Artist honoured his work inspired Kanye West's video

Famous, a video by rapper Kanye West (left), depicts a row of nude celebrities, including singer Taylor Swift and presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Famous, a video by rapper Kanye West (above), depicts a row of nude celebrities, including singer Taylor Swift and presidential candidate Donald Trump. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • Since his early days as a Chicago beat-maker, Kanye West has been a master of sampling - only the scale and the canvases have changed.

In the new music video for Famous, which depicts a row of nude celebrities, including singer Taylor Swift and presidential candidate Donald Trump, asleep in bed with the rapper and his wife, Kim Kardashian, the references are to contemporary art: The video was inspired most directly by Vincent Desiderio's painting Sleep, a fact the artist did not learn until last Friday, the morning of the video's premiere.

The evening before, Desiderio, 60, was told cryptically he was wanted in Los Angeles immediately.

"I couldn't hear properly when my gallery called and when they said 'Kanye West', I thought they said 'Conde Nast'," he said.

After reaching LA, Desiderio was whisked off to meet the rapper.

Kanye saw things in it that I don't know how he could've seen. He is truly an artist.

VINCENT DESIDERIO on the rapper, whose music video Famous, which depicts celebrities in the nude, was inspired by Desiderio's painting Sleep

"It was almost as if they were throwing a small surprise party for me," he said of West and his team. "They were all smiling like the cat who ate the canary. Then they sat me down and asked if I'd like to see what they'd been working on."

What followed was a voyeur's view of some of the most recognisable figures in American pop culture and politics - comedian Bill Cosby, former president George W. Bush, singer Chris Brown and others - arranged in a tableau borrowed from Desiderio's work (itself inspired by a Jackson Pollock mural commissioned for collector Peggy Guggenheim). He was elated.

"I was almost in tears," Desiderio said. "We just hugged each other."

Back at his studio in Sleepy Hollow, New York, the artist discussed his impressions of West and the bridge between the art world and hip-hop.

What was your initial reaction to the video?

As I was watching the thing... all of a sudden, I realised that it was my Sleep painting: "Holy (expletive)! Oh my god," I was really speechless.

Kanye saw things in it that I don't know how he could've seen. He is truly an artist.

Did you give legal permission for Kanye to refer to your painting?

As far as I'm concerned, it has nothing to do with copyright. A work of art goes out there and there's a stream that activates and widens the communal imagination. It was an honour I was being quoted. There was no money involved at all.

Did he offer?

It wasn't offered, but I wouldn't have taken it. That would have cheapened the whole thing - this building of an amazing bridge between aesthetic realms that are feeding off the same information.

Rap has interacted with contemporary art more, as in Drake using James Turrell-inspired visuals for Hotline Bling and Jay Z working with Marina Abramovic for Picasso Baby. Is there any part of you that feels icky for being sucked into this world of celebrity?

For Kanye, the way I understand him now is that he's much more like Andy Warhol... But he's like an exploded Internet version of Warhol, allowing these celebs to hang themselves with their own words while he sits there and says: "That's fabulous."

Warhol was a mirror for the times. When Kanye goes through these shenanigans, he's mirroring the times. He said it himself: It's performance art. His whole life is performance art.

Did you recognise everyone portrayed in the video?

I did, except for some of the hip-hop people. That seems to be the thing people are focusing on more - I'm sure he did it to be incendiary - but the real subject of the video is that many of these people in the bed are repulsive. But everything about the video kept me at bay in regard to making a judgment on them. Every time I would think a thought like that, I would see them sleeping and vulnerable, like babies. We're all the same. They're just famous.

Lena Dunham wrote that the video "feels informed and inspired by the aspects of our culture that make women feel unsafe even in their beds, in their own bodies". What do you make of that?

Artists are not saints. They're not people whose first obligation is moral correctness.

As much as I like Dunham, art goes to dangerous places. And this is not to sound like Trump, whom I loathe, but if you want to make it amenable to a certain political class or agenda, what a disaster that would be. It's like saying, "Hitchcock, that guy must've really loved killing women." Or Dostoyevsky - "I don't like that guy very much."

It's horrible to look at, horrible to hear, but there's also the kernel of salvation. That tension between those two things is where art functions.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2016, with the headline 'Artist honoured his work inspired Kanye West's video'. Print Edition | Subscribe