Picasso Baby and the Reverse Warhol
Track 16 // Vol. 04: 808s & Curate
Allow me to reintroduce JAY-Z as a performance artist, art collector, and art historian.
I realize that I’ve written a lot about him recently, as an anchoring figure who ties a lot of ideas around hip hop and how different contexts—museums, galleries, homes, and marketing campaigns create different experiences for art. I’m wrapping up Volume 04’s theme: 808s & Curate with a breakdown of “Picasso Baby,” a song and performance piece where the art world and hip hop collide.
From 2009-2013, JAY-Z recorded and collaborated on tracks across three albums: Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), Watch the Throne (2011), and Magna Carta…Holy Grail (2013). Some songs intended for one album ended up on another, and tracklists shifted until their release date. All three albums share a maximalist production style, rosters of superstar producers and collaborators, and a sonic opulence of layered samples, beats, vocals, and bars. The themes in these albums boast the kind of excess and tensions that come after reaching a new echelon of wealth and success. It’s not just about watches, cars, and private jets anymore. What do really, really wealthy people invest in? Art—the kind that’s worth hundreds of millions and serves no other purpose than aesthetic pleasure.
Track 16 is about JAY-Z’s attempt to bridge the worlds of fine art and hip hop with “Picasso Baby.” The Artist is Present. Pull a reverse Warhol and turn yourself into art.
The marketing around Magna Carta…Holy Grail at the time, was unprecedented. Samsung bought a million advanced copies of the album for their Galaxy S3, S4 and Galaxy II Note users who downloaded the special Magna Carta Holy Grail app. JAY-Z announced that the album went platinum before it even dropped. Samsung paid $5 per copy, making it a $5 million deal. And if this reminds you of that time Apple “gifted” everyone that U2 album, Songs of Innocence, that just randomly popped up in everyone’s iTunes Library—that happened in 2014, a year later.
To promote the partnership, Samsung created short campaign videos that took you “inside the studio,” where JAY-Z, Timbaland, Swizz Beats, Pharrell, and Rick Rubin listened to the tracks together. JAY-Z explains the meaning behind each song to them/us, and they share a lot of head nods with eyes closed, emphatic reactions, pats on the back, and exchanged looks of awe. It’s as contrived as it is captivating to see these hip hop titans all together waxing enthusiastic about this project.
In these Samsung-sponsored Studio Session clips, JAY-Z tells the story of “Picasso Baby,” a song about being consumed with wanting more and more wealth. He talks to a barefoot and bearded Rick Rubin, lying on the couch across him:
“Picasso” is pretty much about acquiring these things. You know, like all these dreams and all these aspirations you have coming up… ‘I want this, I just want a Picasso and then, oh no, I want a castle!’ You don’t want a job? You don’t want happiness?...At some point you have to shut that off or you’re going to go off a cliff.”
In the lyrics, JAY-Z raps about wanting artworks by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko, Francis Bacon, Jeff Koons, in addition to his collection of Warhols and Basquiats. Why these artists in particular? In 2013, all six artists held spots in the top 10 most expensive paintings at auction. Full list here.
#10: Pablo Picasso, Woman Sitting Near a Window - $44.9 million
#8: Mark Rothko, Untitled 11 - $46.1 million
#7: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Dustheads - $48.4 million
#5: Andy Warhol, Coca-Cola - $57.2 million
#4: Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog - $58.4 million
#3 : Andy Warhol, Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) - $105 million
#2: Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Lucian Freud - $142 million
#1: Pablo Picasso, La Rêve - $155 million
As if owning the most expensive works weren’t enough, JAY-Z also wants to live in the MoMA, the Louvre, and the Tate Modern—inside the art world itself. How he gets to sleep every night next to the “Mona Lisa, the modern version with better features” might have something to do with his “Leonardo da Vinci flows.” Art Basel and Christie’s also receive shout-outs as influential shapers of the art market. Listing off all these desires, he creates a relationship between the owning of art and becoming the artists themselves, rapping, “I’m the new Jean-Michel” and “I’m the modern day Pablo Picasso, baby.” How is JAY-Z embodying these icons? By attaining the same level of fame and success? By becoming the style pioneer of his time, often imitated, never replicated? Through legacy, through mythology, through influence? All of the above.
