Life of the Party: Giovanni DeCunto
I’ll never forget the first time I saw Giovanni DeCunto. It was June 20, 2002, a big night for Boston—or at least for that thin slice of Boston that considers Kobe beef essential to a decent hamburger. Two big new restaurants were opening, with enough combined buzz to supply a bucketful of royal jelly. Then a staff writer at this magazine, I queued with the rest of the crush to get into Via Matta, the trattoria owned by Radius restaurateurs Michael Schlow and Christopher Myers. Across town, an equally hyped crowd was squeezing into the Nine Zero Hotel for the opening of its restaurant, Spire.
It was a balmy Thursday night, and by the time I arrived, the Via Matta party was already pouring through the potted plants onto the Park Square sidewalk. Inside, it was sardines: servers with canapé plates laboring to part the walls of cocktail dresses. It took about an hour to even make it to the dining room, where socialites struggled to hold forth over the din of club music.
And that’s when I spotted him.
Really, it was impossible to miss him. With a white ponytail and a chiseled face, he would have stood out from the crowd even if he were just standing still. But he wasn’t. Despite the throng, he had cleared a dance floor in the center of the room, and was now frenetically twirling a twentysomething in a series of full-on ballroom moves. It was like Al Pacino’s Scent of a Woman tango scene on speed. When he dispensed with one girl, he immediately reached for another, while those of us on the fringes traded stage whispers about the crazy old guy.
In the years following that night, I saw him repeatedly at parties—always with the slicked-back ponytail and open shirt, and always spinning women on the dance floor. I assumed he was a party crasher, figuring no one that flamboyant could be on a guest list in Boston. I was not the only one. “He’s kind of an urban legend,” says a longtime restaurant manager. “He’s very suave, very unique-looking, and he’s always got the ladies with him.”
Then, this past October, I saw him again. I was attending a fashion show for Boston-Argentine designer Daniela Corte in a small Fort Point warehouse space, when he began pulling women onto the dance floor. One of them happened to be my wife, a woman not normally given to dancing with strange men. She tried to extricate herself several times, pleading a lack of affinity for dancing; each time, he pulled her back, reassuring her that she could keep up. Finally, in a moment by the bar, my wife turned to a much younger man with curly dark hair who was standing nearby. “Isn’t that the party crasher?” she yelled.
“I’m more of a party crasher than he is,” the dark-haired man shot back. “He’s actually a famous artist.”
I found this hard to believe, to say the least. But then I looked DeCunto up online. I found out that he was indeed an artist, with his own studio in the North End, and I phoned his curly-haired guest, Alex Adeli, who had introduced himself as DeCunto’s “representative.” As it turned out, Adeli was a Back Bay dentist. “Well, I am a dentist by profession,” he told me. “But I am also a good friend of Giovanni’s. I am helping him to get the word out about his art.” Toward that end, he invited me to come visit DeCunto’s studio.
A few weeks later, I am descending the stairs into the basement of a parochial school in the North End. When I enter the space, I’m unprepared for the visceral impact of DeCunto’s work. Front and center is a six-foot-tall canvas of a face with eyes closed and lips half-parted, emerging from multiple layers of gold and amber paint as if from lava; close up, the layers look like buttes and canyons of a bas-relief topographical map.
Some of the pieces on the walls depict familiar subjects, such as celebrities—Michael Jackson, Robert De Niro, Barack Obama—while others are abstract supernovas of color. Still other works take on political themes, with collages of images deconstructed through different levels of paint. An American flag ripped by an explosion of gold paint and what appear to be fragments of real dollar bills seems an obvious critique of capitalism, until you notice the images of national icons embedded into the paint—John Wayne, Superman, the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz—turning the painting into a pastiche of everything America holds sacred.
While DeCunto’s style isn’t for everyone, the impact of so many large, swirling canvases is arresting. “When I saw that first piece, I felt like my feet were cement blocks,” says Jarred Sper, an event producer in New York City who is working to line up a show there for DeCunto. “I couldn’t move for three or four minutes.” He’s not alone. Those who have commissioned work from DeCunto, I come to find out, include everyone from local developer Joe Fallon to first lady Barbara Bush.
“I told my mother when I was five years old that I was an artist,” says DeCunto, sitting down to talk in his studio with an “r”-dropping accent that immediately punctures any illusion of European sophistication. He was born John Pasquale DeCunto in the decaying mill town of Lawrence; growing up, he was known as Pasquale. (He changed his name to Giovanni, his father’s name, on the advice of an art agent.) His father was a dancer in Hollywood, twirling with the likes of Rita Hayworth and Lana Turner. He married his last partner, DeCunto’s mother; when she got pregnant, she asked him to come back east.
