Kevin and I chatted about all that has transpired in his storied career since I last saw him in 2001. He currently lives in Florence, Italy and was in the US for an extended period for numerous shows (unsurprisingly tomato themed). “I live in a loft in the heart of Florence, exactly like New York except it's part of a palace from the 1500s and my bedroom is 700 years old!” He paints deep into the night from a home studio and, post pandemic, has just begun eating out again, occasionally trading some of his creations for sumptuous meals at various local osterias and trattorias (which he declines to mention by name for fear of discovery). I can picture one of his large tomatoes displayed in a tiny, Florentine wine bar. His artistic heroes abounded in Florence; “It’s very possible that Michelangelo or da Vinci walked by my apartment and conceivably could even have been in my house. Michelangelo was only 26 when he carved his famous statue of David, but by then he had already been a sculptor for well over a decade.” I am reminded of Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hours—the amount of time it takes to become truly proficient at something. Kevin was classically trained in fine art at Yale and he loves painting narrative works with stories behind them. His signature large black and white paintings often feature parties and social scenes at a notable moment. “I have the 10,000 nose rule,” he says. “That’s how many noses you have to paint just to even get one nose right and think about all the other body parts there are.”
When he is not painting, Kevin frequents highbrow social events (as do his collectors)—from the Hamptons Classic to Art Basel (where he will be exhibiting this December, details to be announced soon on his social media accounts) and the Cannes Film Festival. “If you are an artist who paints people, any of these events are a dream for people watching, like those David Attenborough specials about rare animals.” He is currently working on a series of new “Party Paintings” that harken back to his late ‘90s/early ‘00s work I remember so well. He has been painting parties for 20+ years now and post COVID, socializing has come back with the vengeance that he relishes. “Often when I paint a party or an event I’ve attended, I’ll add someone in there later who doesn’t belong. So a Hampton’s Classic person may show up at a party in Florence.” This is true of the painting below, “The Velvet Rope,” which actually disappeared in a heist in Belgium some time ago and, according to Kevin, has still not been located.
Kevin Berlin, “The Velvet Rope”, oil on canvas, 89 x 94 in., 2009.
There is something about the way Kevin lives his life that feels very much like a story is unfolding and he blurs the lines between art and reality. “I am also known for performance art,” he mentions “which is a way to express things that can’t be expressed in another medium.” His art openings can be very performative and garner attention with real life, memorable surprises. Painted models and runway shows with only socks, to name a few. “It’s important to get people talking and get their wheels spinning, it’s the job of an artist to start a conversation.” Worth mentioning is his signature top hat that he almost never leaves the house without. I ask him if his personal style is part of his performance. He received his first top hat as a gift from his parents for his first art show at Bonwit Teller in New York City at age 18. “A top hat will dress up any outfit!” It certainly makes him easy to spot at a party, and is definitely the real life incongruous element that we don’t expect but that brings a smile.
Kevin Berlin, “Alien Invasion” performance Art, Southampton, 2013.
Kevin has studied (and painted) classical ballerinas, having spent time with both the Russian ballet and with the Ukrainian National Ballet in Kiev, prior to the war between the two countries. That work now seems especially poignant, particularly a larger than life bronze ballerina (2018) sticking up her middle finger, harkening to “Fearless Girl” facing down the bull in the Financial District in New York City. Empowerment, femininity, and defiance all at once. A social sentiment that has aged well, and come into even sharper focus in light of both geopolitical and women’s issues.
Kevin Berlin with Fuck You Ballerina and Dying Swan, cast bronze, Pistoia, Italy, 2018. Photo Clara Vanucci
We discuss how fine art has entered the digital space and what he thinks of it since most of his work is tactile and experiential. “Ideas come first,” he says simply. “Any medium is just a way in which to communicate visually.” He launched his first NFT collection “The Mission Impossible Collection” on Opensea, which will be relaunched again at the end of September. He thinks NFT’s are here to stay, though they have some growing up to do to find their lasting identity in the art world.
Kevin Berlin "Between Acts," oil on canvas, 2018.
Kevin’s work is primarily sold through private exhibitions, which are posted on his website KevinBerlin.com. (You can also follow along on his adventures @kevinberlin on Instagram.) His paintings and sculptures are in the private collections of notable collectors including Bill & Hillary Clinton, the Pavoratti family, and Kim Bassinger (of whom he made a gold bust). Kevin’s life continues to read like a biography for ‘The Most Interesting Man in the World’ as after his next exhibition at Art Basel this December he heads to East Africa to work on a new series of animal paintings (specifically with a focus on the rhinoceros) that he hopes will spark a conversation around conservation. Think party paintings, but with animals. Somehow the words “party” and “animals” do not seem so incongruous to me.