Y.Z. Kami was born in Tehran. He lives and works in New York. His work reflects a diverse range of interests, from portraiture to architecture, from photography to sacred and literary texts. Kami’s work has been featured in public collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the British Museum, London; and many other institutions worldwide.
Peter Marino, FAIA, is the principal of Peter Marino Architect, the 160-person, New York–based architecture firm founded in 1978. Marino’s work includes residential, cultural, hospitality, and luxury-retail projects worldwide. Marino’s third series of sculptural bronze boxes, Fire and Water, was exhibited at Gagosian in London (June 25–August 11, 2017). Marino was named a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture in 2012 and named as an Officier in 2017.
Alison McDonald has been the director of publications at Gagosian since 2002. During her tenure she has worked closely with Larry Gagosian to shape every aspect of the gallery’s extensive publishing program and has personally overseen more than five hundred publications dedicated to the gallery’s artists.
Alison McDonald I’m curious to start at the beginning. How did you and Peter first meet each other?
Y.Z. Kami We met in the early 1990s through a very close mutual friend, Charles, with whom I used to share a studio. One evening Peter and his wife, Jane, came over and we all went out to dinner to an Italian restaurant in TriBeCa.
Peter Marino Was Isabelle born yet? She was born in 1991—that’s how I judge time, pre-Isabelle and after. That’s the only marker I’ve got other than when I graduated high school [laughter].
YZKIt was around the time Isabelle was born.
AMCDPeter, what struck you early on about Kami’s work?
PMI have two photographic works of towers from the early 1990s. I love those towers.
YZKThey were photographic images of two minarets in Iran that I mounted on canvas.
PMYes, they’re beautiful. I really have known you a long time.
AMCDIn general, do you have a preference toward Kami’s portraiture or his abstract paintings?
PMOh, I like them both, but for different reasons. The portraiture I like because of the psychological intensity behind it. He did my portrait, in fact it’s Jane’s favorite portrait of me. She has said it’s the most serious portrait ever done of me.
AMCDKami often depicts sitters with their eyes closed. Was that the case with you?
YZKNo! He’s looking out at the viewer [laughter].
PMThat painting took a very, very long time for Kami to paint, but it’s remarkable. It took a long time to build the Pantheon in Rome, too, I suppose, but both were worth the wait [laughter].
YZKYes, it took several years. I’m not sure why, some paintings just take longer than others. Peter’s portrait was a long process. Imagine living with his image on and off for several years—it actually made me feel closer to him.
PMKami’s portraits can be really intense. His portraits of Tara, his niece—those are incredible.
YZKWhen I finally finished the portrait, Peter came to see it at my studio. His reaction was very touching, I’ll never forget it: he stared at the painting for a long time and then he said, “I am my mother’s son.”
PMAlmost everybody thinks of me with black hair and the dark look of my dad. My mom was blonde, Austro-Hungarian from Slavic background, and very, very fair skinned and light. That’s the way Kami painted me, it was very interesting. So that’s absolutely true.
AMCDKami, when you’re painting a portrait, like the one you made of Peter, you seem to be seeking the essence of a person, trying to capture the spirit of that individual.
YZKIn painting a face, what I really try to achieve is the sensation that I have of a face, the experience of that face. That goes through many layers of paint, and at the end it always feels sort of elusive, almost like I can’t get to it. When you think about anyone’s face, it’s always somehow hazy. It’s never very focused. To get to that initial sensation I have to go through a long process of gradually breaking down and then building back up again.
AMCDIn terms of your process, Peter, when you start working with new clients in your architectural practice, you often ask them if they have a favorite object as a way to inform the work you do for them. And so I’m going to ask you if you have a favorite object.
PMWell, yes, I do, it’s a necklace of a butcher’s meat cleaver. My grandfather was a butcher. He was very hard working and he had shops up and down Second Avenue. A lot of my lessons in life came from him. I was not good at chopping lamb chops [laughter]. I guess I was five when he put a meat cleaver in my hand and told me to chop. All I remember is running out of the shop.
YZKReally? I never knew that.
PMHe tried to show me how to use the knife, but I said, “I don’t think I want to”—it was an early childhood trauma [laughter]. It’s still a favorite memory of mine anyway.
AMCDKami, do you have a favorite museum?
YZKMy favorite museum has always been the same since I visited it as a teenager: the Prado in Madrid.
PMI’m going to second that because of the Titians that fill up those Spanish collections. The Titians in the Prado—I still haven’t recovered, and I visit them like once a year. I mean, are you kidding? They’re better than the Titians in Venice [laughter].
YZKThe Prado Titians are amazing. But the reason I said the Prado is Velázquez.
AMCDPeter, in your collecting life, what was the one painting that got away?
