The Real Deal New York

Paint the townhouse red

Bad-boy artist Domingo Zapata creates edgy work in a traditional Gramercy Park setting
By Zachary Kussin | July 04, 2014 07:00AM

Close your eyes and envision the general scene in the hit TV series “Downton Abbey.” There’s a palatial estate that houses stunning works of art. There’s a butler and a kitchen full of treats. Outside, there’s green space. Now imagine how this would translate to 21st-century New York City with a hip resident, and the result is the Gramercy Park home of artist Domingo Zapata.

Here, a friendly butler — who this day is dressed in a pink Polo shirt, indigo jeans and black dress shoes — leads a visitor through this triplex portion of a 19th-century townhouse, whose cream-toned interior boasts standing Medieval suits of armor and patterned Louis XIV wall paneling, as well as Zapata’s own large-scale and brightly colored paintings. Instead of tea, the butler offers milkshakes from Shake Shack, of which there were two shelves full in the refrigerator from a charity auction held here the night before. The juxtapositions of old and new, formal and fun, bright and subdued are not only on display throughout the 8,600-square-foot triplex, but also embody the artist himself.

“It’s my head, it’s my mind,” said Zapata, 39, gesticulating with purple paint-stained hands, of these myriad contrasts. He’s wearing a crisp, black buttoned-down shirt that shows off his tattooed arms, one of which sports an oversized watch. “If you could make a hole in my brain and look at it, you would see this.”

Not surprisingly, Zapata’s artwork, on display throughout the spacious digs, gives the biggest glimpse into his antithetical mind. On one end of his second-floor dining room hang his renditions of the iconic Mona Lisa portrait: One is wearing a gold crown, another has an X for a mouth and another bears the oxidized headpiece of the Statue of Liberty. Across the room, standing by the windows that overlook the garden, are two mounted chaquetillas — traditional jackets worn by bullfighters in Zapata’s native Spain — that are covered in layers of colorful paint. The wall next to the home’s sweeping staircase exhibits a large-scale crucifixion of Jesus Christ, with pops of pink, yellow and gold, and a painted “Do you believe?” on its right-hand side.

There’s yet another contrast present inside the space on this cloudy day: a palpable silence in a home that is best known for buzzing with company. Every week or two, the gregarious Zapata welcomes actors, writers, musicians and artists into his rental home for a salon-style dinner discussion on what’s happening in the arts. Such guests have included Salman Rushdie, Ron Burkle and Lindsay Lohan — the latter of whom Zapata denied romancing in early May.

Zapata said the process of hosting these gatherings is “organic.” Though he has help with the pre-party cleaning and food preparations, he insists they’re generally spur-of-the-moment, casual hangouts with intellectual types. “I always like to hang out with creative people,” Zapata said. “I always said I am a painter and what I like to do is make the world a little more beautiful, and let all these other people who know so much more about other things make it a better place.”

Of course, not every gathering Zapata hosts is intimate — sometimes he throws big bashes, and sometimes he hosts fundraisers. Last fall, for example, the painter held a fund-raiser for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign; guests included “Million Dollar Listing New York” star Ryan Serhant and hotelier Vikram Chatwal. “He said I redefined the [phrase] ‘studio apartment,’” said Zapata of the mayor, who, having admitted to house envy, was punning on Zapata’s capacious live/work digs.

Zapata’s work area is a spacious room on the second floor, the parlor level, which also contains the dining room. Visible from street level, Zapata’s studio looks out onto the exclusive Gramercy Park — for which Zapata has a key — and lets in good light through three floor-to-ceiling windows. “This is where the magic happens,” he said.

A turn away from the windows gives way to a stunning view of the classic-looking room. In yet another unexpected contrast, ornate moldings hang over roughly 20 large and bold paintings made by Zapata, awaiting their finishing touches. A Steinway grand piano, which Zapata doesn’t play (the instrument was already in the partially furnished rental) stands next to a fireplace that’s topped by a large mirror sheathed in original moldings. One can only imagine that the European masters also worked in studios with such period details. There’s also a cushy, moss-colored velvet sofa off to the side, which comes in handy. “Sometimes I don’t leave my house for a week or two if I’m working,” Zapata said. “I stay here, I sleep on the couch and I work. I’m entranced. I just think of painting and colors and beautiful fantasies … it’s a great experience. It’s like being high for a week.”

The ceiling is 14 feet above the paper-covered, paint-splotched floor; look up and there’s a traditional plaster rosette with an equally-as-vintage chandelier, as well as a new paper mural that spans the ceiling and surrounds the fixture entirely. It’s Zapata’s favorite piece in the home. A modern interpretation of a scene from Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights,” it features peach-colored nudes interacting with green land and assorted wildlife.

Zapata’s previous artistic setting wasn’t quite spacious enough to accommodate both work and life. Before moving into the Gramercy Park digs last July, he lived in the Bowery Hotel’s 2,300-square-foot penthouse, where everything was located on one floor, making space a concern. “I was living in my own painting,” he said of his prior digs. “It was a little bit intense.” So he sought out a larger home, this one with four bedrooms and three bathrooms, mainly to secure more space for his art and, of course, his young children: Domingo Jr., 6, and Paul, 5. They live upstate with their mother, but visit their dad regularly.

“I like this area,” he said of Gramercy Park. “It makes me feel sometimes that I’m not in New York City. The one thing that I love most about New York is the energy —but at the same time it’s the one thing that I fear the most because it can be very intense and overwhelming.”

At home, he finds escape. When he’s not in heavy creative mode, he takes his morning coffee and the New York Times, ironed crisp by his butler — “We think it’s funny,” said Zapata of how he and his butler feel of this presentation — across the street to the park to start his day. But even in the heat of busy work and frequent company, Zapata finds tranquility indoors. The dark wood-paneled library on the ground floor is his favorite space in the home. It provides peace and quiet under the soft glow of a small light fixture hanging from above. Other Old World details include a gramophone, displayed near the built-in bookcases, and an original fireplace. Fittingly, however, there are incongruous touches to this old-school space: Over the mantel hangs a photograph by Patrick McMullan of Andy Warhol (whom Zapata considers an inspiration); close by is a New York Rangers hockey stick.

The triplex’s uppermost level is where the bedrooms are located. There, Zapata is apt to zone out and watch TV. (See, celebrity painters! They’re just like us!). “I love ‘Law and Order,’” he said of the crime drama, which he watches in his large bedroom on a wide television. “I’m addicted to it. When I’m not working, that’s what I’m doing.”

A black-painted slogan, “life is a dream,” graces one of his bedroom’s walls — and in Zapata’s case, that’s a statement of fact. Zapata lived in the Bronx when he first moved to New York 15 years ago and didn’t have much money in his pocket. His artistic aspirations reigned, but he worked in corporate finance for five years, until his painting career blossomed after mounting a piece from his equestrian-themed Polo series at a show at the Chelsea home of Michael Borrico, a contractor and polo enthusiast. From there, his career took off: Today, Zapata’s work can sell for six figures, and his clients include the likes of George Soros, Pat Riley and Leonardo DiCaprio.

“For me, life is a dream right now,” he said. “A dream that I hope I never wake up from.”