Jay-Z is Rhyming Picasso and Rothko

July 13th, 2013

“I have no idea why I’m here,” the artist Marilyn Minter said, as she sat in a temporary V.I.P. room at the Pace Gallery in Chelsea on a steamy Wednesday. “I’m just a fame whore.”

Ms. Minter was one of hundreds of fans and art-world types — Kalup Linzy; Lawrence Weiner; Andres Serrano; George Condo; Yvonne Force Villareal; Lisa Phillips, the director of the New Museum; and Agnes Gund, MoMA’s president emerita — invited to take part in a live filming of Jay-Z’s music video for “Picasso Baby,” the art-centric song off his new album, “Magna Carta …Holy Grail.”

The rap marathon was inspired by the performance artist Marina Abramovic’s 2010 MoMA exhibition, “The Artist Is Present,” said the art dealer Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, who is Jay-Z’s art adviser and was a host of the event along with the film director Mark Romanek. “Jay has been wanting to do something durational for some time.”

The video shoot added a welcome frisson to Chelsea as the dozy season hit its annual doldrums. And it livened up a corner of the Web, where the topic of art-world fame whores racing to sell out can be counted on to set the thumb-tappers in motion.

Stephanie Theodore, a Bushwick gallery owner, tweeted a wry suggestion that the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei divorce his wife, marry Ms. Abramovic and form a megacult. Why not invite James Franco, the art blog Hyperallergic added, and make it an unholy threesome?

At a mere six hours, the taping was a water-cooler break by the usual standards of Ms. Abramovic, who during the run of “The Artist Is Present,” spent the equivalent of 30 full days sitting immobile in the museum atrium, while spectators took turns sitting opposite her. Still, as Mr. Linzy, a performance artist, said, “It’s epic.”

Dressed for the performance not in the Tom Ford suits he favors, but a pair of black jeans, white sneakers, a white short-sleeve shirt, a heavy gold chain, a gumball-size pinkie ring and a wristwatch from his collection of six-figure timepieces, Jay-Z rapped from a platform facing a bench reminiscent of the set of Ms. Abramovic’s original artwork.

Like Ms. Abramovic, he was a mesmeric presence, shifting spectators around as though they were iron filings drawn by a magnet. With his usual braggadocio, Jay-Z rapped lyrics like: “I want a Picasso, in my casa … I wanna Rothko, no I wanna brothel,” and “What’s it gonna take for me to go, For y’all to see I’m the modern-day Pablo Picasso baby.”

He reminded his listeners that, like most every self-respecting millionaire mogul these days, he is an avid collector of contemporary art, although he alone turns the pursuit to his singular ends in lyrics that knowingly name-check everyone from Jeff Koons to Jean-Michel Basquiat.

In “Picasso Baby,” Jay-Z’s grab bag of references includes Mr. Condo, Art Basel Miami Beach, Francis Bacon, the Museum of Modern Art, the Tate Modern and Andy Warhol. He cites Basquiat twice, preening his insider knowledge by lyrically incorporating both the artist’s given name and Samo, his original graffiti tag.

To some spectators, it was particularly bracing to watch a hip-hop god colonize a white cube world that must once have seemed as distant as Mars from the Marcy Houses in Brooklyn, the projects where Jay-Z grew up (and where he was known by his given name, Shawn Carter). “For a young black man in America to be on his level of success and rapping about art, and not what he’s wearing, is the coolest thing,” the artist Mickalene Thomas said.

“People have to realize he’s referencing artists who have been shape-shifters in themselves,” she added. “They have to know that a young person hearing him saying ‘I am Picasso,’ is going to look up Picasso.”

Ms. Minter, whose lush photorealist paintings comment on glamour and decadence, said, “Jay-Z speaks to the times we live in.”

An Mr. Weiner, an austere conceptualist, added, “Jay-Z speaks with the times he lives in.”

Unquestionably, Jay-Z manipulates our credulous times as deftly as he did a crowd that also included Judd Apatow, the designer Cynthia Rowley, Alan Cumming, Adam Driver and the artist Marcel Dzama, who came to the filming wearing a cow costume he constructed for a recent video.

“It’s great how he has really recreated the whole MoMA feel,” Mr. Dzama said. And it helped that Ms. Abramovic herself was on hand, arriving theatrically an hour into the event and emerging from a stretch S.U.V. with a turbaned chauffeur. Wearing one of the floor-length black dresses that a friend, the Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci, creates for her, Ms. Abramovic stepped from the vehicle and glided into the gallery with the hypnotic gravity of some loopy space priestess from a sci-fi kitsch classic of the ’50s.

Cameras in her wake, she parted the crowd — “Queen of Outer Space” meets the hip-hop monarch — crossing the gallery to mount a low platform, where she and Jay-Z engaged in a pas de deux sure to go down as among the oddest moments in the annals of performance art.

Two minutes later, the dance had already been posted to Vine and gone art-world viral. “OK the video in Infinite Jest that entertains you to death has finally come and it is the Vine of Jay-Z & Marina Abramovic,” wrote @LindsayZoladz. “R.I.P. US ALL.”

Don’t close the coffin lid quite yet.

Like Ms. Abramovic, whose stare-downs at MoMA left so many participants in tears that it inspired the blog “Marina Abramovic Made Me Cry,” the Jay-Z video was too sincere, even in its cynicism, to be all bad.

To a large extent, that was owed to the hip-hop artist’s way with the crowd, both mellow and collaborative. When a generator cut out, taking with it the background music, Jay-Z called out: “Anyone got unusual talents? Anyone can do something awesome?” He then invited a ballet dancer to perform some pirouettes; the performance artist Jacolby Satterwhite to show off his vogueing; and Kiah Gregory, a music student, to blow the roof off the gallery with her a cappella rendition of a torch song.

“I just love the way Jay-Z riffs on what Marina did,” said Roselee Goldberg, the performance art historian and founder of Performa.

That the boo-birds on Twitter failed to share the love will doubtless help Jay-Z’s cause or, anyway, his record sales. The shock and peril that once characterized much performance art had been co-opted by a marketing wizard, turned, as the bloggers carped, into a tool of aesthetic predictability.

Here it seems proper to resuscitate both Andy Warhol’s famous observation that “being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art,” and to paraphrase an aphorism often attributed to the actual Picasso: mediocre artists borrow, great artists steal.

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