a tour of Spain, and Madrid, and Barcelona for six weeks. We were a group of about seven painters, both from New York, and L.A., and Spain. There were painters who came up from Grenada and people who were working in Madrid and Barcelona, street artists and all that.

We were like this rock star posse and we would do these big events every night, huge stage, like three levels of audience, and just thousands of people there. We would have these huge canvases and we’d have to just bust out a painting in two forty-minute sets. They were big. They were like eight foot by eight foot sometimes, and you just learn how to work fast and put on a show.

I was wearing … I would come out on the stage with a black hood on and a Venetian mask with a giant nose to just add to the WWF insanity and flavor of it. We had a really good time. They called me El Peligroso because I used to … A lot of guys were working with spray cans. I would always have brushes and I would throw the paint at the canvas. I would hit the DJ. I would hit the audience.

At one point, I had these two bottles full of paint. They were like ketchup squirty bottles. I would come out and I would just start spraying the canvas. People would go running. It was a lot of fun, but we had a blast.

For a painter to do something like that, to go on tour, and be having all this fun, and just getting paid nice, and there was lots of drinking and smoking, and running around the streets doing graffiti, and … I don’t know. It was an amazing experience. That whole scene with Art Battles is where my life painting thing took off and I realized, wow, I can do this. I can make money doing this. I do a lot of different versions of that now.

Jennifer Dopazo: Which one was your first event doing that? Do you remember that it was paid?

Antony Zito: Yeah. I did a lot for free just because, I think, if you’re trying to make in New York, whatever that means, you have to just do a lot of stuff for free. You want to be seen, you want to be out and about. You can’t just be sitting at home whining that there’s nothing going on. You have all this energy and you have to get it out on the streets, so people can see it.

Yeah. I did a lot of shows with these guys. At one point, I was bored with it. I was like, “All right. It’s not really going anywhere.” It was funny because they pleaded me. “Come on. We need somebody for this thing in Washington Square. The artist who was supposed to paint cancelled.” I was like, “No. No. No. I’m busy. I can’t.” They finally talked me into it.

I went and I won that battle. I didn’t even know. They said, “Oh. Since you won that one, then you’re actually in the running to win the trip to Spain.” I was like, “Oh. Well, now this is getting interesting.” Before it was just fun and games. I was determined to win that and I made sure that I won it. It was like that.

Jennifer Dopazo: You won?

Antony Zito: I won.

Jennifer Dopazo: Good.

Antony Zito: I actually got pretty drunk that night and put on a bit of a wild show. I left all my paint on the stage and didn’t even know it until the next day. Good fun.

Jennifer Dopazo: Sounds like a good, good time.

Antony Zito: It was a lot of fun.

Jennifer Dopazo: Was that happening … Well, you had your gallery or-

Antony Zito: That would be a little bit-

Jennifer Dopazo: … what you mentioned.

Antony Zito: Sorry. Yeah, that was a little bit later.

Jennifer Dopazo: It was later?

Antony Zito: Yeah. I closed the gallery in 2006. That was a little annoying. I got a letter from my landlord that said … Just out of the blue, just have the place swept out and return the keys at the end of the month. I was just like …

Jennifer Dopazo: Not even letting you know that you could stay even if it’s like a higher rent.

Antony Zito: That was how he let me know.

Jennifer Dopazo: They would even like …

Antony Zito: He wouldn’t even negotiate with me. I wasn’t maybe the greatest tenant ever. I was sometimes late with the rent, but in East Village back then and even in the early ’90s, mid ’90s, if you’re a couple months late on rent, your landlord didn’t freak out. It was just like, “Okay, I’m good for it. Don’t worry about it.” There was a communication understanding, but that just left when the property values started going through the roof and all the landlords could see is just dollar signs. I have a lot to say about that as you probably know.

Jennifer Dopazo: Yeah. Let’s talk a little bit about the gallery, how it started, and … What was your idea with it? Did you always want a space for yourself, a space, maybe, for other people to come in and hang out with you? I read somewhere that there was a couch if you needed to crash.

Antony Zito: Sure.

Jennifer Dopazo: People were just with the community was just hanging out there.

Antony Zito: Yeah. It’s really funny the way I ended up opening that place because I was very frustrated. I didn’t have a painting studio. I had an extra bedroom in my apartment and it was just full of stuff. It was half the size of this room, if that. I just couldn’t really work anymore because I’m collecting stuff off the street, I’m painting people, and then it goes in the pile. There’s just mountains of artwork everywhere and essentially a hoarder scene.

