Kanye West is making headlines, again. His new music video for Famous depicts a row of nude celebrities, including Taylor Swift and Donald J. Trump, asleep in bed with the rapper and his wife, Kim Kardashian. And the references he’s making are direct ones to contemporary art. The video was inspired most notably by Vincent Desiderio’s painting Sleep, a fact the artist did not learn until the morning of the video’s premiere. West’s depiction, which uses wax figures instead of warm bodies, falls into categories of social and political commentary, recurring themes that West is fond of injecting into his work in our age of obsession with celebrity. Putting controversy aside, I think the task at hand, to better understand all the fuss, is to delve a bit deeper into West’s font of inspiration for this startling video and take a peek at some of his other credentials.
One of Desiderio’s most unforgettable and largest paintings is Sleep, an 8-by-24-foot tableau depicting, from above, in an eerie light, a dozen mostly naked, slumbering people laid out among rumpled sheets. This vast picture grew out of the artist’s traumatic experience in 2000, when he lay prone in bed and staring up at the ceiling for months while enduring cancer treatment. At age 52, Vincent Desiderio is surely one of America’s most sensitive and gifted painters. With head and heart firmly rooted in a tradition that stretches from the sixteenth to the twenty-first century, he creates palpable paintings that confront and move viewers. The New York Times recently interviewed Desiderio on the music video and it seems that he is quite flattered by Kanye’s nod. However, there are those who find the rapper’s re-appropriation of Desiderio’s work uncomfortable, inappropriate and downright illegal. For those who think the video too revealing, let’s not forget the man behind the madness—the one waiting for his wax personalities’ live doppelgangers to sue him.
West had a fine art background before he ever became the household name he is today. In 1997, West was admitted to the Chicago American Academy of Art on a scholarship and, not all that long after, in 2010, he commissioned painter George Condo to collaborate on five album artworks for his album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. West’s ascent was quick, his music grabbed a lot of attention after he frankly accused President George W. Bush of hating African Americans on live television in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And he was very eager to celebrate and collaborate with contemporary artists like Takashi Murakami and Vanessa Beecroft by featuring them in music videos, on album covers, and by buying their work. Beecroft worked as art director for West’s, Runaway (2010) music video, which followed the theme of ballerinas and dance made by Condo for the album’s artwork. Revealing an infatuation with contemporary art that’s personal as well as professional, West commissioned Condo to hand-paint an exceedingly pricey Hermes Birkin bag as a Christmas bauble for Kim. It also seems he’s in line with some like-minded others. Recently rap has been mingling with contemporary art more often, as seen in Drake’s choice of James Turrell-inspired visuals for Hotline Bling, and Jay Z’s work with Marina Abramovic on Picasso Baby. Yet Yeezy stands out. He’s surely the most brazen of his contemporaries and he is acutely aware of creative output blossoming outside his own remit. Online petitions have even been generated nominating West as a directorial candidate for the Venice Biennale, and I’d argue he’s not wholly unqualified.
This sleepy vignette isn’t the first stroke of inspiration West has found in visual artists’ bodies of work, and we can only assume it won’t be the last time he makes an uproar-causing statement by bridging gaps between rap and fine art.