I’m not exactly sure why, but in 2013, pop art also had a moment in pop music. Lady Gaga released Artpop, an album that also referenced artists from Jeff Koons from to Sandro Bottecelli. Lady Gaga described the album as:
“Altering the human experience with social media, we bring ARTculture into POP in a reverse Warholian expedition.”
What does a “reverse Warholian expedition” mean? The best explanation I found was not in a music magazine article, but from a 2017 gagadaily.com forum.
Huge shout-out to anonymous contributor “Hoeanne” for this:
“Andy Warhol was known for taking popular culture and putting it into fine art…A Reverse Warholian Experience is…putting fine art into popular culture. Something Gaga had done her entire career.”
One second I’m a Koons, then suddenly the Koons is me
Pop culture was in art, now art’s in pop culture, in me
While Lady Gaga explicitly linked pop art and pop culture to Artpop’s concept, JAY-Z also pulled a “Reverse Warhol” not only in “Picasso Baby,” but also thematically in his music and writing that references artists like Basquiat and Warhol. He name-drops Warhol as much as Basquiat—JAY-Z’s autobiography even featured one of Warhol’s Rorschach paintings as its cover. Throughout his career, Kanye West has also derived inspiration from the art world in his music, either through direct collaboration or more nuanced ideas inspired from other visual artists and designers. While crossover collaborations between visual artists and musicians has a long history, what was it about the early 2010s that inspired this connection between modern art history and contemporary popular music? Was it just visual inspiration or an established-in-career evolution towards deeper conceptual themes?
I’m not sure of that answer, but I also find it noteworthy that Lady Gaga and JAY-Z separately worked with performance artist Marina Abramović in 2013. (I wrote about her work previously in “The Art of Unraveling” if you want more background.) For the performance video of “Picasso Baby,” JAY-Z adapted Abramović’s work The Artist is Present, a performance piece where she sat across the table from museum patrons for 8 hours a day over 3 months at MoMA in 2009. JAY-Z performed the song over the course of 6 hours at Pace Gallery in downtown Manhattan in front of fans, and a famous (and also kind of random) roster of hip hop legends, actors, artists, dancers, designers, art dealers, art critics, and friends. Apparently the list was invite-only, and featured the wealthy and well-connected at the cost of some criticism for JAY-Z. The film itself is about 8 minutes, and I would love for you to watch it.
The film opens with JAY-Z narrating the concept for the performance:
“Concerts are pretty much performance art but the venues change. And just by nature of the venues, the performance changes, right? You’re in a smaller venue, it’s a bit more intimate, so you get the feel, the energy of the people. In the concerts, especially a large concert, all that energy comes to you. Like what do you do with that energy, you know? So today it’s kind of an exchange. We have some that drop it back off, you know.
When art started becoming a part of the galleries, it became a separation between cultures. And even in hop-hop people were like, ‘art is too bourgeois.’ We’re artists, we’re alike, we’re cousins. That’s what’s really exciting for me, to bring the worlds back together…
I try not to have any expectations going into a performance, I try to just let it happen, just get into the moment, and you know, whatever happens happens.”
JAY-Z refers to the NYC art scene in the 80s where the worlds of fine art, street art, hip hop, and pop music flowed into each other and fed from the same creative frenzy of celebration and inspiration. You could find Jean-Michel Basquiat DJing in a Blondie music video, dating Madonna, collaborating with the likes of Andy Warhol, Fab 5 Freddy, and Keith Haring by day, and partying with everyone by night. Some consider this as the glory days of the New York art scene; JAY-Z wants to bring these worlds back together again. In this way, he is the new Jean-Michel, an artist whose work and life connected street art, fine art, art history, pop music, and hip hop into a cohesive culture.