I knew this older fellow, John Viccaro, who was a famous theater director from the ’60s. He did theater for the Ridiculous and he was quite a character. Back in the day, he used to just take a bunch of kids and give them a pile of acid, and then turn off the house lights, and turn on the spotlights, and throw them on the stage tripping. That was his theater in a nutshell.

He knew everybody. He knew Zappa and Bowie, and just all the people that you wish you knew. He told me about how they used to have this giant building in SoHo that … Zappa owned it and he was just renting out floors to anyone for a couple hundred dollars a month. He and I became friends and I needed a place to work, so he gave me a space that I could use for a little while next to the Mars Bar.

That just went bad really quickly. He … God bless him, but he’s a little unstable and he threatened to shoot me. I don’t think he had a gun, but still that’ll make you think about where you’re setting up your stuff. Then I moved to a squat which was upstairs from the Mars Bar. There used to be this old community center called Quando and it was amazing inside.

There was a friend of mine who lived there. He was a Kung Fu Master and a drunk. He had a Kung Fu school there. He had an apartment on the side. He had a auditorium and a gymnasium. It was all in worse shape than this, but it was just stunning and massive, and dirty, filthy. I moved all my stuff up into there from that point.

Then he, after having been in court for twelve years over the space, lost his space as well. I had to move again. This was almost immediately after I moved in. At the same time, all the chaos of 9/11 was happening. New York was under Marshall law. There were these bizarre, giant, weird moon unit vehicles with wheels as big as this room, like hauling all the debris away from 9/11 from the towers, what was left of them. It was all wrong. It was so suspicious and bizarre. Everyone was just like, “This is not a normal thing.”

It’s not normal for New York to be bombed, but it all seemed so shady. Maybe I shouldn’t get into all that, but during that time I had been looking in the Village Voice for a storefront. I saw this one on Ludlow Street. I forget what it was, like $1700. I’m like, “Oh, make another wish. That’s too much money.” Then 9/11 happened and I started to watch that same ad. The rent just was going …

Jennifer Dopazo: Wow.

Antony Zito: Every week it was going lower. It got down to $1,325 and I said, “That’s it and I’m going to do it.” I borrowed a little bit of money and somehow talked the landlord into letting me open a business there having not had a business before. He was wanting all this back-up and … I didn’t have it, but I rented the space January 1, 2002.

When everyone else was leaving New York in droves, I mean … I know so many people who were like, “That’s it. New York’s going down the tubes. I’m out of here. We got bombed. People died. It’s awful. We’re leaving.” I was like, “Well, it’s a good time to stay if you ask me.”

I rented the place on Ludlow then and rented for about five and a half years. It was like a little clubhouse. I always had crazy parties there and people just stopped by all the time. Occasionally I would sell some art once in a while. I used to divide the room in half and have my art on one side, and then a guest artist every month, and do an opening, and have musicians, and burlesque girls, and just everything. It was phenomenal, but it was really being there watching the neighborhood just disappear around me.

The hotel on Rivington went up a block away and the blue building, and this … They were just tearing down sections of city blocks and putting up high rises. It couldn’t have been more disturbing and so the culture that I was a part of for the past ten to fifteen years was just … It was really just disappearing, just going down the drain, but I held it down for a good bit of time and then I had the biggest blowout party ever.

When I heard that I was getting evicted I just said, “That’s it. On the last day of my tenancy there, I’m just going to have the sickest party ever.” It was wild. It was costumes required. It was out in the street. We had the fire trucks there three times and the cops there three times. That’s how you know you’re having fun.

I met a lot of really cool people there. I met Jim Jarmusch when I was doing my stint there and did a few paintings for his movies. That was a huge honor for me especially because my Lee Marvin painting is in between Meg and Jack White. What else do you have to say about that? I was just blown away. Great company to be in.

I miss that space a bit, but you got to roll with whatever happens especially in New York. You got to think on your toes.

Jennifer Dopazo: Yeah. That’s a problem that we’ll see every day happening and I was telling you before how wonderful our previous guys from our episodes, from The Fabricant Way had to shut down the shop because they couldn’t … The rent was too high. I know you have a lot to say about this, so I just want to … You know New York for artists now, what does it mean because I feel like some people outside of New York City or even the country, they just think that you can still come here and make it. It is hard and … Well, you know that more than anyone.

Antony Zito: It’s very hard. I couldn’t do what I did then, now. It would be impossible. We thrived off cheap rent. Even then, it was starting to go up. That’s how you create a cultural upswell. If the rent’s cheap and people can just do their thing without having to struggle too much, then they’re going to do amazing things. When the rent is just crazy high, $3,000 for a one-bedroom that’s not even a one-bedroom kind of thing, then you’re just going to have wealthy people come in or people working corporate jobs. The creative energy is … There’s no room for it.