DeCunto’s father fell ill when his son was only seven. He remained in the hospital for decades, leaving the family poor and young DeCunto defending his twin sisters from backstreet bullies. The children idealized their parents’ show-business past, creating their own dance routines after school. And indeed, DeCunto’s sisters eventually became showgirls in Las Vegas. But DeCunto himself set out on a different course: art. Even though he repeatedly was kicked out of school for spending his time drawing, he never wavered. He sold his first painting, a copy of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, to a friend’s mother for $35 when he was 12 years old.
Though he graduated near the bottom of his high school class in 1969, DeCunto received a scholarship to a commercial art school in Boston. He dropped out after a year in order to pursue the Old Masters he’d idolized growing up. For the next decade he studied their paintings relentlessly, and appealed to anyone he thought might agree to tutor him. One of those was Napoleon Setti, the Rockport artist who designed stained glass windows for the National Cathedral and New York’s St. John the Divine. “I am a hunter,” says DeCunto. “I am very competitive, because if you don’t compete you never know how good you can be.”
Then, in 1983, MIT hired DeCunto to do a portrait of Harold “Doc” Edgerton, the engineering professor who invented modern flash photography. “Somebody finally listened,” DeCunto says. “Then I had to go back and say, ‘How the hell am I going to do this portrait?’ I was scared to death.” The finished portrait, though, was more than a success: It made DeCunto’s career. Different versions of the painting found their way into the MIT Museum, the Fogg, and the Smithsonian, and DeCunto landed a scholarship to study art history at Boston University.
While there, he received a call from Rex Scouten, the curator of the White House. Scouten had seen DeCunto’s work in the Smithsonian, and told him that he was under consideration to do Ronald Reagan’s official portrait. DeCunto’s politics didn’t exactly match the president’s; still, a few weeks later, DeCunto found himself sitting across from the curator in the room next to the Oval Office. “He said, ‘How can I help you?'” remembers DeCunto. “And I said, ‘No, how can I help you? Because everything in my life has led me to this point here and now.'”
That forthrightness charmed the art lover, and while DeCunto didn’t get the Reagan portrait, Scouten did introduce him to Barbara Bush, who later commissioned him to make a painting for her literacy campaign. The piece now hangs in the George Bush Presidential Library.
By the time he received the Bush commission, DeCunto had developed his own unique style of painting—one that doesn’t use brushes. He hit upon the idea after returning from another scholarship to study Renaissance artwork in Padua, Italy. Realizing he’d never contribute anything if he only copied the Old Masters, he began stripping down his work and combining styles that ranged from baroque to impressionist to pop. “I thought I’d take all the major movements, find the thread that links them together, and amalgamate them,” DeCunto says. Somewhere along the way, he discovered that his tools were just slowing him down. He began throwing paint directly onto the canvas from gallon jugs, or pressing it in from tubes, each layer negating the one that came before. “It’s like destroying, creating, destroying, creating, destroying, creating,” he says.
That style has garnered its share of attention. In the 1990s Reebok hired him to paint portraits of sports figures for its company headquarters in Canton, and in 2005 Survivor contestant Amber Brkich gave one of his paintings to her fiancé, “Boston Rob” Mariano, on an ABC special documenting their wedding.
DeCunto’s latest coup came this past November, when Tom Cruise booked the entire second floor of the North End’s Bricco for a quiet dinner to celebrate his and wife Katie Holmes’s third anniversary. As a special gift for the couple, Bricco owner Frank De Pasquale asked DeCunto to paint a portrait of them, which was then set up on an easel next to their table when the actors arrived. On his way out, Cruise met DeCunto in the bar downstairs. “I’ll cherish this forever,” the actor told him, before lunging into a bear hug.
The success has made DeCunto comfortable enough: His paintings sell for anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000, depending on size and artistic merit. But the work itself takes its toll. “Painting’s a bitch,” he says. “I get psychotic. I won’t answer the door, I won’t answer the phone. When I’m painting, it’s forever.”
To release the tension, DeCunto hits the posh Sports Club/LA, where he is a fixture—in paint-splattered shoes and sweatpants—pedaling like a demon on a stationary bike up to 10 miles a day. Yet his main outlet is the one he learned in childhood: dancing. “That’s my moment to be onstage,” he says. “It’s like a rejoicing.”
