THE MOST-VIEWED WORK OF PERFORMANCE ART IN HISTORY: VANESSA BEECROFT ON DITCHING THE ART WORLD FOR KANYE WEST
On Valentine’s Day, the artist Vanessa Beecroft sent an e-mail telling me to go to an address on Wooster Street in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, where she would be, as the e-mail stated, “w Kanye.”
“Haven’t had a minute since k came to NY, I’m a bit destroyed but please text later,” the e-mail said.
I arrived at the stated address that evening to see Kanye West leaving the building with his daughter, North West, perched on his shoulder, and his wife, Kim Kardashian West, at his side. West was greeted by a phalanx of paparazzi, whom he posed for, and then piled into a black SUV, off to a Valentine’s Day dinner with his family.
Beecroft stayed at West’s secret fashion lab on Wooster Street to work on projects for him, as there was a lot to do. The previous Thursday, Beecroft—who vanished from the gallery circuit a decade ago when she cut ties with her dealers, who included Jeffrey Deitch and Larry Gagosian—had staged a performance to accompany the launch of West’s newest fashion line, Yeezy Season 3, and album, The Life of Pablo. The event was held at a sold-out Madison Square Garden, screened live in 700 theaters in 23 countries, and streamed on Tidal to more than 20 million viewers. Beecroft’s performance had more real-time viewers than any work of performance art in history.
“While I work in museums where people can walk in and out and there isn’t really a spectacle, the configuration of this was more spectacular—people had to sit down, there was all the music,” she said of the performance, once I was cleared to enter the all-white compound where members of West’s entourage were listening to his new album on repeat while eating Starburst candies and drinking Patron tequila. To escape the deafening beats, we moved to the freezing basement of the SoHo space, where models wearing skimpy looks from West’s new collection fumbled through racks of apparel looking for their street clothes.
“But I was really grateful that Kanye allowed me to do whatever I wanted,” she went on.
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Over the course of nearly a dozen collaborations in the past eight years, the unlikely duo of Beecroft and West has seen their visions come together in a fluid way. And even if this is not the rarefied context of biennales and retrospectives (a context Beecroft once existed comfortably within, and then spurned), it’s pretty clear that working on this level has improved her practice. What she was missing earlier seems to be, improbably, someone like Kanye West.
“The relationship gradually grew to what it is today, when Kanye told me, ‘Do whatever you want,’ ” she said. “I said, ‘Do you want to show your collection?’ And he said, ‘I don’t care, just do whatever you want.’ ”
Beecroft was born in Italy, and started to gain a reputation as an artist shortly after moving to the United States. She staged her performances at Andrea Rosen Gallery, MoMA PS1, and Deitch Projects. Jeffrey Deitch offered her the very first show at that space, which happens to be a block away from Kanye HQ, on Wooster Street. Her work often focused on skinny, nude or near-nude women standing around, bored-looking, for hours. One performance, 2004’s VB54, was set to be unveiled at the former TWA terminal at JFK airport, and featured African American woman standing naked, all shackled in chains. JetBlue, a sponsor of the show, pulled the plug before its debut, and plans to show the work at the Port Authority were botched as well.
“After my career started to fade slowly, being less on a hype, and I moved to Los Angeles, Kanye looked for me,” Beecroft said. “I didn’t know who he was because I don’t know anything about pop culture. I don’t listen to music. And when he approached me I decided to work with him because he was my alter ego: An African American male, and I was a white woman. So I said, it’s perfect, I’m going to take advantage of this channel to do something I could never do before.”
Their first collaboration was at a loft in Los Angeles in 2008, during the unveiling of Kanye West’s then-shocking auto-tuned album 808s & Heartbreak. It was West’s first foray into the realm of performance art, and the crowd at the event wasn’t sure how to respond.
“I’m sure it’s beautiful art, and many people can appreciate it on a much deeper level than I can,” the late-night host Jimmy Kimmel told a reporter from Rolling Stone. “But I look out there and see a lot of good-looking naked girls and it makes me happy.”
West continued to work with Beecroft, calling on her to act as the art director for his short filmRunaway, which accompanied the release of his 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. They then collaborated on Affordable Care, a performance at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2013, and that year, she designed the sets for West’s Yeezus Tour. She was entrusted with the set for West’s blowout wedding to Kim Kardashian, an affair in Milan that supposedly cost $12 million.
Installation view of VB46 at Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills, California, in 2001.
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The latest arc of their collaboration focuses on the musician’s fashion line that he makes for Adidas. The first show, unveiled in February 2015 during New York Fashion Week, was centered around a Beecroft performance; she is now inextricably linked with the brand, and available to work on it at the drop of a hat. For instance: The day after her performance last week, she left for Los Angeles, where she lives with her children. Upon landing, Kanye called her, and she got on a flight back to New York.
“He was depressed,” Beecroft said, “and I give him this little spark.”
The work with West has become Beecroft’s only output—her last solo show under her own name was in Naples, Italy, in 2010.
“It’s like, my work, by invading another world, is continuing to impose, and I like that: the power of the work, and the power of influencing lots of people, not necessarily the art elite,” she said. “I abandoned my dealers—all of them. I don’t like to do shows at galleries. I’m actually not very proud of myself, how I behaved with Gagosian, Deitch, all these other European dealers, but I felt like, I’m not going to do another show with this stupid guy.”
Instead, she’s become tethered to the most fascinating and volatile pop-culture figure in the country.
“I do it all for Kanye,” she said. “My public facade could just go through him now, I don’t care.”
West’s most recent fashion show also acted as the world premiere of West’s new album, The Life of Pablo. It’s a blast-level dad-rock gospel record, intent on offending solely for the sake of offending, a bonkers collection of songs oscillating between brilliant and confounding and sprung forth from one unmistakable mind. The album’s namesake could be Picasso, or Escobar, or St. Paul the Apostle.
Its unveiling at Madison Square Garden—an auspicious choice of pavilion, as it was at the Garden where West famously interrupted Taylor Swift mid-speech at the MTV Video Music Awards—was also a triumph. I was there, along with most of the people I follow on Instagram.
Vanessa Beecroft’s performance at the launch of Yeezy Season 3.
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Getting there was no easy feat. The ticket distribution system unfolded like a Samuel Beckett play where Karl Lagerfeld served as the costume designer. To receive a ticket, menswear bloggers stood in a conference room at a nondescript Midtown hotel, waiting endlessly for their names to be called by an unseen handler. No one spoke to anyone else, but everyone watched as Kanye’s people handed out tickets to one person every excruciating 10 minutes.
The next day, Kanye West walked into Madison Square Garden, plugged his laptop into the arena’s sound system, and played the first song onThe Life of Pablo, which is called “Ultralight Beam.” There was a desert-colored tarp draped over an installation placed on the basketball court, and at the hundred-voice apex of that first song, the tarp was whipped away to reveal a hundred-strong gang of models wearing the desert-colored looks in Yeezy Season 3, all standing despondent and motionless and defiant. It was a euphoric moment, fully Beecroft’s performance, one in line with her entire practice, now fully realized. Their looks, as has been reported by the many outlets that covered the event, were inspired by images a Rwandan refugee camp.
“I wanted to show to America a picture of poverty, of the poor America,” Beecroft said. “My intention was to show the third world that is here.”
And with that in mind, about a hundred frail models stood perfectly still for a few hours while millions of people watched. A picture of a lengthy list of instructions, presumably by West, though he hasn’t commented on that, went viral, and included outlandish and contradictory rules spelled out in what can only be described as Kanye parlance, in all-caps: “DO NOT BE CASUAL,” “DO NOT ACT COOL,” “BEHAVE AS IF NO ONE WAS IN THE ROOM,” “DO NOT EVER LOOK AT THE JUMBOTRON.”
“Endurance is very important to me,” Beecroft said. “How long can you hold onto that position without entertaining anyone, and just being there? And start to acquire human qualities, and a look that is no longer glamorous, but introspective?” West, she said, allowed her to have “no action” in her direction of the models. “We told them don’t move, even if the music is playing.”
At the end of our conversation, Beecroft told me I should come by the next day to meet West. This, somewhat expectedly, did not pan out. “He’s shy, sorry,” Beecroft said in a text message. (West has yet to give an interview to any publication regarding The Life of Pablo—a media blackout strange even for him.)
Beecroft did reveal, however, that West plans on shooting his next video in Mexico, at one of the ancient Aztec pyramids in the Yucatan. She did the location scouting herself.
She also mentioned a fellow Italian artist, the director Pier Paolo Pasolini, who traveled to Africa in 1970 with the intention of making a film about the African Oresteia. He believed, Beecroft said, that “the new king of Africa will be the African American musician. And I thought, maybe this is something that will happen someday.”