exploring the populist politics of art at yeezy 3

From Vanessa Beecroft’s conceptual performance installation to his Cali Thornhill Dewitt–designed merch, here’s why Yeezy’s approach to art parallels his encompassing vision of fashion.

by Emily Manning and i-D Staff
12 February 2016, 10:40pm

There's no doubt about it: yesterday's Yeezy Season 3 affair was Kanye West's ultimate curatorial statement (surpassing even his creative-directed wedding). It was a near all-encompassing presentation of West's tales: he was literally surrounded by his musical collaborators — Travis Scott, Pusha T, Vic Mensa, and a very cozy looking Young Thug to name only a few — as their sounds shook Madison Square Garden. Fashion-wise: We already know Jackie Nickerson returned to shoot West's recently launched zine (say it with me, "zeen") and given his work on the last two season, it's likely press-shy stylist Joe McKenna had his hand in it all. Art was Beecroft, Beecroft, Beecroft.

The Italian conceptual performance artist has not only worked with West on his past two fashion shows, the pair have been collaborating for nearly a decade. First on an 808s & Heartbreak listening party in 2008, followed by the Yeezus tour, Miami Art Basel, and, yes, that wedding. Beecroft's blockbuster performance — in which she positioned 400 street-cast models within a hulking structure draped in billowing fabric in the center of the Garden — was the event's artistic centerpiece. Beecroft's name was even printed next to West's on the physical MSG ticket. But she wasn't the only artist who featured at yesterday's show.

Though West kitted his royal family in all-white embellished Balmain, the man himself rocked a black baseball cap and a red long-sleeve tee screen-printed with a graphic of The Life of Pablo album art. The same red merch was on sale in the Garden lobby (a homing signal for the hypest of hypebeasts). As Virgil Abloh confirmed on Instagram, it was all designed by legendary LA art weirdo Cali Thornhill Dewitt

Image via @virgilabloh

A regular fixture at Printed Matter's annual Art Book Fairs, Cali is an artist, photographer, designer, director, record label owner, and formerly Frances Bean Cobain's childhood nanny. Cali's artworks are often text-based and demonstrate a sharp sense of wit. For Grave Yard — a standout 2014 exhibition that showed at the now-defunct Muddguts Gallery in Brooklyn — Cali created works by pairing just two words with a stock image and printed them on corrugated plastic. Together, the assemblage pieces amounted to darkly poetic, confrontationally humorous installation. Each of the works sold for less than $300.

West also sourced The Life of Pablo's album art from Peter De Potter, a Belgian artist working chiefly in photography, appropriation, and assemblage. Though a longtime Raf Simons collaborator, De Potter has lately been working on Tumblr-only art — dedicating distinct pages to his individual series. And perhaps the hottest design that emerged from yesterday's outing? An airbrushed tee the rapper sported featuring his late mother and father in law, Robert Kardashian.

Ye spent much of the Madison Square Garden presentation delivering earnest addresses about the difficulty of curating his creative vision, a subject he's often spoken on (remember when he and Fern Mallis got into a Twitter war? She was in the Season 3 audience, by the way). "I know some of you think because I'm a celebrity this is easy. But getting all these talented people together was the hardest," he said. He's been the first to remind us that his acceptance as a creative design force by his industry heroes has taken a lot of leg work (I guess fashion isn't easy when you're really famous and straight). To this effect, he shouted out thanks to heavy hitters including Carine Roitfeld and, duh, Anna Wintour. 

What's interesting about it all, though, is that West is trying to break through fashion's upper echelon's with a relatively populist vision, not an isolating, overtly conceptual offering. His designs -- hoodies, sneakers, leggings, joggers -- are elevated, but ultimately ubiquitous, and that's how he likes them. "Sweatshirts are fucking important!" he told Vanity Fair as Season 2 wrapped. West's approach to art tows that same line.

Kanye flies Beecroft's aristocratic conceptual flag, but simultaneously hocks Dewitt's screen-printed sweatshirts at the merch stand for $40. De Potter's Raf co-sign carries massive fashion cache, but the T.L.O.P. cover has an almost MS Paint feel to it. Margiela's done airbrushing, but so has the dude on the Coney Island boardwalk. A project mixing ultra-exclusivity with accessibility isn't exactly creative news to anyone. But on West's crusade to win the fashion industry's favor, this populism feels exciting. 


Text Emily Manning
Photography Jeff Rogers

kanye west
Yeezy Season 3
Vanessa Beecroft
cali thornhill dewitt
peter de potter