PMJust last Monday night there was a beautiful Gauguin up for auction and I thought it was happening on Tuesday night [laughter]. I called in but I was too late. I travel a lot so I get a little mixed up from time zones. It was the prettiest Gauguin. There’s one a week that gets away [laughter].
AMCDYou do have a wildly impressive and hugely diverse collection. I know you have a great collection of bronze sculptures and now you’re making bronze boxes. This is not the first time you’ve made these bronzes, correct?
PMNo, this is group number three. The first collection was shown in Switzerland, in Gstaad, and I’m proud to tell you that it completely sold out. So then I made a second collection for the Paris Biennale. And then I started talking to Larry Gagosian—I was the architect for his wonderful new house in Manhattan and he bought a beautiful pair of black bronze-box cupboards for his living room. They got an amazing placement, alongside artworks by Roy Lichtenstein, Piet Mondrian, and Richard Prince. The room has an amazing energy.
YZKYes, I’ve seen them. They’re beautiful.
PMThank you. Larry and I have been friends since the mid-1970s, when he first came to New York from Los Angeles. He moved into a loft that I did at 419 West Broadway. So that’s going back a few years. I guess we were both ten, maybe eleven [laughter].
AMCDYou got an early start.
PMAnyway, Larry said that the reaction to my bronze boxes was strong so he wanted to make a show of them at the gallery. What was most interesting for me was that he wanted a complete collection made exclusively for Gagosian Gallery.
YZKGreat, and an edition of how many?
PMEach piece is an edition of eight, which is the legal limit of what you can define as fine art. Did you know that France wrote a law in 1968 that said you’re allowed to make eight of a sculpture? I’m allowed four artist’s proofs, but anything more than that is considered a reproduction and is not a work of art. It was important to me that my boxes be considered fine art.
YZKI agree, I think they are.
PMI really like the fact that the edition is limited, but then people go, “But I really just want that one. Can’t you just make another?” And I go, “No.” People have the funniest reactions. What, am I supposed to make a ninth number eight? Anyway, the collection took about two and a half years to develop. It’s a very long process. We make a lot of samples. It takes a lot of time and patience to get the right color and the right texture and the right everything.
What really sparked my interest and motivated me to start creating my own things in bronze was the discovery of a shipwreck in the Straits of Sicily, in 1998. They found the most beautiful bronze of a male dancer and it was completely intact. Five years later it was the centerpiece of a show at the Royal Academy in London called The Age of Bronze . It made me realize that this bronze from 450 bc had been preserved intact, while buildings that I created only twenty or thirty years ago have already been destroyed. In school you’re naive enough to think architecture is a lasting art, but it’s not. A lot of the commercial work I’ve done has a life of exactly seven years. People have bulldozed houses that I built because the land became too valuable. You know, when I did Barneys New York it was my intention that it would last a hundred years. It had marble mosaic floors, marble mosaics on the walls, and it was full of art. The outside of the building is still intact but the interior was changed completely. It’s devastating to have your work torn out in front of you, it’s really painful. I’m a big supporter of landmarks for this reason, because as an architect it just takes your insides out when good buildings are destroyed.
YZKThat must have been such an awful experience. Nothing like that has ever happened to me. I can’t imagine how it would feel to have one of my paintings destroyed in front of me. Although there have been times when I’ve destroyed my own paintings when I was totally unhappy with them.
PMIt’s rough. So I realized I loved the permanence of bronze. I went to foundries and saw them melting the ingots, making the mold, pouring the bronze, waiting four days for it to cool, and scraping the mold, the same way they would have made armor in 500 bc. There aren’t a lot of things in life like that.
AMCDTell me about this process. You start by working in clay, correct?
PMYes, there’s one work where the surface texture is all made with the imprint of my thumb into the clay. That totally suited my somewhat obsessive-compulsive personality [laughter]—I was like, “I’m going to keep going at this.” After a couple of days they stopped me. The pattern starts small at the top and then gets bigger, bigger, bigger toward the bottom. My intention was to imitate running water. It’s silvered bronze and it never looks the same twice, it has a million different aspects and when the light hits it, it looks like water’s running. That effect got me thinking about the four elements. So I based the fire one on my dragon tattoo—a dragon scale.
YZKI love the exhibition title, Fire and Water.
AMCDThere’s something about the patterning that reminds me of Kami’s Endless Prayers and Domes series. The Prayers incorporate ideas of rituals and the Domes bring in light and space. Kami, is there anything interesting for you in that connection?
YZKThere’s a repetition of pattern in both Endless Prayers and Domes. In Domes there’s the geometric shape of bricks that repeat themselves in a circular motion; the size of the bricks stays the same. In this way there’s no geometric perspective, and that refers to the concept of infinity. This is the same with Endless Prayers and the idea of repetition and infinity.
