From Swizz to Shia: A Brief History of Celebrity in the Art World.
It was pretty sudden. When Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie popped into Art Basel in Switzerland in 2009, it was bubbling. But Art Basel Miami Beach in 2012 was the year art broke. Previously, serious collectors like Lance Armstrong could be seen perusing a fair, but never before had I been so overwhelmed by the talk of celebrity. It was everywhere: an artist friend of mine scored a seat next to Kanye West and Kim Kardashian at a dinner. Demi Moore and Lenny Kravitz were spotted at the Artsy party at Soho Beach House. Chelsea Handler went with her hotelier boyfriend Andre Balazs, who owns the Standard Hotels. I stood on an elevator with Russell Simmons and saw Martha Stewart at a hotel party.
Just four years later, all of that is at par for the course. No one bats an eyelash when TMZ shows up in the Wynwood Arts District hoping to catch a glimpse of Leonardo DiCaprio and his latest 23-year-old blonde.
DiCaprio is actually one of the dozen or so highly respected art collectors who come from the world of entertainment, sport, music and fashion. Famously, Elton John started building his great photography collection after getting sober in 1991, and now it includes prints by the likes of Nan Goldin, Herb Ritts, Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy. “This collection is about love, not collecting for the sake of it or grandstanding,” he told The Guardian last year.
Music producer Swizz Beatz (born Kasseem Dean) has worked with everyone from Jay-Z and Beyonce to Kendrick Lamar and Lil Wayne. But he’s increasingly put more energy into the Dean Collection, his contemporary art collection that includes artists, like KAWS, Erik Jones, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The rap world has embraced art wholeheartedly in the recent years: Jay-Z danced with Marina Abramović at Pace Gallery in 2013 for his video Picasso Baby and Kanye West has collaborated with artists Vanessa Beecroft and Steve McQueen. But Dean can remember a time when he was the only one who took an interest.
“Ten years ago, no one wanted to be in a gallery,” he told New York magazine in 2014. “They’d tell me, ‘Swizz, this is boring.’ Now Art Basel is here and is the thing to do. Everyone wants to do the cool thing.”
But it’s not just the musicians. Tennis player John McEnroe, actor Neil Patrick Harris, fashion designer Marc Jacobs and comedian Steve Martin all have notable collections.
In 2015, Martin curated an exhibition of 20th century Canadian painter Lawren Harris at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. “You might say it’s extreme to curate an art show and then do an hour-long banjo show, but it’s not that far off-centre to me,” he told The New York Times about juggling his entertainment career and being a curator at a major museum. “And you apply the same principles to both—the first being, you do the best you can.”
Basketball player Shaquille O’Neal has gotten into the curating game twice with The FLAG Art Foundation, at their exhibition space in NY and Expo Chicago, selecting artists, like Mark Bradford, Awol Erizku, Cindy Sherman, Ugo Rondinone, Ellen Gallagher and Ron Mueck. Madonna, Drake, Pharrell Williams, magician David Blaine and singer Katy Perry have tried their hand at organising shows. And James Franco curated a show about James Dean at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2012, putting it together with artists, like Paul McCarthy, Aaron Young and Douglas Gordon to mixed reviews.
The most recent example of a celebrity curation was K-Pop idol T.O.P’s #TTTOP x Sotheby’s contemporary art sale at the auction house’s Hong Kong location. When I was last in Seoul, I was able to see a preview of T.O.P’s selections at the Shilla Hotel. It was an impressive arrangement of works ranging from Korean artists, like Lee Ufan and Kim Whanki to Western artists, like Keith Haring and Rudolf Stingel. But that’s to be expected: T.O.P wears his love for art on his sleeve. An avid collector himself, T.O.P served as a curator, for “The Eye Zone” at the ArtScience Museum in Singapore in 2015. He also loaned out several pieces by Haegue Yang for her exhibition at Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art later that year.
T.O.P’s Instagram is almost exclusively filled with pictures of museum and gallery visits (with the occasional snap of fine wine thrown in to punctuate the BIGBANG rapper’s exquisite taste), generously sharing his travels with his 6.8 million followers. In fact, he included a work by Japanese artist Kohei Nawa in the music video for his hit song BAE BAE, which has been watched over 80 million times on YouTube.
“I was raised in a very artistic household,” he told Sotheby’s when asked how he got turned onto contemporary art. “All the women in my family, including my mother, majored in art. They were all either artists or art teachers. The Korean modern masters Kim Whanki and Lee Insung are both my blood relatives.”
