Jay-Z dabbles in performance art during six-hour ‘Picasso Baby’ event in New York

Part performance art piece, part music video shoot, Jay-Z performed his song “Picasso Baby” for six straight hours Wednesday at Pace Gallery in New York City. (Tom LeGro/The Washington Post)
July 11, 2013

Right now, Jay-Z is probably wishing art critics had reviewed his latest album “Magna Carta . . . Holy Grail.” While many pop-music critics panned the 16-song album — with its garish Samsung partnership and redundant themes — the art world has giddily accepted the track “Picasso Baby.” And many in the upper crust were in attendance Wednesday at the Pace Gallery in New York to witness the rapper sample from the performance art medium. Why? Because everyone who’s anyone in art was name-dropped in the song.

On Wednesday, Jay-Z became Barnum yet again, inviting curators, critics and artists to his surprise act. They arrived to find themselves engulfed in a six-hour event mimicking the style of superstar performance artist Marina Abramovic, who showed up midway through. Cameras circled the duo, shooting footage for what will probably become a music video. All in attendance dutifully tweeted the happenings as Jay-Z repeated the song over and over. And over.

But it’s possible no one was actually listening to the lyrics. Otherwise, they might have objected to Jay-Z’s objectification of the art they love, depicting the collector as conqueror. Had they been listening to the words, they would have heard the powerful line about the Basquiat in his kitchen and his instructions to his daughter: “Go ahead lean on that s---, Blue/You own it.”

Can you hear the poor curators gasping? Please don’t do that, little Blue.

Dueling narratives often appear in the contemporary art world: Art is at once for everyone and no one. Some Rothkos belong in museums; others belong in storage at the Singapore airport. Jay-Z somehow embodies both narratives, himself marveling at his own success story of how a onetime drug dealer could rise to own Warhols and Basquiats. But Jay-Z doesn’t seem to be rapping about art so much as assets, Bugattis to park outside Art Basel shows where he can acquire more and more.

The art world didn’t seem to mind embracing this theme. The song is fun, and hey, it’s a Jay-Z video.

“Christie’s is delighted to be mentioned in good company with all of Jay Z’s art world favorites – from Leonardo da Vinci to the Louvre,” said Erin McAndrew, a spokeswoman for Christie’s. Indeed, Christie’s has partnered with Jay-Z for years now on short films he’s posted on his Life+Times Web site.

Even critics seemed thrilled to be there. Jerry Saltz, the art critic for New York magazine, wrote that the song might be good for art education.

“The thought that this might entice kids, intimidated by museums, to give them a visit? Come on! Whether it was going to be weird, cringe-worthy, or what: I was there.”

Artsy folks in Washington — not invited, of course — weren’t as overwhelmed by the immediate star power of the event, affording them the ability to analyze this spectacle with clear heads. Jeffry Cudlin, professor of curatorial studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art, liked the song, and pointed out that it’s more about money and race than contemporary art. As for the art world, it’s pretty used to the asset vs. art conundrum.

“The art world is very good at the wink and nod,” Cudlin said. “You can’t have ivory tower without big-money types that want to be able to talk about the marvelous things in their houses. Art people are immune to that kind of criticism.”

“When I hear him talking about art, I hear him talking about it as a new collector,” said Holly Bass, a performance artist who has worked in Washington for more than 15 years. “Even among the collector set there are people who really cultivate artists, like the Rubells, and then there are people who have a lot of money and want a prestige of owning a piece . . . that’s what Jay-Z represents.”

Adrian Parsons, a performance artist who’s worked in Washington for eight years, thinks Jay-Z and the fans are probably in on the joke.

“They see the parody inherent in it,” he said. “Jay-Z has an understanding of art as market and art as art.”

Still, some weren’t so thrilled by the event’s “performance art” label. The art Web site Hyperallergic called it “The Day Performance Art Died.” (Bass and Cudlin assure us this is not the case.)

Eames Armstrong, curator of the Supernova performance art festival in Rosslyn, noted the irony of ironies: There’s a performance art festival in Brooklyn happening this month.

“It’s more exciting than Jay-Z at Pace but not getting nearly the same coverage,” Armstrong said. “That’s what happens with Marina Abramovic or Tilda Swinton. The celebrity is more important than the work itself.”

At least one spectator kept his head about him. Klaus Biesenbach, director of New York’s MoMA PS1, gave a thoughtful critique of the performance on Facebook: “Which visual artist or performance artist could have brought everybody there on a Wednesday afternoon? It was a strange but revealing observation of the art world’s fascinations, albeit most probably not intended.”

READ MORE:

REVIEW: Jay-Z ‘Magna Cart...Holy Grail’: When fans are reduced to customers

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.
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