AMCDPeter, how do you feel about the bronze boxes being shown with the work of other artists?
PMI think it’s great, it’s meant to be. In my office there’s a box that has part of my African collection on top of it. I mean, in case you haven’t noticed, I really like combining art [laughter].
AMCDYes, I did notice! You combine art much more openly than an art historian might, grouping objects only within the context of their own era.
PMBoring, so boring. Art reflects thousands of years of human development. Anyone who collects too narrowly is putting blinders on. Are you telling me the one thing you collect is the only thing in life you find beautiful? I find so many things beautiful and I like to explore the continuum of human experience. In my apartment, I combine antiquities with—
YZKYou combine Renaissance bronzes with contemporary painting, modern art, Chinese art, African art. It’s amazing the way you put things together.
AMCDSo how do you decide what to exhibit with your bronze boxes?
PMI need the complete mixture. And I’m very proud that people who have bought the boxes have mixed them with all sorts of art. One of my French clients has put them in a house that’s full of eighteenth-century French lacquer work. He has a pair of gold boxes and they really look great integrated into an eighteenth-century decor. And there’s an English collector whose house has an eighteenth-century English style, with beautiful pastel colors—he has a silver box and it looks so wonderful there.
AMCDIt sounds like that surprised you a bit, though.
PMWell, when you make something, you can’t really realize how it will look in different contexts.
AMCDKami, do you ever have that feeling about your work?
YZKWhile I’m painting, I can’t think of any particular context or environment where it will be exhibited or installed. But different contexts do influence the perception of the work.
AMCDDo you have a favorite building of Peter’s?
YZKI particularly connect to Peter’s house in Colorado. It’s something special—for me, one of the most beautiful pieces of modern architecture, as a house. I read somewhere that Peter had said he was inspired by seeing a bird in flight.
PMYes, off a cliff.
YZKAnd the architecture gives you that feeling of flight, almost as if the bird were on the edge of the mountain and flying out toward the valley. The way it comes to you—I don’t know how to describe it, it’s almost an ecstatic experience.
PMI had to restrain Kami. He kept hanging on the edge [laughter].
AMCDAnd some of the photos I’ve seen of this house include Kami’s paintings.
PMYes, Kami’s paintings are in every one of my homes. He’s in Southampton, New York, and Aspen [laughter].
AMCDTo me, some of Kami’s works, the white Domes in particular, are very much about light and space, which connects to your architecture.
PMYes, I love those works. I’m a light freak. I rarely create any room without windows, in fact that’s what I’m known for in my retail work. I was the first architect to do a department store—Barneys—with windows and natural light.
AMCDHow did you first get involved in architecture?
PMI was a fine-arts student majoring in sculpture at Cornell, and I dropped the fine-arts major and became an architect. At the time, architectural training veered heavily toward engineering, but historically, up to World War II, fine-art education and drawing were much stronger requirements in becoming an architect. I’m very sad about that aspect of architectural education, because that’s why I think buildings look the way they do. In today’s world you have to have very, very rigorous engineering. And what does that mean? You need two years of advanced calculus, two years of mechanical engineering, and two years of civil engineering. But the combination of engineering with fine arts is critically important to successful architecture. You have to be much stronger than just the half of your brain that passes the engineering requirements. Frank Gehry comes from a very strong fine-arts background; Santiago Calatrava had two or three years of medical studies before going into architecture, he’s obsessed with the spine and the skeleton. The architects who don’t come from a strict engineering background are the ones who get touched with the magic wand. And it’s a little sad for society because 99 percent of what’s built is by the engineering half of someone’s brain and not the arts half. I know you need the engineering, my dad was an engineer. I used to draft on Saturdays so my dad would say I started college with a slight advantage, since I already knew how to draft and I wasn’t afraid of engineering. But all I’m going to say is that it’s not very common today to find somebody who’s okay in both advanced calculus and fine arts.
AMCDYou’re very fortunate to be inclined in both ways. Did you realize that right away or was it more—
PMOver time. As I said, I didn’t have a problem with math and engineering, but the really wonderful artist kids whose sketches were revolutionary and crazy—I still remember some from college—they didn’t make it through.
YZKDo you use a computer to draft?
PMThere’s no computer on my desk, I still draw everything by hand. I’m a dying breed. I worry that kids will lose the mind/hand connection, and that really is so important.
YZKThere’s an old saying that to get to the right brushstroke, the right touch, for a true work of art, there has to be a direct line from the mind to the heart to the hand.
AMCDKami, before we finish, I’d like to ask you what you’ve found most surprising and rewarding over the years in your friendship with Peter?
YZKOh, there are so many things that I love about Peter. The first thing is his heart. He’s kind-hearted. So kind-hearted. And then, his architecture.