Ron Dominguez, an Upper East Side doorman, in front of a piece in his collection, ‘Do Ask, Do Tell.’Craig Warga for The Wall Street Journal
If you want to know what the life of a typical New York City doorman looks like after he sheds his uniform and goes home to his family at night, don’t ask Ron Dominguez, a doorman at a building on Fifth Avenue in the 80′s.
“I don’t happen to know any other doorman that happens to be a psychotic art collector,” Mr. Dominguez said as we sat in his art-laden Harlem apartment beside his newest acquisition: a 6-by-8-foot canvas of a black rhino that he commissioned from the artist Martin Wittfooth.
The work is called “Do Ask, Do Tell,” and it’s rippling with iconography, as I discovered when Mr. Dominguez launched into a lengthy discussion of its elements. These include, in no particular order, lovely tocororo birds, which are indigenous to Cuba. His family fled the island in 1971.
There’s also a mooring post with the letters “NMMI.” That refers to the New Mexico Military Institute, from which Mr. Dominguez graduated. And a number. “My military ID number,” from the days he served in the Navy aboard submarines and submarine tenders at a military base the U.S. shared with Italy off Sardinia.
Hence the sub bobbing just offshore in the painting.
And then there’s the rhino itself. “The rhino represents having an elephant in the room,” the elephant being the Clinton administration’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” policy that took effect while Mr. Dominguez was stationed overseas.
“It was a double-edged sword,” the doorman remembers. “I wasn’t out yet. If you decided to come out, they sent you home.”
A sculpture David Cho is part of Ron Dominguez’s art collection. Craig Warga for The Wall Street Journal
But more than anything else, I suspect that the rhino represents Mr. Dominguez’s passion for art. It’s a statement piece, the statement apparently being that now that he owns the painting he is going cold turkey and spending his hard-earned salary and holiday season tips on something other than the Pop Surrealism he adores.
“I have to stop collecting art,” he insisted, as much to himself, describing the rhino as the apartment’s “piece de resistance.” “I think I’m done. In a good way. I promised Michael I was going to stop. I don’t want this place looking like a salon.”
Michael Millare, a registered nurse, is Mr. Dominguez’s husband. “We have this agreement,” the doorman explained. “I buy art. Michael deals with furniture.”
Handsome, unobtrusive midcentury modern, to be precise. Mr. Dominguez’s taste is somewhat more outré. Indeed, the rhino is staid compared with some of the apartment’s other objects.
For example, the cartoonlike work by the artist Gary Baseman, and a fantasy light fixture that more than holds its own beside the “Do Ask, Do Tell” rhino. Titled “Phaedra,” it’s by Adam Wallacavage—the bulbs extended on octopus tentacles.
To be honest, I didn’t ask Mr. Dominguez what about the Lowbrow movement, as it is also called, appealed in particular to him. Similar to other passionate collectors, he overwhelmed me with the names and dates of every piece, as well as stories about how he acquired them, and his friendships with artists and dealers that grew from his pursuit.
I suspect the art was also a reflection of the doorman’s personality and the style he brings each morning at his prewar building.
“I work with a wonderful staff and I’m blessed with wonderful residents,” said Mr. Dominguez, who asked not to reveal the building’s address, where he has worked since 1999, to protect his tenants’ privacy. “I’m a jack-of-all-trades. We do packages, deliver pharmacy. We deal with dry cleaning. We’re not a concierge building per se but we do concierge stuff.”
A sculpture by Adam Wallacavage Craig Warga for The Wall Street Journal
Mr. Dominguez said that some residents know about his collecting. Others don’t. A few probably have impressive art collections of their own, given the neighborhood’s demographics. If so, Mr. Dominguez said he wouldn’t know, and certainly hasn’t asked to see them. It’s a line he’d never cross.
“I stay in the trenches,” he explained, referring to the front door. “Occasionally I go to their vestibule. The guys who work in the back, they go into the apartment.”
He doesn’t discuss, with his co-workers either, Picasso, whose Blue Period sparked his interest in collecting, or his travels to museums abroad. “Most are married men with children,” he explained. “They’re more sports guys.”
Mr. Dominguez said that much of his collection was amassed between 2000 and 2006.
“I worked three different buildings,” he recalled. “I was hustling a full-time job in one and a part-time in two others to support my art habit.”
When we met Tuesday evening, he’d done a day shift but was returning at midnight to pick up another shift. Supposedly, it wasn’t for the purpose of accumulating spending money.
However, in the next breath he mentioned a new artist whose work he’d love to acquire. “Please do not write that down because Michael would have a…” and he resorted to a lighthearted expletive. “With a doorman’s salary and a nurse’s salary this is it. But it’s been a wonderful journey.”