ARTIST KEVIN BERLIN: Southampton Tomatoes to Miami Beach Nudes

Artist Kevin Berlin with "A Party That Never Happened" painting at the Nov. 28 opening of his solo show "Quarantine Nudes" at the Wilzig Erotic Art Museum during Miami's Miami Arts Week. Photo by Stashi Z Photography.

by Debbie Tuma

Artist Kevin Berlin has always been drawn to original, sensual, and even outlandish subjects, which make you see things in a new way. Most of his paintings have been huge, and done in black and white, capturing the New York City life of parties, street scenes, and city landmarks he saw from his former SoHo neighborhood. They were exhibited in galleries in NYC and Southampton, where he has also lived for many years.

But his latest series of “Tomato” paintings, which have been on display at the Oscar Molina Gallery in Southampton since summer, and remain there through January 1, are a departure, and a surprise. They evolved out of the COVID pandemic, when Kevin Berlin had moved to Florence, Italy, and found himself suddenly trapped in a lockdown.

Kevin Berlin and Oscar Molina of Oscar Molina Gallery in Southampton

“This was a very unusual, two-year period, because there were no parties in Italy, and for the first year the only way you could leave your house was for food or medicine,” he said. “Everybody was trying to borrow a dog, because then at least you could go for a walk.”

On his walks to the market, he picked up fresh produce, and saw red, ripe tomatoes everywhere. And they were in his house, so he decided to study and paint them. “To me, every tomato is a miracle,” he said. “In Italy, there are so many kinds–San Marzano, Grappolo (beefsteak), Ciliegini, (from Sicily), Florentine, Heirloom, and cherry tomatoes.”

Another departure from his former huge paintings filled with people and parties, is that the 12 paintings hanging in the Oscar Molina gallery are small and colorful, and can be bought as a single piece or grouped together. But Berlin brings his same sense of sensuality to the images of his tomatoes, rich and sumptuous in texture…a perfect complement to any kitchen or dining room wall. One tomato painting, called “Golden Tomato,” is framed in a handmade antique frame that Berlin found in Florence. “I also painted one with a watermelon next to the tomatoes,” he said. “But I found out the watermelon doesn’t last very long …I went through four of them in two weeks.”

While trapped in his Florence apartment during COVID, Berlin longed for the fun party scene he so loved, so he decided if he couldn’t go there, he would bring it to his canvas. “Since I couldn’t go to parties, I decided to paint the “Party that never happened,” he said. “A party that you wish you were invited to. It’s an homage to all the parties we missed in the last two years…. all the parties that never happened.” This 21 X 7 foot painting features more than 20 people in a palace in Florence, Italy… laughing, drinking, smoking, kissing and also includes Batman, Catwoman and a nude woman tied up. Little did he know that, two years later, this painting would get him into one of the biggest parties in the Miami art world, of international importance. It was Art Basel Miami Beach’s opening week, the biggest annual art event in North America. Berlin’s huge work of art is now hanging in the ground floor entrance of the Wilzig Erotic Art Museum (WEAM), in the heart of South Beach. This is the artist’s first solo museum show entitled “Kevin Berlin: Quarantine Nudes,” which also includes 60 more paintings featuring nudes in masks and gloves.

This museum was just expanded, and this solo show opening was on November 28, coinciding with Art Basel. Kevin Berlin flew down for this big event. The gigantic two-story museum was founded in 2005 by Naomi Wilzig, from Southampton Town, recently deceased at age 80. It houses her amazing life-long collection of over 4,000 erotic sculptures, paintings, photographs, and drawings from around the world, including Rembrandt, Picasso, Dali, and Mapplethorpe.

The Wilzig Erotic Art Museum has the largest privately held collection of erotic art in North America. It is also a library and education think-tank that uses its collection to illustrate the history of erotic art. Naomi Wilzig and her husband, banker Siggi Wilzig, had three children—Sherry Wilzig, Ivan Wilzig and Alan Wilzig. The “Wilzig brothers,” as they were known in the Hamptons, were known for their lavish parties.

The Wilzig Erotic Art Museum is located at 1205 Washington Avenue in Miami Beach, open daily 11 am to 6 pm year-round. The Kevin Berlin exhibition runs through May 29, 2023.