How Sweet It Is: Meet Raphael Castoriano, the Man Behind Dessert Art

Fear not the frosting ninjas

  • A few hours before the Whitney Museum’s annual Art Party last month, Raphael Castoriano, a trim man with close cropped salt and pepper hair, was on a small stage, lining the inside of a coffin with silver paper. “Nobody knows what the fuck is happening,” he told The Observer conspiratorially. “Nobody knows nothing.” By “nobody,” he meant 10 of his friends, whom he’d summoned to the Skylight Soho event space without telling them why. By “nothing,” he meant the limited-edition prints of Kalup Linzy, the artist who would be performing that evening, wearing a flower in his hair and a sleeveless gown. His friends would be handing out the prints to hundreds of guests. “You don’t just come to a happening,” Mr. Castoriano said giddily. “You are part of it.”

    That, however, wasn’t his main event for the evening. Back to that coffin, into which workers were unloading small plastic cups from a cooler. He snatched one of them up; at close range, it looked like a delicate glass flower. Squeezing it gently, he marveled, “It’s a gelatin.”

    Later that night, Mr. Linzy would mount the stage and sing soul songs as a memorial for his character Taiwan, and then dinner guests would eat the gelatin flowers, which would never have been made if Mr. Castoriano hadn’t called Mr. Linzy and convinced him that wonderful things would happen if he would agree to team up with Guido Mogni, the chef at San Ambroeus. “I couldn’t really wrap my head around how my work could be made as a dessert,” Mr. Linzy said, recalling his initial reaction.

    Desserts, which tend to cause sensations these days, can be appreciated on an aesthetic level—as objects, perhaps even as artworks: that perfect dollop of frosting on a Magnolia Bakery cupcake, the inventive excess of Momofuku’s crack pies, those elegant pastel stacks of Ladurée macarons. Even without its aesthetic effect, though, dessert is, at its most basic level, similar to art: something you certainly don’t need, but really want. A touch of sweetness that can be added to life, provided you—think of weight for the dieter, money for the collector—can afford it.

    All of which makes Mr. Castoriano’s company, Kreëmart, a pretty clever one. Kreëmart pairs artists with pastry chefs for what can only be described as dessert editions, dessert performances, dessert happenings. For one of its first outings, at an American Patrons of Tate event at Haunch of Venison gallery three years ago, Mickalene Thomas had topless strippers pop small slices of rum-filled red velvet cakes by Bob Spiegel into guests’ mouths. And Argentinian artist Leandro Erlich, with Mr. Mogni, made an exact replica of a Mies van der Rohe couch out of cake; eating it required crouching down on the floor.

    Both of those were, well, pieces of cake compared to the Kreëmart-catered party during Art Basel Miami Beach last November, for which German artist Anselm Reyle, who is known for his shiny, fluorescent artworks, wanted to make a glow-in-the-dark cake. “Raphael was going crazy, looking all over the world trying to find the right ingredients,” Carolina Montoya of Miami’s Unique Designer Cakes told The Observer by phone. She and her husband developed a special formula and voilà, the blue frosting glowed as brightly as a Tron character.

    Then there were the monkeys. At his Midtown office recently, Mr. Castoriano, holding one half of a life-size hollow plastic banana, recalled a Kreëmart performance by artist Olaf Breuning during an event hosted by W magazine and American Patrons of Tate last year. (Kreëmart events are, essentially, happenings for hire. They are financed by whatever organization asks for one, or by a sponsor.) The bananas were filled with banana ice cream from the Lower East Side’s Laboratorio del Gelato.

    “This was given out by these monkeys who became completely wild,” he said. Growing up and learning English in Argentina, Brazil, France, Italy and the United States has left the 46-year-old with one of those vaguely European but essentially unplaceable accents that seem to function as a form of currency in today’s globetrotting art world; his speech is heavily italicized. “They got out of control, the monkeys.” (To be clear, these were humans, including a few topless women, made up as grinning chimps with electric yellow hair.)

    “We have several rooms in the palace here at Kreëmart,” Mr. Castoriano bubbled. He puts the emphasis on the second syllable of his company’s name, as though to hammer home the art part. Willy Wonka-like, he led the way through his modest offices. “And they’re all made of sugar.” He might have meant the art on the walls, by a grab bag of mid-career and established stars: a Richard Prince collage, a large, washed-out photograph of a Roman statue by Juergen Teller and a sculpture by Josephine Meckseper that he bought from “my dear friend,” the Chelsea art dealer Elizabeth Dee. “Elizabeth,” he recalled telling her upon seeing the piece, “this—I’m sorry—it’s mine.”

    In one room of his palace, he introduced us to an intern, Victoria Yee Howe, a curator, zine publisher and, to his delight, a pastry chef. She used to run a dessert project called the Chinatown Cake Club, a speakeasy of sorts, for which she invited small numbers of people to her apartment for dessert tastings that included cakes with images of works by David Wojnarowicz, Gerhard Richter and Cindy Sherman. “When we interviewed I thought, ‘Okay, great, do you want to come on board 24 hours seven?’” he said.

    It’s an exaggeration, but not much of one. When he’s not orchestrating dessert happenings, Mr. Castoriano is an art advisor, and 24 hours seven is how many people like him in the art world seem to operate. He sees himself as someone who helps his clients push the envelope of art collecting. “Always my whole thing is to instigate my clients to take a daring step, not where everybody chewed already,” he said in his office.

