Principe’s career as an artist wasn’t born from this lofty proclamation. It would take ten years as a working artist and a life-shattering tragedy before Salvatore found and accepted his soul’s desire, “to paint the world with love.” Yet, Principe has always been a passionate zealot with an impossibly idealistic view of how the world should be.
Born in New York City in 1959, Salvatore Principe was raised in midtown Manhattan in a larger-than-life Italian family. Big brother to two fiery sisters and doted on by a loving mother and protective father, the son of Adam and Anita Principe was bent on blazing his own trail even in adolescence. A natural athlete but never an academic, Principe’s early accomplishments were usually physical feats. Even his own parents thought he might find success as a professional soccer or tennis player. But fate had another plan and unpredictability would become a familiar team in the life of the unlikely artist.
“I left high school early, bored and frustrated and feeling that I let my parents down,” says Principe in an unpublished memoir of his career. “But school just couldn’t contain me. Depending on the subject matter, I either had too many questions or no interest at all. My mother was disappointed. My father was furious. And my sisters, well, they’re Italian and they’re my sisters, so they really let me have it too.”
Feeling like a failure, but following instinct, Salvatore traded school for a new playground in the streets of New York. He partied, made diverse friends and became a regular attraction on roller skates in Central Park, competing with other skaters for the most impressive moves on eight wheels. Soon, he landed a job at Studio 54 – smack in the middle of its heyday.
The illustrious discotheque was the gold standard of discos, and the job would ultimately give Principe some unexpected work experience that would turn out to be invaluable later in life. But first, he served as a bar back, slinging ice, washing glasses and hauling trash through dense, gyrating crowds to the back alley dumpster. With an undeniable eye for aesthetics and tireless perseverance, Salvatore eventually earned a job assisting the lighting technician, all the while surrounded by some of the most famous partiers of the time, including Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry, Mick & Bianca Jagger, Calvin Klein, Halston, Valentino Garavani, Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor and anyone else with serious clout and a desire to see and be seen.
Almost three years later, his lighting experience landed Principe a job at The Underground, the next “It” club of the early eighties. But he would last there only two years. Weary of the scene and its empty lifestyle of booze, drugs and abandoned inhibitions, Salvatore longed for something more fulfilling and quit in pursuit of a deeper meaning to his existence. “I’d been lucky enough to meet and hang out with some amazing people but in such a destructive lifestyle. I had this overwhelming need to create instead,” he explains.
And create is what he did. With no training and no real tools, Salvatore Principe began creating art from objects mostly found in New York City roadside trash heaps. His first pieces were sculptures – dark abstracts, reminiscent of the life he was leaving behind but made from materials light enough to allow him to easily transport the work on foot.
Never concerned, like many formally trained artists are, with being considered a “serious artist,” if Salvatore was working and the work was selling, he was happy. He describes himself as relentless, while he beat the pavement determined to unload his work on anyone willing to pay little more than the cost to create them. “I wouldn’t go home until I sold at least one piece,” he laughs. One piece at today’s market price would make an extraordinary living for a young artist, but when he was getting started, making a living was the least of Principe’s concerns. Making art was all that mattered.
Witnessing his son’s renewed spirit, Salvatore’s father Adam began to recognize some of his own fortitude in the budding artist. “He went out and bought me every paint color imaginable, a handful of brushes and a stack of wrapped canvases,” recalls Salvatore fondly. “It was his way of telling me that he believed in this thing I was doing.” He adds, “I’m not sure he will ever know just how much that meant to me. I mean, I knew I had to create, but he had always been in the suit-wearing business world. I didn’t expect him to understand, and I guess I underestimated him.”