The connection JAY-Z makes between concerts and performance art relies heavily on context and how it negotiates the space between the performer and audience. The small, minimal, well-lit space of Pace Gallery centers the interaction as a direct exchange—JAY-Z is forced to react to the individual in front of him, and vice-versa. “Picasso Baby” performed in a gallery feels appropriate given the subject of the song, but it’s a huge departure from the context for which it was likely intended—stadiums! The exchange between JAY-Z and the audience at a concert is transactional—money, ticket, show. The gallery makes the exchange reciprocal and collaborative—action, reaction, action, reaction. JAY-Z invites the audience to perform, turning the crowd into the artist, with individual spotlights in the documentation. And perhaps this is more of an eye roll to the elitist art world, but instead of a music video, often considered a form of “low brow” media, it’s now a “performance art film”—poof!—now it’s “high brow.” How clever, since pop art interrogated the fine and often imagined lines between “low” and “high” culture. A reverse Warholian expedition, indeed.
Watching the performance video reminds us that JAY-Z is human. We are so used to seeing JAY-Z as an untouchable figure, a rap god controlling screaming arenas at a distance from a large stage, and a billionaire CEO with an empire of products, entertainment, and investments. Seeing him face his audience in an intimate context, engaging with him in unpredictable ways, shows a playful side of JAY-Z we rarely see, if ever. He laughs and shakes Judd Apatow who pretends to take a call when JAY-Z raps, “Fuck it, I want a trillion!” We see him admitting to messing up his flow, opposite gallerist Sandra Gehring, not out of intimidation, but rather, distraction—as if the pyrotechnics of an award show performance feel less overwhelming than seeing the whites of peoples’ eyes. He sits with two kids on a bench and puts his chain on one of them. At times the roles switch, where he becomes the spectator and applauds the dancers and singers who perform for him, alongside him. It’s refreshing to see JAY-Z get a little self-conscious when Marina Abramović stares directly into his eyes, moving closer until their foreheads touch. He dances in and out of his comfort zone.
Maybe it’s the editing, but it genuinely feels like JAY-Z grows more energized by performing in this space that puts him so close to people expressing joy. He lets go of his cool and mystique and he’s freer for it. While his security team and vetted guest list ensure his physical safety, JAY-Z ultimately moves towards embracing the discomfort in awkward interactions, in the endurance required for intimacy, and in his improvisation. This is a different kind of freestyle that reimagines the ciphers he cut his teeth on back in the day as a young MC, honing his craft.
At the end of the performance, Marina Abramović summarizes the experience:
“It was great. There was so much energy…it’s also wonderful for a visual artist to cause the borders of the medium…and music always being the most immaterial form of art...”
Performance art movements developed in the U.S., Europe, and Japan out of a post-WWII reaction to center art around the experience of the body and its present engagement. In my college (and thus questionably annotated) copy of Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Kristine Stiles writes about these performances artists of the 1960s-70s:
“Their powerful declaration of the body as a form and content insisted on the primacy of human subjects over objects.... Emphasizing the body as art, these artists amplified the role of process over product and shifted from representational objects to presentational modes of action that extended the formal boundaries of painting and sculpture into real time and movement in space. Removing art from purely formalist concerns and the commodification of objects, they also sought to re-engage the artist and spectator by reconnecting art to the material circumstances of social and political events.”
Considering the context through which performance art emerged into the art world, it’s spot-on for JAY-Z to turn a song about the wealth generated and consumed by the commodification of art, into a performance that focuses on connection, in a gallery void of objects. And to echo Marina Abramović, music is also the most “immaterial medium,” fleeting and lacking the static permanence of sculptures and paintings. At the end of the song, JAY-Z resolves the gnawing desire to own Picassos by addressing his daughter Blue, who will one day inherit his art collection. The song ultimately tells the story of evolving pursuits and purpose, prioritizing human connection over material wealth.
From that same studio session with Rick Rubin, JAY-Z explains, “The song starts with, “I just want a Picasso'', and it ends with, “yellow Basquiat in the kitchen corner, go ahead lean on that shit, Blue, you own it,” …It comes to this arc and it gets to this place of what’s really important.”
Rick Rubin responds, still on the couch, “And you’ve found in life experience, that you’ve gotten enough of those things to realize that it doesn’t change your life at all.”
Oh, what a feeling.
Thanks for reading.
p.s. Additional reading: For a full recap of the performance, check out this New York Times article, “Jay-Z is Rhyming Picasso and Rothko.” For a light recap of the criticism, read “Jay-Z dabbles in performance art during six-hour ‘Picasso Baby’ event in New York” from The Washington Post.