Jennifer Dopazo: Other things will take place like big chain stores, franchise stores, instead of the small mom and pop shop or the artist having their store. It’s just like it’s changing to that.

Antony Zito: Yeah.

Jennifer Dopazo: It’s a shame because we’re getting used to it.

Antony Zito: Don’t have much choice.

Jennifer Dopazo: Yeah.

Antony Zito: Everything’s becoming corporate. It’s really painfully apparent that the world is owned by banks and corporations at this point. I don’t know. Their stamp is on everything. I’m a visual person. One of the things that drives me insane is the neighborhood used to have such a delicious quality, a little bit of the Batina, authentic Batina, as opposed to the authentic Batinas that we have now.

These giant back lit logos for Chase Bank just glaring into a neighborhood and taking over the entire visual plane, it’s like … There used to be a warm glow of a street lamp and someone’s kitchen in the window as you walk by. Now it’s just this blue giant advertisement of everything that’s wrong in the world.

Jennifer Dopazo: I feel like neighborhoods are all looking the same because of this with the same factory or getting the same stores, or same banks, or same chains coming in. Even the architecture is just changing. We have all our new modern architecture, so it’s … We’re not losing only the cultural side of it, but also the identity of the city or the neighborhood. That’s something that we could just talk all day long. I know, yeah.

Antony Zito: I know. I call it visual pollution because I think it’s really … It mocks up people’s brains to have this just like you’re living in a commercial all the time. They say that you absorb up to 30,000 commercial messages a day as an average American.

Jennifer Dopazo:
I want to talk about Four Heads. That’s about your non-profit which you’re a founding member of.

Antony Zito: You don’t realize how stuck you are in that unless you go somewhere else, go to Ethiopia.

Jennifer Dopazo: Can you share with us how it all started, what you guys do? Can you just share a little bit of that with us?

Antony Zito: Four Head started in 2008. I don’t know. It seems dangerous to me. That just happened.

Governor’s Island was mentioned by one of our founding partners. We went to a City Hall meeting where they were talking about Governor’s Island. This was empty out here and no one knew it even existed except the military. They were looking to do something with it cultural. We went to that meeting and we presented ourselves as … We were completely lying, but we were like, “Oh, we’re an arts group and we’d love to do something on the island.” To our amazement they said, “Yeah, submit a proposal.”

We did. To our continued amazement, they accepted our proposal to do an art exhibit in one of the houses. The first building they gave us was on the other side of the island and it was fifty-two rooms. We really had maybe a month to put together this thing and so we just called a bunch of our friends who are artists. We filled the place with art and it was a great time.

What was I going to say? I had a thought there for a minute. Oh, yeah. During that time, it was so quiet out here that we remember a really funny moment when one of the security guys came rolling up on his gold cart from the ferry and was so pleased to announce to us, “We’ve just had our twelfth visitor.” It was like that out here. It was dead. It was silence.

We’re trying to just, “How do we promote this? How do we get people across the harbor on a boat?” We had no clue. Over time as more things started to happen out here, Figment Festival is a staple out there. They’ve been doing it even before us. I think they were here in 2007. We came in 2008. In our second year, they gave us bigger buildings. We had a hundred rooms, so that’s when we started to say a hundred artists in a hundred rooms.

Basically the way we run it is we look through all the work very carefully that’s submitted to us. We select what we think are the real rock star artists and we give them each a room. It’s about a hundred solo shows all together in one massive exhibition. It’s a really big event. There’s a lot to see.

I think, occasionally, people come out and they’re like, “Oh, we’re going to run through this and have a look.” It takes at least an hour to get through a building and at least a day, a good full day, to see the whole thing. People come back for a second run.

Then this year we have this amazing underground cavern. It’s all these brownstone rooms with arch ceilings and … It was an ammo hold, like an ammunition’s hold for the fort. Obviously it’s empty now and we’re working with national parks to have video and installation artists showing in those dark caverns as a sort of annex to the art fair. That’s a new development that we’re pretty excited about.

Jennifer Dopazo: That’s great. What’s your favorite anecdote for running this art festival here all these years?

Antony Zito: There’s a lot of funny moments. I’m just trying to think of what … There’s occasionally this thing where … Governor’s Island has a rule that you have to be off the island on the last ferry 6pm during the week, 7pm on the weekends. If you miss it, you’re just in trouble because that means they have to have the ferry come back on a separate run just for you and they will charge you $1500 if you forget to get on that ferry. One time it happened and it was one of our people, which we were laughing about.

