the inside story of kanye’s 'famous' exhibition
The director of the gallery that hosted Yeezy’s living, breathing, nude celebrity sculpture opens up to i-D about staging the rapper’s controversial foray in contemporary art.
Rapper, fashion designer, and now contemporary artist Kanye West held a surprising pop-up art exhibition in Los Angeles for two days last week. It was announced last minute, in true Yeezy style, through a Tweet; this time authored by his wife, Kim Kardashian West: "Heading to a secret art gallery location to view Kanye's Famous Exhibition!!!!"
That secret art gallery happened to Los Angeles' Blum & Poe. The gallery's co-director, Tim Blum, helped demystify West's mysterious Famous exhibition by answering some of our questions (but not all of them), about a show that has left many people wondering if West will be moving into the art world.
The gallery — which Blum co-founded with his partner, Jeff Poe, in 1994 — has given many famous artists their first shows. It's where German artist Dirk Skreber, American performance artist Sharon Lockhart, and abstract painter Mark Grotjahn all made their US debuts. The same goes for West, who Blum believes in, which is why he gave the rapper this exhibition: "because it was his first show," he said.
The show features replica sculptures of 12 celebrities and former (or wannabe) politicians, including George Bush and Donald Trump, as well as Rihanna, Amber Rose, Taylor Swift, Anna Wintour, Bill Cosby, Chris Brown, Ray Jay, Caitlin Jenner, Kim Kardashian, and Kanye West. West's creative content company DONDA actualized the project, for which the agency hired two Los Angeles studios to create anatomically-correct replicas of each person — sort of like a bed ridden, sleeping wax museum. The piece was inspired by a painting by Vincent Desiderio, and first shown to the world in West's music video for his controversial song, "Famous."
The 12 disciples in this exhibition, entitled Famous, are made from silicon sculptures that lay in bed 'breathing.' "The sculptures have mechanisms inside that allow the chests to move up and down as if they were breathing," Blum explains. "They're not animatronic."
It took four months for the DONDA team to create these pieces, which were 3D scanned and modeled from photos sourced online. The artists incorporated human hair (including on Trumps behind and inside Cosby's nose). Kardashian's ass was sculpted to perfection by Kim herself in the studio.
It all came about two weeks ago when Blum got a call from Scooter Braun, Justin Bieber's manager who's now on West's management team. Apparently, West wanted to show the piece spontaneously; since he knew Blum through Takashi Murakami — a Japanese artist that Blum represents — Blum was who he chose to pitch the idea to. The gallery had to push back the exhibition dates for Kahlil Joseph's show, but Blum was enthusiastic and wanted to make it happen.
However, West's exhibition was created entirely from afar. "He was on tour, so he did not physically step foot in the gallery," said Blum. "But he was virtually present via robotics, directing the installation process." In terms of what it was like working with West — even if it was only digitally — Blum summed it up in five words: "Amazing, dynamic, collaborative, exciting, and serious."
West has a long history with the art world. He collaborated with the aforementioned anime-friendly pop artist Murakami for the cover of his 2007 album Graduation, has compared himself to performance artist Marina Abramovic, gave a shout out to Andy Warhol in the music video for "Heartless," and has collaborated with controversial performance artist Vanessa Beecroft for his Yeezy shows at New York Fashion Week. He's also commissioned George Condo to create album artwork, and collaborated with Turner Prize and Oscar winner Steve McQueen.
Another of West's more recent collaborators is LA-based artist Cali Thornhill Dewitt, who designed the Life of Pablo merchandise for West. Dewitt's Gothic font designs have appeared on the TLOP shirts, jackets, and hats which were sold last month at 21 pop-ups around the world. In true Kanye style, West has even claimed his Tweets are a form of contemporary art.
The reception of the show, according to Blum, was "extremely positive by all accounts." However it has been met with mixed reviews, as some people can't believe that West is receiving recognition as an artist for an artwork that he hasn't even touched, nevermind worked to make. Even though we live in a day and age where blockbuster artists have factories churning out art, some called this show garbage; others said it brought new meaning to the selfie. Meanwhile, Blum told CNN that if the audience did not know who the artist was, they would have a different reception to this artwork. In fact, it would be "universally supported." But why are there so many haters? Blum's answer was simple. "Haters gonna hate," he said.
But it isn't easy for any celebrity to be taken seriously in the rarefied and closed world of contemporary art after they've made their name elsewhere. Even though the exhibition was only open for two days, Blum maintains it wasn't merely a statement, just a matter of practicalities. "That was all the time that we had available," he explains.
It wasn't even open to the public, but how private was it? Aside from Kim and Kendall coming to the opening, the guest list was apparently "invitation only," said Blum, "a cross-section of art, fashion, and other cultural worlds of L.A."
According to Blum, the show has now closed and "the artwork is being safely stored, not currently on view." But according to West's publicist, Tracy Nguyen Romulus, the piece is reportedly on its way to its next location, and Braun and Blum are looking where to place it next, potentially an L.A. museum. Although Blum maintains "the artwork is currently not for sale," despite reports the gallery hopes to sell the piece for $4 million.
But will Blum & Poe come to represent West as an artist on its roster in the near future? Blum remains optimistic. "We'll see!" he said.
Text Nadja Sayej
Photography Sam Kahn
Kanye West: Famous Installation view, 2016
Blum & Poe, Los Angeles
© Kanye West
Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo