Reinventing Yourself with Alberto Pazzi
Balancing his obvious confidence with self-deprecating humor, Alberto Pazzi exudes an air of art world cool usually only seen in scripted television about Brooklyn-based creatives. He’s beat us to the backyard of Golden Years, a few sips into his beer-shot-combo when we arrive.
Destined for mononym fame à la DaVinci or Beyoncé, Pazzi is joining us just after a successful group show in Palm Beach. As we learn moments later, this is an artist wholly devoted to his work who also manages to not take himself too seriously. We were major fans of his paintings going into the interview; needless to say, we left the conversation fans of the man himself.
Pictured (left to right): Katie Danforth, Alberto Pazzi, and John Samels.
Katie Danforth: You just finished a show in Florida, right? How did it go?
Alberto Pazzi: It was so fun, quite surreal. It was really funny to explain my work and get into the meaning behind it. The gallery asked me to join at 10am for a guided brunch with this tour of 30 people from Palm Beach. I’m there having a mimosa and hanging out — I’m so hungover. Then they announce that the artist is going to say a few words about the work. And I’ve got my mimosa in-hand like, I wasn’t aware I was giving a speech!
And then they went straight to the questions — quite deep questions! It was a lot of pressure with all these like faces looking at me. I had to just improvise. Some of the questions were so funny. It was things that my friends would ask to make fun of me. Like, Oh, you talk about all these feelings that you want to portray in your work, but you end up always drawing dogs with boobs and shit. What’s that about? At the show, one of these ladies asked me about the dogs with boobs, but I had to respond in a very serious way.
But I do love the experience overall. There’s nothing that satisfies me more than creating and displaying it somewhere and feeling appreciated and connecting with people. That’s the goal of it, I think, at the end of the day.
John Samels: So wait, what was the hungover response to that question?
I started saying something super pretentious, something Freudian maybe. My manager saw me struggling and she continued the answer. I was like, Yeah, what she said.
KD: What’s the answer you tell your friends?
AP: I mean, I feel like there are certain subjects that the audience is always going to love. And that’s boobs and dogs. And… plants and cats. Whenever I take a little detour and paint what will satisfy me and make me feel like I’m evolving in my style — no attention, no likes. They don’t care.
I did this series last summer of big paintings of, like, decapitated birds and all these amorphous creatures spilling blood and stuff. It was kind of bizarre, but I kept the cute pink palette. I wanted to play with the contrast of ugly and beautiful things. It’s been done so many times before, but I was doing my take. Everybody was disturbed by it and telling me, Oh, we like your old stuff better. That’s not what you want to hear as an artist, but at least I’m experimenting.
It’s all about continuing to reinvent yourself. I want to keep finding new vehicles of expression and subjects that will keep me moving forward as an artist, you know?
KD: Do you feel like you’ve been able to strike a balance between creating expected and unexpected work?
AP: Yeah. Everything I do has my style and my signature, and I enjoy everything I do. The gallery just tells me what has been successful, but they never impose on me. It’s nice to have that guidance, and they have a really good eye. It’s almost like a collaboration in a way.
JS: How’d you link up with the gallery?
AP: They’re called TW Fine Art; they’re located in Palm Beach and Montauk, which is where I’m going to have my first solo show in July. In 2021, a friend of mine told me I should meet up with a gallerist named Sienna who might be interested in my work. I was like, Cool, let’s go for a drink. At that point I was just more focused on illustration commissions, and to be honest I was kind of lost. Sienna and the gallery said, Your stuff is fine art, you should take that direction. It gave me a boost of confidence — I never saw my stuff as fine art.
We have a really solid relationship in the way that they represent my work — they believe in me and they also expect me to keep delivering good work. It’s a mutual motivational thing for us. I’m really happy to be represented by them, I feel like I’m in good hands. So far it’s been group shows, but this is a new solo show. It’s a very tight deadline, but it’s exciting. I like working under pressure. I’ve got a couple of months to do close to 20 new paintings.
JS: What’s the narrative of the upcoming show?
AP: It’s all around the concept of longing. You can long for so many things. You can long for romance, for connection, for truth, for going home, for a nap, for quitting your day job. I’m very touched by the concept. Also very familiar as an immigrant not being able to go home, it’s something I carry on my shoulders. I’m very romantic as well. I want to put all of those things into my work.
As I was creating these pieces, I was accessing places in my memory that were so hidden and so deep — especially from home. It’s like these things from my past are in a little glass box, untouchable, like my mother’s hands or the first house that I lived in. It’s nice to visit them — I want to put that in the show too.
