For Romero Britto, luck and charm trump talent

On a recent Saturday, millionaire pop artist Romero Britto awoke from a terrifying nightmare. In the dream, planet Earth had lost gravity. Everything in the world — shiny cars, well-groomed children, pet hamsters, and pepperoni pizzas — swirled into the air around him. Nothing was in its place. He sat up in bed, frightened.

Other artists might have turned the vision into a surrealistic painting full of angst. But Britto paints only happy subjects: smiling kittens, dancing clowns, and polka-dot palm trees.

"There's enough stress and ugliness in the world," the freckle-faced 46-year-old artist says a few days later as he stands next to an enormous painting of an elf inside his studio. "Why would I want to create more?"

Not a drop of paint stains his hands or clothing as he works. His studio looks fit for MTV's Cribs: There are Dolce & Gabbana shopping bags on the floor, a glittery green bicycle, and photos of the artist with Michael Jackson. There is also a Romero Britto bobblehead, an American flag, and — for reasons not entirely clear — several old-fashioned top hats. Techno music thumps. This is where Miami's most successful artist creates.

"Come here," he says with laser-beam eye contact. "Let me show you something."

The artist pulls out a black magic marker and quickly scribbles the cartoonish face of a girl. Then he dunks a paintbrush in red and makes a single dot on her mouth. The mark will signal to his assistants — who do the painting for him — the intended color of her lips.

The whole creative process takes him two and a half minutes. When the painting is completed by his low-wage workers, it will sell for about $30,000.

An international celebrity, Britto is one of the highest-paid commercial artists in the nation, netting a reported $12 million a year. He has the business of art down to a factory-like science. And people like it: George W. Bush hangs Brittos in his home. So does Whitney Houston, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Michael Jordan.

In Miami, a place that's still grasping for a cultural identity, Britto patterns have spread like a Skittles-colored virus. They can be found in virtually every crevice of Miami-Dade: at Sun Life Stadium, the Shops at Midtown, Miami Children's Museum, and Dadeland Station. You can see them from causeways and expressways. Car dealerships sell Britto-designed Mini Coopers. Workers at Miami International Airport wear Britto uniforms. Tourists on Lincoln Road shop for Britto luggage, dishes, high heels — even yarmulkes.

If, as detractors say, the Magic City is a shimmering veneer where people would rather read Cosmo than The New Yorker and talk about shoes instead of news, the land that brought you Vanilla Ice and butt implants has found an internationally recognized visual brand that has the color and substance of Laffy Taffy.

"Miami is still gestating — it's a fetus," says art critic and Miami Dade College professor Ricardo Pau-Llosa. "It's not a city; it's an airport surrounded by shopping malls — and we get everything that comes with that, including Romero Britto. He is Miami."

Pau-Llosa, who recently donated his Latin American art collection to Notre Dame University, calls Britto's work "phony baloney" and "hideous crap."

His opinion is in line with just about every respected artist, museum curator, and art professor in the country. Not one art publication has critiqued Britto's work. Nor has a respected museum purchased his art.

Pulitzer Prize-nominated art critic and New York Magazine columnist Jerry Saltz has an almost physical reaction to Britto's work. "Oh my God is he unoriginal," Saltz says. "It's sentimental, obvious, and empty. Let me put it this way: No one in the art world would say this is good."

After doing a Google search for Britto, whom he had never heard of, New York Sun art critic David Cohen calls his paintings simply "unchallenging."

"He looks like a sort of Liberace of visual art," Cohen says, referring to the flamboyant pianist who played schmaltzy classics under a chandelier.

Britto — who comes off like a sweet and unassuming airhead — doesn't take the criticism seriously. "It's a very small group of people who don't like it," he explains. "When you are successful, people are going to be jealous."

He might seem clueless, but Britto is actually a shrewd, calculating, and brilliant salesman. He surrounds himself with those who worship him and seeks out the rich and famous who will oil the deals that make him millions. "He is the most creative, limitless talent I have ever met," says Alina Shriver, CEO of Shriver Art. "I have never met anybody who does not love Romero Britto."

While critics loathe his work, the masses love it. If the low-paid employees who crank out his mass-produced paintings find him temperamental, sometimes even tyrannical, the charities that benefit from the hundreds of thousands of dollars he gives annually see him as a selfless saint.

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Natalie O'Neill
Contact: Natalie O'Neill