Planet Britto: Has Miami Had Enough?
by Yohir Akerman and Kirk Nielsen
Over the two decades since the makers of Absolut reproduced one of his colorful pop art paintings on a special edition of vodka bottles, the work of Romero Britto has acquired a controversial omnipresence. The 45-year-old native of Recife, Brazil has now colonized at least eight public spaces in Miami-Dade County with nearly 20 of his huge, two-dimensional cartoonish sculptures. His vibrantly colored neo-primitive drawings are now even on parking meters throughout the metro area as part of a fundraising effort for the Homeless Trust, one of Britto’s many philanthropic causes. Manufacturers have put his designs on luggage, teddy bears, ties, dinner plates and other consumer goods. He even has his own Britto perfume brand—for men and women. Across the planet, Britto’s work is synonymous with Miami. So what’s the problem?
“The one thing that keeps it from really connecting with me is the lack of real obvious concept. It’s more about the specific image, so that unfortunately it becomes a little bit more decorative,” says Jeremy Chestler, executive director of ArtCenter/South Florida, a Miami Beach non-profit that helps budding artists with studio space and career development. “I mean, you can’t fault him for being a master marketer. Should that be the objective as an artist? Well, that’s in the eye of the beholder right there.”
Some art world insiders are less diplomatic, as long as they know their names won’t be attached to their true opinions of Britto’s oeuvre. “It sucks,” one contemporary art curator in her 30s said privately while at a prestigious Wynwood gallery during art-walk night this past April. “It’s kind of like Hello Kitty. That’s not art. That’s a brand.”
Still, countless people—“normal people” Britto calls them—adore his work. “I’m a big fan of Romero’s,” says Jeff Berkowitz, a shopping mall developer. So is his business partner, automobile mogul Alan Potamkin. Potamkin and Berkowitz sit on the board of the Miami Children’s Museum on Watson Island, the site of a Britto sculpture depicting a little boy and girl. Berkowitz and his wife own dozens of Britto items, including cufflinks, watches, paintings, hats, plastic sculptures, dresses, a handbag, and several Britto sculptures around his seaside Coral Gables home. In addition, there’s a 45-foot tall Britto statue outside Berkowitz’s Dadeland Station mall, four more at his Kendall Village project, and a 35-foot tall Britto-designed palm tree with beach ball statue at the mall on Fifth Street and Alton Road on South Beach. “What is it about his art that I like? It puts a smile on my face,” Berkowitz explains. “And it puts a smile on a lot of people’s faces. And the art snobs hate him.”
Plans to erect that sculpture in front of Berkowitz’s mall on South Beach blew up into a pop art melodrama in 2005 that had as much to do with quantity as with quality. Some members of the city’s Art in Public Places (AiPP) committee balked at the notion of putting a huge Britto piece in the significant location—one of Miami Beach’s four gateways. But because the installation site was on private property, they could not stop it.
Chestler, who chairs the AiPP committee, says his concern was never the artistic value of Britto’s work per se, but the breadth of the Britto takeover. “It has become so ubiquitous—a store on Lincoln Road, a store at Midtown, a store at the airport, and so many public commissions,” he observes. “My greater issue is it’s not reflective of our overall community, since he’s not the only artist down here. I think it’s unfortunate that he ends up getting the most play, so that people are more familiar with his work but not necessarily getting a full picture of what everybody’s doing down here.”
University of Miami modern art history professor Paula Harper puts the Britto phenomenon down to two simple factors. “He’s a very generous guy, and he’s very prolific,” she says. Harper sat on the AiPP committee for six years in the 90s. “I spent quite a bit of time at Miami Beach City Hall and I began to notice how every member of the city commission had a Britto in their office, which he had given them,” she says. “He makes himself a lot of friends that way.”
Early on Britto painted construction fences on Miami Beach for free, Harper recalls. “He enlivened them by putting his design on it. He does things to attract attention and get his look out into the public,” she says. Britto was also known to drive a yellow Ferrari decorated with red hearts, blue polka dots and his signature in lavender.
[Humility and Hype]
And so the Britto machine rolls on. It’s evident the moment one sets foot inside the anteroom of his unmarked Wynwood warehouse on the south side of NW 25th Street. A television in the corner is abuzz with a fast-paced video recap of some of the artist’s proudest moments. Among them: the showing of a Britto painting at the Louvre Museum in Paris in 2008 during an exhibition of Brazilian art organized by the Brazilian embassy. Another: a temporary pyramid structure Britto painted in London’s Hyde Park to help promote the King Tut Exhibition. In the video, David Caruso, the CSI Miami television star, calls Britto’s work “very, very addictive.”
Leaving the anteroom and entering Britto’s high-ceilinged warehouse, onecan’t miss the wall of photomontages. They show Britto alongside various celebrities at charity fundraising events. Donald Trump. Bill Clinton. George W. Bush and wife Laura. Arnold Schwarzenegger and wife Maria Shriver. (Britto has a special connection to the Shrivers. Maria’s brother Anthony is the founder of Best Buddies, an international charity to which Britto began donating art pieces in 1994. Anthony is married to Alina Mojica Shriver, who runs Magical Thinking Art (MTA), Britto’s exclusive dealer and distributor.)
On the way to the east half of the warehouse, one passes several offices with big glass windows and stylish furniture, a few nicely decorated cubicles, and a series of glass cases displaying all kinds of merchandise bearing his designs. Through a set of swinging double-doors is a large studio space where three women are working at different tables. One applies paint to a stylized drawing of a horse’s head. On a long shelf above eye-level, several large, apparently unfinished portraits of 20th Century Italian pop icons are propped against the wall. On the floor in the center of the room, two oversized white plaster peacocks, destined for a peacock festival, await the Britto touch. In an adjacent smaller studio space known as the Diamond Dust room, an elderly man applies red glitter to a series of poster-size Britto prints. Next to that is another small room with waist-high Britto originals leaning in short stacks against the walls, awaiting documentation on a photography set that takes up half the room.
Britto, sporting a royal blue workout suit, arrives for an interview with PODER at his office carrying a harried expression on his face. After patiently sitting through a photo shoot, he calmly answers questions for nearly an hour, displaying a penchant for responses with juxtapositions of humility and hype.
“In terms about being overexposed,” he says, “I’m not really concerned about that, because I’m showing my work around the world in so many cities. When you go to Paris you don’t see my sculptures all over Paris.” And hardly anyone will get to see his piece for the royal family of United Arab Emirates, he notes. READ ON.