Shortly before his full-length portrait was unveiled at Second Street’s Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection, nightlife chronicler Michael Musto quipped, “I haven’t been to church since the Limelight closed.” Many in the boisterous, expectant crowd cheered, but a few groaned, perhaps lamenting the loss of that 1980s-to-’90s haven for club kids, housed in a deconsecrated church on Sixth Avenue.
Attired in a gold-trimmed burgundy tunic that wouldn’t be out of place at a Renaissance fair, Musto informed the crowd that he had not yet seen the portrait, titled Arch of Thorns, but that he had full confidence in Fernando Martin Diez-Cabeza’s skill, having seen other of the Spanish-born artist’s oil portraits — including one of Archdeacon Michael W. Suvak, which was hanging to the right of the stage where the unveiling was shortly to take place. Musto noted that Diez-Cabeza worked in a realist style reminiscent of the “classic Spanish painters,” and then added, “Fortunately not like Picasso — I don’t need my nose on my forehead.”
Earlier in the evening, fashion designer (and Project Runway alum) Austin Scarlett told me that he and Diez-Cabeza had been roommates at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and that he had in this instance introduced artist to subject. “Fernando really loves painting these mysterious personalities that captivate the public,” he said. “Characters that are unique, and just by their face alone can tell a whole story.”
Diez-Cabeza elaborated, explaining that he’d wanted to paint Musto because “he has a very distinctive face — I love [the painter] Velásquez, I like dark hair, dark eyes. So, I knew I could do something very haunted with him. And he’s a writer, a very enigmatic person, hard to really understand.” He added that Musto wanted the Conservatory Garden in Central Park as a backdrop, so the artist researched the landscape and posed his subject under an arch of bare rose branches as a poetic way to capture the caustic bite of Musto’s prose.
At the moment set for the unveiling, the curtains parted to reveal a quintet of young women in beaded white corsets and black stockings, using feathered fans to conceal the draped canvas. After a truly charming fan-dance interlude, the crimson covering was dropped, presenting Musto in black tux, red shirt, black bow tie, and faux-fur coat. The writer gazes at the viewer through his familiar round spectacles, eyebrows raised inquisitively, mouth canted with a hint of revelation, as if he has just thought of a particularly incisive turn of phrase. Perhaps it was the ornate ecclesiastical setting or the sumptuous decor Scarlett had designed for the evening’s festivities, but there is an undoubted gravitas to that painted figure standing before a luminous, wintry sky. As an observer once noted about another iconic New York portrait, “He transcends time and space.”
Musto’s portrait is marvelously true to life, right down to the chunky Velcro shoes and baggy cuffs that have been the gossip columnist’s trademark anti–fashion statement for years. Always ready with a self-deprecating bon mot, Musto enthused, “It’s a stunning likeness — I look hideous!”
Quite the contrary, actually. As longtime Vogue writer Lynn Yaeger pointed out to me while we studied the canvas, “Even with those shoes, Michael looks very dignified.”