DeCunto says it’s his friends who drag him out to parties. He was invited to the Daniela Corte show by the DJ, Edward Grant Stuart, whom he had met years ago in a gym class and who used to automatically put DeCunto on the guest list when he spun as resident DJ at Pravda 116 and La Boom. “[DeCunto] gets an energy going,” says Stuart. “You have people posing and acting, and he comes in wanting to dance and express himself.” Other friends invite DeCunto out for the same reason. “He is a wild man,” says Charles Maksou, style director at the Mizu salon in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. “You put him in a party and he fills up the room with energy. He is a true artist.”
Most often, DeCunto’s entourage includes Adeli, the dentist, as well as Ed Amaral Jr., a North End divorce attorney. “If you are out, he rarely talks,” says Adeli. “If there are good drinks and good music, he dances the night away while everyone is standing around wondering what the hell just happened.” Despite their lack of an art background, Adeli and Amaral formed a company, Giovanni LLC, to promote DeCunto’s work—starting with his first show in New York this spring. “His paintings should be selling for 10 times what they are selling for now,” says Amaral. “People don’t take him as seriously as he should be.”
In part, Amaral admits, that’s because of DeCunto’s party-boy behavior. In 2008 DeCunto did a live painting at a charity auction for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital (for which Amaral frequently raises money) at the Wang Theatre. When the salsa music came on, DeCunto hit the dance floor, spinning Channel 7 news anchor and event emcee Frances Rivera and another woman simultaneously. “Here he is, doing this amazing work of art, and the next second he’s downstairs pulling tablecloths and dancing with flowers in his mouth,” says Amaral. “I always say there is a fine line between genius and insanity, and I hope he falls on the right side of that line.”
DeCunto has been married once—to a 21-year-old Brazilian singer, with whom he moved to Brazil for several years before getting a divorce. The experience hardly soured him on romance, though. A few days after I meet DeCunto in his studio, we go out on the town, meeting first for drinks at the North End restaurant Lucca. DeCunto is preoccupied by a painting, taking until his second glass of white wine to even get his coat off. After he does, he shoots long glances at our waitress. “She has a real regal look,” he muses. “I wonder if she is a dancer.” When she comes back with the check, he asks her just that.
We grab a cab to the Liberty Hotel, where a fashion show is going on, drum and bass pounding while Christmas lights climb the balconies and cocktails crowd the bar. “I might get bored,” DeCunto warns as we walk in. “This is not really my scene.” No matter. In almost no time at all he is circulating through the crowd, greeting several partygoers, stopping to talk with a pair of women by the bar.
DeCunto insists he isn’t hitting on the women he pulls onto the dance floor. “It’s not a sexual thing,” he says. “It’s just dancing. I can tell if a girl wants to dance—it’s a premonition.” Adeli says he’s seen many women melt under DeCunto’s attentions. “Maybe for the first couple of minutes, they are, like, Who is this weirdo?” he says. “After three or four minutes, they realize that he is 10 times the dancer they are and are trying to keep up.”
Not everyone is impressed, though. “He shows up to parties with kids just out of college,” says a South End restaurant manager, who asked not to be named. “At a certain point, that’s not okay. He’s very nice, so I can see the attraction, but I don’t get it.” For his part, DeCunto is defiant about remaining youthful: “You’ll never get my age,” he says. If he’s aware of the impropriety of an older man hauling a twentysomething socialite to the dance floor, he doesn’t show it. “I’m in an extended state of adolescence,” he says.
There’s no dance music tonight at the Liberty, however, and it’s not long before DeCunto is standing to one side, watching the procession of dark jackets and little black dresses. “You see these people and their haircuts, all trying to fit in,” he sighs. “It’s the job of the artist to open it up.” Just then, a model he’s been looking for all night walks by, and he brightens. “He’s the greatest,” she gushes, kissing him on the cheek. “She’s going to be in my next video,” DeCunto says, referring to his latest project: performance art in which he paints designer dresses while models are wearing them.
Hang out with DeCunto long enough, and you realize that this part of his life is also his work. Sometimes his actions are cringe-inducing (as when he tells a waitress, “I’m getting hungry just looking at you”), but his magnetism is real. Countless times, the people we pass think they know him. “Are you from St. Thomas?” a man calls after him at the party. “Sure!” DeCunto shouts back without stopping. A woman on the street reaches out to get his attention, and he kisses her on the cheek. I watch him strike up conversations with everyone—a Bentley dealer, a busboy. He almost comes to blows with a punk with a pencil-line beard after DeCunto asks him if he’s the valet; a few minutes later they are hugging.
DeCunto takes the role of an artist—the one he decided on early in life—very seriously. “I have a way of pissing people off,” he admits. “If there is a boundary, I will find it. But they won’t stay pissed off. Because my job is to have no boundaries.” Seen that way, his antics don’t detract from his art: They are part of it, as important as anything hanging on his studio wall.