    Sometimes the daring step is into the past. At Art Basel last month, he paused at the booth of photography gallery Edwyn Houk to admire a shot from the mid 1930s by the Hungarian photographer Brassaï. “All of my clients, I oblige them to do vintage photography,” he said. “That’s the basis. You want to do modern, you have to do classical. Photography is the medium. It’s fascinating.”

    Both Kreëmart and his advising capitalize on what is apparently a prodigious Rolodex. “He’s really one of those people who knows everyone,” said the art dealer David Maupin, co-proprietor of Lehmann Maupin gallery. When Maurizio Cattelan needed a cake that was a perfect trompe l’œil of a bathroom wall, complete with a roll of toilet paper, for the inauguration of the artist’s “Toilet Paper Lounge”-—it doubled as art writer Linda Yablonsky’s birthday party and was held in her apartment-—he called on Kreëmart.

    Scouting the aisles of the Frieze Art Fair last October, Mr. Castoriano carried in his duffel bag a chocolate nose. He’d flown to London from Moscow, where he’d done a performance with Marina Abramović in which guests were given sugar molds of Ms. Abramović’s nose during the dinner and dark chocolate noses as souvenirs. They were a limited edition, but, given his stated ambitions to expand Kreëmart into “an industry,” they may yet end up on the shelves of Dean and Deluca.

    Ms. Abramović, whom Mr. Castoriano counts among his friends—in Basel he attended the private opening for her Robert Wilson-directed opera The Life and Death of Marina Abramović—has been game for several Kreëmart projects and has done wonders for Mr. Castoriano’s PR: a 2009 video on The Wall Street Journal’s website thathas James Franco interviewing her during the construction of an elaborate dessert, including the chocolate and gold leaf molds of her lips that ended up as the grande finale for the dinner ending her two-and-a-half-month-long retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. “I was hoping that I could offer to the guests a part of my body,” she told The Observer. For the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles gala in November, the same one where she controversially had nude performers on some dinner tables, Kreëmart got Rosebud Cakes in Beverly Hills to make a cake of the artist’s naked body, along with one of Debbie Harry (who “had something called a landing strip, which I had never heard of,” Rosebud’s owner, Elin Katz, said. “But we accomplished it.”) During the event, the two women savaged the cakes with butcher knifes, carving out their own hearts. Artforum quoted one guest wondering whether the performance was “all about violence against women” and calling it “disgusting.” Ms. Abramović, as should probably go without saying, doesn’t see it that way. She told The Observer, “Offering up parts of our bodies in this way could be seen as the ultimate gesture of generosity.”

    “I don’t want to be a fried egg,” Mr. Castoriano said at Art Basel. He was talking about his reason for starting Kreëmart—the need he’d felt to branch out beyond art advising. Other advisers, he pointed out, have been expanding their repertoires. Like Thea Westreich, who, along with her husband, Ethan Wagner, started publishing books and organizing exhibitions.

    He didn’t want to transition to running a gallery, in part because he’d already done that. Despite resistance from his father, an industrialist who didn’t want him involved in the arts, he opened his first gallery in the late 1980s, when he was a student at Parsons School of Design and NYU. It was on Park Avenue South, which had a different feel then. “There were lots of whores,” he said gravely. “Whoretown was, like, 26, 27, 19th street, you know.” He paused. “Nobody ever asks me about my past, but now I’m telling you.”

    He did around 10 shows, including some of the German Neo-Expressionist painters who were in vogue at the time. “They were the hottest shit ever; now they sell for two dollars fifty.” But it all fell apart after he and his business partner, who was also his romantic partner, had a falling out. “She destroyed the whole thing with an ax.” Literally. That was in 1990, and it was just as well since the air was fast leaking out of the art-market boom.

    “What are you good at?” he said he asked himself in the aftermath. “Decorating—whatever. I met this Italian woman who did mosaics. Oh, how nice, mosaics, this and that. It was crazy. We had lots of fun and became partners. God, you know, one falls in love with all these women.” Through that job he gradually came to know art dealers and by the end of the 1990s, he said, he considered himself an adviser.

    These days, his friends describe him as a family man. “No more women for me for the moment,” he said. “I did that and bought the t-shirt.” Last year, he curated the menu at his son’s “bling-bling” bar mitzvah, at the former Dia Foundation building in Chelsea: the food was puréed and served in tubes. “It was like walking into a fantasy world,” recalled the artist Ryan McNamara, who has since done two Kreëmart projects. At the Art Basel Miami Beach event in November, Mr. McNamara presented an oversize cake printed with an image of his debit card—a pointed gesture in the midst of the tony art fair, as Occupy Wall Street was in full swing. (“Let them eat cake” was hardly, it turns out, the last time dessert became a political gesture). Two months earlier, at another Kreëmart event, he’d had ninjas attack a tiered white cake. “Their only weapon was these frosting bags,” he explained. “They really just wanted to make your cake more delicious.”

    Kreëmart’s services are increasingly in demand. Last week, Mr. Castoriano was in Rio de Janeiro, planning an event for September’s ArtRio fair; he’s keeping the details a secret for now. As usual, he’ll be directing, if not indulging. Aside from the occasional pear tart at Nolita pâtisserie Ceci-Cela, “I don’t eat much of sweet,” he said in his offices. “I’ll taste. I know when it’s good.”

    editorial@observer.com

    Sarah Douglas contributed reporting.