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21 Questions with the artist Dario Calmese

Photo-Illustration: Braking; Photo: Dario Studio

New York’s “21 Questions” returns with a focus on creative New Yorkers. Dario Calmese is the show director for the fashion brand Pyer Moss, professor at Parsons, ea 2023 Loeb fellow. In 2020 he became the first black photographer to do so shoot a cover of Vanity Fair. Calmese founded the Institute of Black Imaginationa platform on the black design, which includes a podcast and the opening of a library in the Oculus this fall.

First name: Dario Calmese
Age: 40
Quarter: Manhattanville
Occupation: Artist, urban planner, director and brand consultant

What hangs above your sofa?

Anything. I painted a grid on the wall to keep myself from over-decorating. I was like, If I do the wall decoration myself, I won’t put a lot of shit in it out of boredom. We, as humans, get bored very easily and try to fix it with small changes in our environment. Or just the accumulation of things. It’s really cool to work with limits and set rules.

What was the first job you had in New York?

I worked at Starbucks on 98th and Broadway. It was 2004 when I just moved to the city. It was hard work to get. I worked there because I didn’t get a job at Macy’s, and I was like, Are you kidding me?! It was my starter of how competitive NYC is.

What color are you always attracted to?

What about the wardrobe? Black, for pure efficiency. I also love gray, perhaps for its neutrality and coldness. When I think of the house I would design for myself, concrete is the material I would use.

Which artwork or artifact are you most surprised to own?

I have a sketch by the South African artist Nelson Makamo. I made the portrait of him out of pure love and desire, but it was not an official exchange. Sketch is not something I would have picked up at an art fair – let alone good or bad – but there is an intimate story behind it against a purely visual aesthetic desire.

Which New Yorker would you like to hang out with?

Fran Lebowitz. She is a consummate New Yorker, super hilarious, extremely straightforward and extremely cultured. She really reminds me of why I moved to New York, which is to find really strong individuals and characters. When I was an artist [Editor’s note: Calmese is trained in dance, acting, and singing], we were going to get New Yorkers to come and choreograph the shows and they weren’t easy people to work with. But in the end, you’ve always loved them more. There was a certain standard and rigor they had about their craft and their life that I feel like New York has lost. When I find myself in spaces that old school New Yorkers have, those spaces I love. These are people who are completely themselves. And Fran embodies it.

What’s the last thing you did with your hands?

Would taking a photograph count? So it would be Alvin Ailey’s last campaign. I’m not really smart. My artistic photography is about the body, surrealism and abstraction. The way I photograph seemed very sculptural to me. It seemed that the next step was sculpture, actually, to delve into Rodin rather than delve into photography. I wanted to take my gaze to another dimension, so I started doing body casting, which I thought of as a three-dimensional negative. Then I moved on to actual sculpture. The last thing I did with mine hands hands was an alabaster sculpture from a stone carving course I attended in 2018. It’s not finished.

Is there a thing that you have multiple versions of?

Books. I keep one copy as the pristine and beautiful version and another one that I mark. And sometimes another as a studio copy. I have multiple copies of Virgil Abloh Figures of speech and Roy De Carava The sound I saw.

Which New York museum do you always return to?

Cooper Hewitt. It is one of the few museums that looks at fashion through the lens of design. It offers multiple points of entry into design and the conversation about design: redefining what design is and how it affects our lives. A few years ago, I was in this funk that I couldn’t get out of. Cooper Hewitt held a beauty exhibit, and when I walked out of the show, my mood just got up. As André Leon Talley said, “I am hungry for beauty”.

What do you always have next to your computer?

A cup of coffee. I drink coffee all day. I could have a cup and then go to bed.

What is the best view in the city?

The best view is from Long Island City, near the Pepsi sign. But the view that gives me the feeling of being in the city is when I am crossing the Williamsburg Bridge towards Manhattan. Every time I come across that bridge there is a feeling of Oh bitch, I live in New York City.

Which building or object do you want to redesign every time you see it?

Trying to pick one that hurts my spirit every time I see it? Harlem Tavern on 116th and Frederick Douglass. It was one of the first big developments when everything was booming in Harlem and a new restaurant was opening every week. They have a really good turkey burger, but it might as well be in a mall in the Midwest. It doesn’t fit the neighborhood at all and it looks like a ton of bricks have just been dropped in the middle of Harlem. It was clear that it was not for the residents. It wasn’t for Harlem. It was for Columbia students to feel like they were having an experience in a beer garden. I totally agree with people walking into neighborhoods and opening restaurants, but you have to consider the space you are in.

What is one thing you would change in your field?

If we talk about photography, I would say: “Slow the fuck down”. Digital created this ridiculous amount of production needed for a photo shoot. You’re doing three times as much in half the time. There is a level of production required that will never be as powerful as you intended because you have not been given the time for that.

If you could live anywhere in New York, where would it be?

I really love Harlem, but if I didn’t live here it would be Chinatown or the East Village because I feel those are the last bastions of authentic New York.

What would you accumulate if it stopped being produced?

Copal incense, which smells slightly eucalyptus and woody with a little musk. It makes me feel involved in something ancient and sacred. It’s actually hard to find now so I usually buy a lot because I never know if I’ll find it again.

What do you do to get out of a creative routine?

I go to an exhibition or a gallery.

Where was your first apartment in New York and how much was the rent?

It was in Inwood on 204th and Cooper Streets, and my rent was $ 600. It was a two bedroom apartment and a friend of mine owned the apartment. She was never there because she lived in Aspen and only came twice a year to see her daughter for a weekend. I was very lucky. Then he lost it in a divorce settlement, but that’s another story.

Where do you go in town to be alone?

I’m alone most of the time at home or in my studio. Only is my default. So I go to places to see people. The fact that I’m out and social is a rare occurrence. If I want to be out of town thinking, I’ll take a walk down Morningside Avenue.

What’s the worst professional advice you’ve ever gotten?

“You should always look like your headshot.” Professionally, this was good advice. For developing myself as a person, this was bad advice because he kept me trapped in a frame. He kept me trapped in this representation of myself on a specific day. Much of my life and career has been about removing these expectations and restrictions. My occupation is “to become Dario”.

What have you given someone you would like to have back?

I’ll let him live, but I had a Jean Paul Gaultier leather corset that I gave to one of my assistants. I would like to have it back because it was really great. She is giving him another life, wearing it as if it were his.

What’s your favorite NYC restaurant and regular order?

Maison Harlem because it is so close. It is literally around the corner and has an amazing mix of old and new Harlem. If it’s brunch, I get French toast, home made fries with regular chips. For dinner, I’ll eat chicken paillard as a sandwich.

What descriptive phrase do you want on the title of your obit?

“Dario et disparu”, which in French means “Dario has disappeared”. My goal in life is to completely exhaust myself. I want to die like a raisin – like, Bitch, that’s all I have.

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