The New Perla Cafe Doubles As Gabriel Stulman’s Art Gallery

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"Not all of our restaurants are galleries."
"Not all of our restaurants are galleries." Photo: Liz Clayman

This week, Gabriel Stulman reopened Perla — now Perla Cafe — at 234 West 4th Street, a space that’s much lighter and airier than its previous home on Minetta Lane. (Don’t worry: The spicy tomato gnocchi is exactly the same as before.) The move offered Stulman an excuse to beef up Perla’s art collection, which was already quite impressive, and add a few new pieces. “This is our gallery,” he says. “And I would imagine anybody who owns an art gallery would say, ‘Yeah, I spend a ton of time figuring out what the next exhibit’s going to be.’ Not all of our restaurants are galleries, so this is a huge personal statement where we — Gina [Stulman’s wife] and I — spend a lot of time.” Here, he explains the meaning behind his aesthetic choices:

Photo: Liz Clayman


“We’ve taken a lot of inspiration from Muhammad Ali. I am a very passionate boxer myself. I love the parallels that you can draw from boxing to work — perseverance, preparation. When you get knocked down, get back up. Keep fighting. All these things, I think they’re super applicable to the restaurant industry in many regards. It’s a physically tough industry. There’s a lot of competition. The hours are long. You have good days; you have bad days. You may lose some rounds in boxing, but you can win the fight.”

Photo: Liz Clayman


“One of our regulars at Perla is a woman named Karen Carpenter. Karen, for the last several decades, has been in charge of photography for Sports Illustrated. Karen and her brother are huge regulars at our restaurants, primarily at Perla. One day she said, ‘Hey, if you ever want to check out what we’ve got, you can borrow some stuff.’ And I was like, ‘Whaaaat? Sports Illustrated archives?’ And so this is a photograph of Muhammad Ali. It’s still on loan, and it’s signed and numbered by the photographer, who’s name is Neil Leifer. He’s taken some of the most epic shots of Muhammad Ali in his career. Seeing the sweat flying off — it’s just like, man!”

Photo: Liz Clayman


“Now, there’s a really important reason why these photos are next to each other. This photograph is taken by my dear friend Jonathan Mannion. He’s one of the most prominent photographers of hip-hop for the last 25 years. He photographed Jay Z’s first seven album covers. He photographed two album covers for Eminem. He photographed album covers for DMX. You name it. His studio has got so many platinum records because if you do the artwork for an album that goes platinum, you also get a platinum record.”

Photo: Liz Clayman


“He took this portrait of Mos Def, printed it, and then had Mos Def come back to the studio and gave him all these Sharpies. This is Mos Def’s own handwriting on top of the print. He wrote a story about the power of your name. When he was born in December 1973 in New York, his mother named him Dante Smith. Then he began to work as an artist under the name Mos Def from 1996 to 2011. He goes on and says that a name that you are given can be a very powerful thing, but you can also choose your name. He uses the example of Muhammad Ali, who most people know was born Cassius Clay. The Ali photo was taken during the first fight that he won the heavyweight title of the world, and when he won this fight, his name was Cassius Clay.”

Photo: Liz Clayman


“This photo is also taken by Jonathan Mannion. I just love it. Lil Wayne in an astronaut outfit. I love the smile. I love the black-and-white contrast.”

Photo: Liz Clayman


“This one is from the Sports Illustrated archives. It’s Dr. J rising up over Larry Bird. Two epic basketball players.”

Photo: Liz Clayman


“Here are some ladies. This is a photograph taken by world-known photographer Ben Watts.”

Photo: Liz Clayman


“I love Louis Armstrong, and I love hip-hop. This is done by a graffiti artist named Mr. Brainwash. I love that it connects to hip-hop culture with the Louis Vuitton briefcase and hot-pink trumpet.”

Photo: Liz Clayman


“The ram is new. This was inspired by some blog — we saw an image of somebody’s beautiful apartment, and there was this wall with a ram’s head surrounded by a bunch of art.” [Gabriel Stulman: Just like us!]

Photo: Liz Clayman


“There’s a photography blog called JJJJound. It’s run by a kid named Justin Saunders, from Montreal. It’s a wonderful source of design inspiration. An artist who loves that blog did this sketch of the guy who curates the blog. And my friend Mannion has No. 2 of 25 prints of that. I was like, ‘We gotta hang it. It’s awesome.’”

Photo: Liz Clayman


“This is Phil Jackson back when he played in the NBA. He used to play for the Knicks. Why do I love the photo? I mean, the colors are amazing. But nobody would know at that time that, 30 years later, he would have coached the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan to six NBA championships, then leave and coach the L.A. Lakers, who he’s playing against here, to five NBA championships. And now he’s back in New York, and he’s the president of the New York Knicks. So it’s amazing to see him here with a big mustache and Afro, playing. This is also taken by Neil Leifer and from the Sports Illustrated collection.”

Photo: Liz Clayman


“Gina makes the terrariums in the glass domes.”

Photo: Liz Clayman


“This is part of the same series as the Mos Def one. Mannion took this portrait of Darryl McDaniels, a lead member of Run DMC, printed it, then he came back to the studio, and this time Mannion gave him two cans of spray paint. And so that’s McDaniels’s own handwriting on the photo. Love it. The white shell-top Adidas. The Gazelles. The fedora. The mic. I wanted to have this huge juxtaposition of black frame, black map, black print, on a white wall.”

Photo: Liz Clayman


“These are Starting Lineup figures from my youth. This ends up being art that has a purpose. You know, if you go to super-high-end restaurants like Le Bernardin, if you have any leftovers, they bring over this brass plaque with a number. And they go, ‘Whenever you’re ready to leave, give us the brass ticket back and we’ll bring your food.’ When I was at Marta and I wanted some of my pizza to go, they gave me the equivalent of a festival or carnival rip-a-ticket. So now when somebody wants the rest of their food wrapped and they’re still enjoying their dessert or such, we’ll take this figure and we’ll put it on the table. And then on the customer’s bag, we write, ‘Bo Jackson.’ When you give us back Bo Jackson, we then go grab the bag.”

Photo: Liz Clayman


“I put a lot of effort into trying to get great art and put art on the walls. And then once the room fills up, people’s heads and bodies block the art. And so I tried to really think about that strategically this time. We created these two intentional points where even when the room is full of bodies, there are two pieces of art that remain unobstructed. And it’s the Darryl McDaniels piece, which is exactly positioned between the edge of the table and the back of the bar stools, and the Muhammad Ali print.”

Gabe Stulman’s Art at the New Perla Cafe