KD: How are you negotiating a more somber theme with your traditional pastel palette?
AP: I’m transitioning into a pastel blue-purple thing, which goes really well with sadness.
KD: Got a blue period going.
AP: Yeah, I have the blue period going, I’m checking all the boxes. It’s so funny how it started — I have a friend who’s an amazing street artist, he goes by @itsaliving. We’ve known each other for more than 10 years and we’ve kind of had a parallel — he’s like, way more successful than I am — but he’s a helpful friend in my process. He recently moved back to Mexico for good, and he was like, Pazzi, do you want all my supplies? I’m not gonna take them, so grab whatever you want.
He had tons and tons and tons of paint and they mostly were shades of blue and purple, which I’ve never really painted with before because I’m kind of the pink guy, you know? And I was like, Can I take these canvases? Can I take this spray? Can I take this fridge?
AP: I took three Uber XLs — I basically robbed him! I started fucking with the colors, and it was beautiful. That connected with the longing thing and with the sad blue period.
I’m aiming to do work that no matter where you’re from, and no matter your background, no matter your age, your gender, whatever, you can still relate to the universal feeling in the piece. I don’t like when you see something and there’s a need to explain it. I feel like if I have to explain it, then I’m not doing my job as an artist.
KD: Have you ever spoken to somebody who’s taken something from your work that was very different from the intention? But maybe still right?
AP: All the time. That’s really entertaining too, it’s all open for interpretation. I love when I hear someone talking about my work and I’m like, Oh, really? I like that definition better than what I’ve been saying. Or I’ll overhear people talking negatively without knowing that I did the piece. It’s really funny. They can be like, What the fuck, who would call this art? And I’m behind saying, Yeah, that sucks, right? I wonder who made it!
But other people are super nice, too. Friends are always going to root for you, but you sometimes think they’re just saying that to be supportive. When you get the blessing or endorsement from people you don’t know, it’s really amazing. I got that experience in Palm Beach where some random ladies from Westchester were like, Your work is incredible. And I was like, Oh, word. Thank you, lady from Westchester!
I’m not saying that I’m a big shot or anything, but I think that the journey from moving to New York and starting from zero, not knowing anyone and selling my work on the street outside the funeral home on Bedford Ave, to selling it in a gallery in Palm Beach is crazy. That’s insane.
JS: That’s amazing.
AP: And I’m only getting started. I’m 33, which might be old if I want to be in the Olympics, but it’s really young if I want to be a painter. I’m planning to live a long time. I want to be like 90 and still painting, like Alex Katz.
One person that was really pivotal in my life in New York, was the painter John Wesley. I would not be doing the art that I do if it wasn’t for his massive influence. When I was in college back in Mexico, his work was something that you’d see in textbooks.
This is the beauty of New York: when I was a server in SoHo, my boss’ wife was Jack’s (I get to call him Jack) assistant. I used to draw all the time instead of taking care of the tables. They were like, Hey, we love that you’re drawing, but can you take care of table three? My boss’ wife noticed and asked one day how I’d feel helping out in the studio with errands and stuff, and if I had that kind of experience. I was like, Yeah, I’m in. Where do I sign? That was bullshit. I had zero experience. But for some reason they hired me, and I’m still working for him.
JS: Oh my god!
AP: It’s been amazing because his style is such a big influence. If you see his work and my work, there’s a direct line between us. I love that. I love when people see my work and it reminds them of John Wesley.
I got to meet him a few times — he was not painting anymore, but sometimes they would have me bring some paintings that he needed to sign. These are super valuable pieces, I’m bringing them on the subway! When I got there, I would help him sign his own work. I was physically holding his hand so he could sign.
He passed away sadly, but he was also very old. In my studio I made a bit of an altar for him. The New York Times did a beautiful obituary — I framed it with two of his actual brushes. So when I enter my studio, I touch his brushes and I feel the power.
KD: That’s sweet. Where else do you draw inspiration from in your studio?
AP: I take a lot of colors from movies to palettes. Before I wanted to be a painter, I wanted to be a filmmaker. But when I saw the amount of work behind directing movies, I was like, No… I’m not gonna be a movie director. I don’t like to delegate responsibility; I’m kind of a control freak. What I love about painting is that I only depend on myself to do it.
JS: I know that path though, I did something similar. I went to art school with the intention of being a filmmaker, left a graphic designer. Completely switched lanes.
