Mutally Obsessed

Kanye, Jay Z, and Lady Gaga Love the Art World, and the Art World Loves Them. By Simon de Pury.

Jay Z’s video for ‘Picasso Baby,’ which airs Friday on HBO, is the latest in a recent love affair between music and art. Simon de Pury reports.

Sitting in the Hamptons, I’ve heard, to my amazement, that there are viewing parties being organized here for the first airing of the Jay Z (what a relief that he dropped the hyphen in his name!) “Picasso Baby” video, which will air on Friday on HBO.

His recent video shoot at the Pace Gallery in New York probably represents the peak of the current lovefest between the music and art worlds.

At the instigation of Jeanne Greenberg (the brilliant owner of gallery Salon 94), a number of art-world groupies and luminaries—including Yvonne Force, Bill Powers, Linda Yablonsky, Lawrence Weiner, Jerry Saltz, and the grande dame of performance art, Marina Abramovic—were invited at short notice to take part in the filming. Why didn’t Jeanne email me?! Like everyone else, I would instantly have dropped whatever other phenomenally important things I was doing at the time to witness a six-hour nonstop performance of “Picasso Baby”!

The song is a roll call of some of the art world’s most dropped names: Picasso, Rothko, Warhol, and Basquiat—but also Art Basel, the Museum of Modern Art, and Christie's. George Condo (who has the advantage over his glorious predecessors to be alive and well, but does not yet share their standing in the art market) also gets his mention. In the song, Jay Z refers to himself as today's Picasso, a characteristically modest statement that was validated by Diana Widmaier Picasso—the beautiful granddaughter of the artist and Marie-Thérèse Walter—who was at the video shoot.

What happened? It is not that long ago that the art world and the music world would hardly ever overlap. Of course there was the precedent in the 1960s, when Andy Warhol did the cover art for the Velvet Underground, and Peter Blake did the legendary Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band cover for the Beatles.

More recently, the immense global success of hip-hop had hardly impacted the art world, which continued to glide along in splendid isolation. Surely there were some art dealers wondering how they could find a way of tapping into the formidable economic power of the hip-hop community. Meanwhile, the world of fine jewels was the first to be shaken upside down. I always used to be bored looking at jewelry auction catalogs of Sotheby's, Christie's, and what was then called Phillips de Pury. There surely were great stones, but there was little or no space given to cutting-edge innovation or originality. True innovation in the jewel world came from unexpected quarters: people like LL Cool J, Swizz Beatz, Rick Ross, Missy Elliott, Pharrell Williams, Kanye West, and Jay Z—people who, in their videos and on their record covers, would show off massive bling. Time will demonstrate that hip-hop's contribution in the field of jewelry is as important and revolutionary as was Fabergé's at the beginning of the 20th century or Cartier's in the 1940s. Jacob Arabo from Jacob & Co.—better known as Jacob the Jeweler—was one of the main jewelers catering to the ever-growing demand coming from music stars.

A towering figure in hip-hop was needed to accelerate the rapprochement. That man is Kanye West. His ambition to change the world knows no boundaries, and his thirst to absorb like a sponge the greatest talents in art, cinema, fashion, architecture, and design is unquenchable. Modesty is possibly the only area in which this super-talented man does not excel. It's no wonder that he was the first to compare himself to Picasso.

It was Kanye who asked Takashi Murakami to design the cover his 2007 masterwork, Graduation. Murakami also created a sculpture of Kanye's alter ego, the cartoon bear, which appeared on the cover of Kanye's album Late Registration. The gold version of it was sold at Sotheby's in November 2012 for $1.25 million (Murakami subsequently collaborated with Pharrell Williams for a great sculpture that figured in Murakami's one-man show in the Château de Versailles in 2010).

West contacted George Condo (who had never heard of him) to make the cover art for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, his 2010 album. The result was a great painting that most music lovers only know in its pixilated version since iTunes sadly does not allow you to download images with nipples. It was Kanye who enrolled the help of Vanessa Beecroft afor the filming of his half-hour video, Runaway. When Jay Z and Kanye collaborated on the joint album Watch the Throne in 2011, they contacted a star from the fashion world, Riccardo Tisci, to do the cover design. The Maybach that they bashed and reconstructed for their dazzling “Otis” music video was no longer usable as a car. When Jeanne Greenberg (always her!) asked me what to do with it, I leaped on the occasion and included it as a lot in a contemporary art auction at Phillips de Pury, where it was acquired by a wealthy Asian lady as an 18th-birthday present for her son for $60,000.

During Art Basel and Design Miami in Switzerland last June, I had lunch with Craig Robbins, the founder of Design Miami. At the end of the lunch he answered his cellphone, and I heard him say: “Hi, Kanye.” Since he is the only person I know in the world with that first name, I was not surprised when later that afternoon I got a text message from Craig asking if I would like to join an impromptu first hearing of Kanye’s as-yet-unreleased album, Yeezus. He did not need to ask twice. Later that evening I pressed my nose against the doors of the design fair, along with 2,000 art lovers who were desperate to attend this intimate gathering. We luckily all got in and witnessed an impassioned speech by Kanye singing the praises of Le Corbusier and Rick Owens and more generally of culture. This preceded a short but powerful a cappella rendering of “I Am a God.”

The reason I am writing this in the Hamptons is that I came here to conduct the benefit auction of Robert Wilson for the 20th anniversary of the Watermill Center on July 27. I was happy to see there the wonderful Marina Abramovic and was most pleasantly surprised to see Lady Gaga not only actively participate in the live auction but announce her collaboration with Robert Wilson and Jeff Koons in the launch of her next album.

I have always believed in bringing down the artificial boundaries between art, music, architecture, design, photography, fashion, and cinema. If it is finally happening—and most of the credit should go to artists and visionaries such as Kanye West, Jay Z, or Lady Gaga.

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In addition to songs from Jay Z and Kanye West, I’ve added for good measure a number of tracks by some of my other hip-hop heroes. Do download this killer compilation, play it loud, and enjoy!