We go around and lock all the buildings at the end of the day, so the poor thing got locked inside the building and didn’t even realize that she’d been locked in. Probably had headphones on and was painting. They didn’t charge us $1500. I think that’s just scare tactics, but don’t tell anybody. We don’t want to go through that again because it was hectic. They have a lot of rules and regulations that we have to follow here and we’ve learned to deal with, but it’s pretty intense. Sometimes it seems ridiculous what they ask of us, but we try to be good kids.

Jennifer Dopazo: It’s worth it.

Antony Zito: Yeah. We have to make up for all the being bad that we’ve done all these years. We’re trying to act like grown-ups. It’s not working.

Jennifer Dopazo: One question that I ask everyone is why do we need Antony Zito in our lives? What is it? What do you want to be remembered for?

Antony Zito: That’s an interesting question. I don’t know if anyone actually needs me except maybe my mama. I don’t know. I think it’s really important to have art in your life and I think it’s often really overlooked. It’s always the thing that gets slashed when the budget is being cut, art and music, and all the useless luxury items. I think without that there’s no culture. What do you have left? You have just your j-spank existence, your beige cubical world, and … I don’t know, pinning up a cute picture of a puppy on the carpeted divider.

It’s not going to cut it. I think it’s important for people to represent the culture that they’re part of and share that because it’s communication and … Art is a communication on a fundamental primal level and it doesn’t need to be explained with artist statements, and reports, and whatnot. It speaks for itself in the language of form and color.

Jennifer Dopazo: What about mentors? I know your father seems to be a great figure for you as an artist. Was he your mentor, was there someone else who like …

Antony Zito: Yeah. He was, absolutely. We are like twins in a way and … My brother and sister are creative people, but they’re not really artists as much. I inherited that from him. My mom is also a painter and a Montessori teacher. Both of them together were incredible mentors for me. I was really blessed to have an incredible childhood really.

Jennifer Dopazo: Has there been any advice or anything that they told you when you were growing up in your career as a painter, like anything that they said that you always remember?

Antony Zito: Yeah, absolutely. I remember standing in my dad’s studio with my little easel next to his and looking at a blank canvas, and being like, “I can’t think of what to paint.” He said something that always stuck with me. He said, “Think with the brush.” If you think about that and apply it to all aspects of life, it’s like just get in there and do something. You can fix it if you get it wrong, but don’t sit around thinking about it.

I try not to use this thing too much. It’s a sure way to mess up almost anything. I think working with your gut and your heart is a lot more direct and real.

Jennifer Dopazo: I love that. I’m really grateful that you received us here. I know you’re very busy. You have the art far coming very soon and that’s why we all came here. Just to end, which I think you got into that a little bit, but what would you tell to someone who really wants to … They’re working and they’re pursuing their career as a painter, artist. What would you tell them today if they ask you, “Hey, Antony. What should I do?”

Antony Zito:
I think the best advice that I’ve ever gotten was just forget about everybody else and do the thing that fulfills you. Especially in New York, you can get so wrapped up in what do they want and what if I did it more like this than what I was going to do, so there’s all this editing and trying to fit into something. The only way you’re really going to get anywhere with any integrity is to just do exactly what fulfills you.

That’s not always easy to find, but I think you know when you’re doing something true and when you’re doing some bullshit. You have to just keep banging away at the same ideas and work through a zillion sketch books, and a billion canvases, and just get to what’s real for you. As far as making it as a career, that’s a really tough thing. Everybody knows. My dad gave me some advice on that as well.

When I moved to New York and I was discovering the idea of public art, he was like, “That’s what you do. You get out on the street and you set-up your easel on the street, and people are going to get what you do, and they’re going to come to you for it.” He was right.

Jennifer Dopazo: That’s a good one.

Antony Zito: Yeah.

Jennifer Dopazo: You still do that, right, painting on the street.

Antony Zito: I do, occasionally. It ends up being in all kinds of places. I’m a gypsy when I’m in New York. I have my truck and my paints are in my truck. I set-up where ever whether it’s out here, in a restaurant, in East Village in a park, at a client’s house, apartment, in a gallery, pretty much anywhere.

Jennifer Dopazo: Would you go back to having a gallery or a studio through the way you’re basically working right now?

Antony Zito: Yeah.

Jennifer Dopazo: Yeah?

Antony Zito: I had a great time in that space and I’ll always remember it as this sweet moment. I would do it again. There’s something … To me, one of my favorite things ever was walking out of my apartment and just a couple blocks to my store opening the gates, and sweeping the front sidewalk. That was a really meaningful thing to me, just a simple proprietorship. There’s something really nice about that.

Jennifer Dopazo: That’s lovely. Thank you.

Antony Zito: My pleasure. Thank you.