AP: That happens! I love graphic design. Being a graphic designer was what I wanted to do, and then I gravitated towards painting. I go into tattooing, and then I get bored of it and go back to graphic design. I get bored of graphic design, and I move on to illustration. Now I’m painting, but I don’t know — maybe in two years I’ll be doing pottery or something. There’s room for everything, you know?
JS: Maybe we will make a film!
AP: Maybe we will! You wanna be in it?
KD: Absolutely, I’ll write the screenplay.
JS: Could you ever see your work animated?
AP: I would love to see it animated. I don’t have the tools or the skills to animate it myself yet, but I would love to collaborate with someone that can. I have a friend that’s very into augmented reality. He came to my studio and showed me on his phone how he could make the paintings come at you and shit. I’m not close-minded about it, but all this stuff about AI and NFTs and VR — I don’t really want to get into it. I’m always going to be about hand paint. I feel like, for you guys at Colossal…
KD: That’s our motto.
AP: Exactly. I’m driven and thrilled for anything that is hand-painted. Anything that is made by humans as well; AI doesn’t have the human experience. It doesn’t have the suffering, the pain, and the hours that you put into making something. It looks incredible, but it’s lacking the soul.
KD: I think something we learned in lockdown is that no matter how many virtual assistants and augmentations we develop, there’s still this profound desire to connect and to feel something that somebody else has felt. I think there’s a lot of anxiety about AI art right now, but AI can’t replicate that.
AP: I know. There’s a lot of artists afraid that they’re gonna lose their jobs or something. But I feel like if you’re good, you’re not gonna lose your job. The more diverse things are, the better for the work. You’re just pushing each other to just be better and raising the bar. Isn’t that what we should be doing, as opposed to hating on stuff all the time?
KD: Totally. And with more of this AI art in the world, art that’s created with a feeling of longing, like your new show, will stand out even more.
AP: At the end of the day, it’s all about human connection. That’s the reason why I make art. Ever since I started drawing and painting, I enjoyed the attention. I love the fact that I could make someone laugh with my art or make someone think, you know?
JS: It’s the strongest drug in the world.
AP: It’s the strongest drug! Making art is a way of not being alone, and connecting with people through this vehicle of expression that is painting. It feels great to have a purpose. I just love the craft of painting. Even if I don’t have an audience at some point, I will still paint because… something about the smell of it, and paint splashing on your clothes and stuff. The physicality is something I really enjoy. When I left Mexico I told myself, The only thing you’re committed to yourself and to your art.
KD: I think the concept of a calling can also be really intimidating.
AP: It is so scary. But also I’ve those moments of ‘calling’, in which you’re like, Man, I want to just remember this.
One of those moments happened with my friend, Daniel Shepard. We were struggling so hard and when we had our first show in 2013, it was such a big deal for us. We were both working and doing our paintings on cardboard and stuff because we were so broke. I remember we were on the rooftop of this warehouse in Bushwick looking out at the skyline and I told Danny, Remember this moment because this is our first show in New York. I don’t know what’s gonna happen in the future, but no one’s gonna take this moment from us.
We have a little group called ‘Mexitosos.’ It’s a wordplay: ‘exitoso’ means successful, so it’s kind of like, ‘successful Mexicans.’ It’s me, Daniel, Ricardo — people who are killing it in different ways. But we’re such close friends, we’ve known each other for 10…15 years. No matter how big you get, you are still the same kid I met 15 years ago. It’s people that really get you. And we all come from the same place, we all have struggles, we all have a lot of the same issues coming here.
They’re like my family. It’s so great to see how everybody’s killing it. But it’s also very humbling because we’re like, I know you, I’m not impressed with what you’re doing! We keep each other humble that way.
JS: How long have you been in New York now?
AP: Eleven years now. I moved here by myself and told everybody I was going to come back in a couple of months. The first thing I did was go to Manhattan, and I was like, I’m never coming back. This is where I belong.
Looking back at those years, I really cherish them because it was a struggle. We were subletting, sleeping in the weirdest places, living day by day, not knowing what we’re gonna do tomorrow. It’s a testament of how, if you really have this drive inside of you to not give up, the city is very generous to you. If not, this city expels you right away.
KD: So eleven years in, are you still feeling excited or inspired by New York?
AP: Oh yeah. Every time I see the skyline…. Every time that I leave and come back, I miss my deli, I miss 24-7 access to everything, I miss the rats, the streets, I miss the smell of garbage…. I have separation anxiety from the city for sure. And that’s how I know that this is my home.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
To learn more about artist sourcing opportunities, email us at [email protected].