T.O.P’s presence created quite a stir, leading to a higher than estimated HKD$136 million for the 28 works. Sotheby’s Hong Kong’s Yuki Terase told CNN that many of the buyers were younger, underscoring the influence a youth idol celebrity curator can hold.
Though T.O.P says his aunt taught him how to paint, he favours to stick to music as his creative outlet. “I preferred looking at art—and immersing myself in it—to actually painting things myself.”
Other celebrities actually do deign to become artists. The late actor Dennis Hopper often took photos that were the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles in 2010. Actors Jeff Bridges and Viggo Mortensen have both delved into photography as well.
James Franco has made performance art and installation work, but his best work came in the form of a surreal performance in which he played the role of a fictional artist named Franco on daytime soap opera General Hospital. The result was predictably hilarious and a fine example of contemporary performance art. Tilda Swinton, meanwhile, collaborated with artist Cornelia Parker to re-create Parker’s work The Maybe, in which Swinton slept in a vitrine at London’s Serpentine Galleries for seven days.
The rap world has embraced art wholeheartedly in recent years: Jay-Z danced with Marina Abramović and Kanye West has collaborated with artists Vanessa Beecroft and Steve McQueen.
Lucy Liu showed a series of collages at Salon Vert gallery in London in 2011 and Miley Cyrus raised eyebrows with candy-coloured sculptures (including a bong and a dildo) at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2014. Marilyn Manson showed watercolours at Museo Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso in Mexico City in 2011 (it should be noted that the writer of this article curated Manson’s exhibition, called “The Path of Misery”). Even singers Justin Bieber and Chris Brown have dabbled in street art.
Actor Adrien Brody took up a paintbrush recently and has already had two exhibitions, including a showing of Hooked, a series of fish paintings, at ART021 Shanghai Contemporary Art Fair in November of last year.
“Most people think actors are incredibly vain, and probably most actors are,” Brody, who portrayed Salvador Dalí in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, told Huffington Post about transitioning from the entertainment world to the art world. “And maybe I am vain, to a certain extent, but the purpose of doing this is far from vanity.”
Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth has shown her crumpled, glitter-flecked compositions at 303 Gallery in New York—to mixed reviews—as well as at the gallery’s booth at Art Basel Hong Kong in 2015. “I really live in the art world,” Gordon told Elle last year about how she had never felt comfortable being labelled a musician. “That’s always the way I think. That came first. The music was almost incidental, and was something I stumbled into.”
But no one has put their heart into it like actor Shia LaBeouf. His debut artwork—in collaboration with established artists Nastja Säde Rönkkö and Luke Turner—came at a time when public sentiment was quite low on the Transformers star. He had been in trouble with the law a few times, and he was accused of plagiarising comic book artist Daniel Clowes in a short film he had released online. In response, LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner set up an off-site art show, called “IAMSORRY”, inviting visitors to enter one at a time and sit with him while he sat in front of them wearing a paper bag over his head that said, “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE” and silently crying. Before entering, visitors could take one item from a selection of items into the room with them, and were given no instruction on how to interact with LaBeouf. In an email with TheArtGorgeous, Turner described that piece as a work about “connection, empathy and community.”
Since then, LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner have staged a number of exhibitions at places like the Angelika Film Center in New York; the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology in Liverpool, England; and the Sydney Opera House. Their latest work, HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US, at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, was to be a four-year-long livestream in protest of Donald Trump’s presidency, in which visitors were encouraged to say the exhibition’s title phrase into the camera.*
With each passing year, the celebrity/art divide is getting smaller and smaller. Television presenter Ryan Seacrest is on the board of trustees at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, while Swizz Beatz is on the board at the Brooklyn Museum. At Art Basel in 2012, I heard grumblings “Miami Beach is over”, one curator told me, referencing the parties and the celebrities. But Jerry Saltz disagrees. In a talk at Frieze New York in 2015, he conveyed his thoughts in the best possible rhetoric: “There aren’t a lot of celebrities in the art world…I’m more interested in people that are gods in their worlds, and have come to our world: Kim Kardashian, Kanye. Few people have manipulated the ephemeral essence of image better than Kim Kardashian or Kanye. Kim is as completely self-invented a person as there has ever been. I’m not going to start worrying that they are infringing on the art world. I think, the more the merrier.”
* At the time of publication, the livestream was no longer active
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Writer MAXWELL WILLIAMS
photos vis Rob Kim/Getty Images; ©Rankin; Hong Jang Hyun Photo Production Gary So @ Mad Carrot Production; ART021; LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner