‘A fashion designer at Bergdorf Goodman calls me a contemporary Lautrec,” crows Peter Zonis, who has been selling his colorful work outside Barneys for the past two years—and is quite possibly the city’s highest-end street artist. Buyers of his paintings, which run from $200 to $1,000, include Joe Namath, Robert De Niro, and a slew of restaurant owners. Score one for Zonis’s pretty if rather overbearing Aussie manager, Elle Petrincic, who takes full credit for her client’s now making thousands of dollars a week rather than, as in his previous life, $10 an hour at the MoMA bookstore.
“When I met him, he was just a tortured bloody artist,” she says with disgust. “I made him switch to oil pastels.” (She also made him go to a cosmetic dentist.) And when Hemingway winked at her in a dream (don’t ask), she realized Zonis, 45, should sell his stuff on the street. “It looks like whatever,” she says, gesturing toward the art, “but our client list is this thick.” One collector, Peter Heidt, a senior vice-president at Prudential Securities, says Zonis has all the marks of future fame: “He has this dominatrix-type manager. He’s like the Andy Warhol of our generation.”
Like Warhol, Zonis knows just how to play to his clients’ egos. On Petrincic’s advice, he started painting restaurants like Rao’s, Nello,La Goulue, and Orsay. Sure enough, the restaurants’ owners or their friends—like bears stumbling into so many traps—snapped them up. A friend of Rocco DiSpirito’s saw a painting of Rocco’s restaurant and called DiSpirito, who bought it right away. (Wasn’t the TV show enough?) “I was just so flattered any artist would want to paint it,” says DiSpirito. The self-titled “restaurant guru of Madison Avenue artists,” Zonis seems quite happy, but as usual, Petrincic sneers at his complacency: “I’ll wring Ben Stiller’s neck if he doesn’t play Zonis in the movie.”