With his father’s unspoken approval, Salvatore’s passion grew unbridled. He continued scouring the streets for raw material. He pulled inspiration from New York’s contradicting landscape of cosmopolitan beauty and violent brutality and its collision of celebrity, culture and infamy. His heroes became Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. He created and sold hundreds of art pieces, and he unabashedly pedaled his wares. Then one day, his resolve landed him a tremendous break. Manhattan’s most prominent department store, Bergdorf Goodman, would give Principe carte blanche to exhibit his work in its famous window displays for a full three weeks. Such luck quickly led to other exhibits for Tiffany Jewelers, Saks Fifth Avenue and Casabella’s 20,000 square foot furniture showroom. Soon SoHo galleries were inviting him to exhibit, and everything seemed to be going right for the now 29 year old. Then, in an instant, Salvatore’s world was turned upside down.
His mother Anita, who was also his best friend and biggest champion, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and given only a few years to live. “We had lunch, and then I went with her to a routine doctor visit, just to keep her company. The next thing you know, this guy is telling us that she is going to die. I couldn’t – I wouldn’t believe it at first. I knew I had to be strong for her, but inside I felt like I was the one dying.” After three long and painful years of chemotherapy, hair loss, and dramatic weight fluctuations, Anita Principe finally succumbed to the cancer, and her family buried their beloved at the agonizingly young age of 48.
It was 1991. George H. W. Bush was President, the country was suffering a recession, and Salvatore Principe had a broken heart. “I couldn’t bear to be in the city anymore. Her absence was palpable. And everything reminded me of her,” says Principe. So he headed to South Florida to visit his also broken-hearted aunt Patti, Anita’s sister.
The visit tempted Principe to trade New York’s grim winters and haunted memories for the Florida sunshine, a surrogate mother figure, and prayers to heal his pain. Salvatore returned to New York, packed up his belongings and moved to Boca Raton, Florida. His new best friend was an acute and lingering heartache, and in his desperation to escape the anguish, the tortured artist did the only thing he could do, he created. At first, it was more of the same — abstracts and three-dimensional collage. And then, as his sorrow found its expression, something else happened. He became inspired again. This time his inner longing was more profound, and Salvatore Principe’s hope to fill the world with love was born. How would he manage to execute such a noble plan? One heart at a time.
At first, he experimented with muted earth tone hearts painted freehand onto 11”x14” canvas wrapped frames. He then began playing with the backgrounds, icing each canvas with his own plaster blend, and washing it with soft watery hues. The shapes also transformed from thin figures confined in black outlines to more voluptuous hearts in a sensual rainbow of colors. But it wasn’t enough to just paint the symbol of love. Principe took to embellishing the hearts with loving sentiments as well. And so it was that the Signature Hearts collection was born.
Before long, gallery owners to high end gift shop managers, to private collectors were snatching up Salvatore’s newest creation by the dozens. It seemed that by following his heart, and in essence sharing it with the world, Salvatore would become a sensation. After years of success with his Signature Hearts and other love-inspired works, Principe finally realized a life long dream. He opened a gallery of his own.
The Heart of Delray served as part gallery, part studio and part local hangout for the city’s eclectic creative types. While Salvatore stood painting batches of hearts and building intricate collages, people came and went, stopping to lounge, browse, chat, and share a glass of wine. “It was a fun time and a great achievement to paint for my own gallery, rather than feel controlled by the gallery owners carrying my work. But balancing the business operations with the polar opposite, creating, was a drain.” So Principe closed The Heart of Delray, opened a smaller gallery nearby in conjunction with another artist and got back to doing what he did best – reinventing himself.
By now, Principe had painted thousands of hearts in every size and color – collaged hearts, floating hearts, gilded hearts and enigmatic hearts camouflaged in backgrounds of his abstracts. He had also branched out, dabbling in commercial syndication, fashion and even wine. On the canvas, he applied his familiar collage style to new figures, including some famous faces of the very people he’d met before finding his calling. These iconic images would reveal a certain understanding of the pop culture they capture and in doing so, achieve immediate success.
Some critics speculate that this most recent phase of artwork reflects the artist coming home to his roots. But those who have witnessed the full spectrum of his career know better. Salvatore Principe never left his roots. He took them with him, nurtured them and grew them into something that he hopes will make the world better. After all, for this romantic, idealist, dreamer – home is where the heart is.