Jay-Z Was Present

Inspired by Marina Abramovic, the rapper turned “Picasso Baby” into performance art

Jay-Z Marina Abramovic

Jay-Z has been collecting art and visiting artists in their studios for some time now, though he has never been at the center of the art world. But Wednesday afternoon at the Pace Gallery in Chelsea, all eyes were on him as he rapped his Magna Carta Holy Grail track “Picasso Baby” for six straight hours and interacted with a who’s who of art world insiders. Artists George Condo (“I just wanna blow up Condos in my condo”), Marilyn Minter, Elizabeth Peyton, Rob Pruitt, Mickalene Thomas, Fred Wilson, Lawrence Weiner, Lorna Simpson, Jayson Musson, Gary Simmons, Adam Pendleton, Kalup Linzy, MoMA director Glenn Lowry, and film director Jim Jarmusch were among the hooting crew circling the rapper. The live performance was filmed for a soon-to-be-released docu-video and put together in under two weeks after Jay-Z brought the concept to his art adviser, the gallerist Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, of Salon 94, and put her in touch with director Mark Romanek, whose video credits include Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” and Madonna’s “Bedtime Stories.”

They all agreed that given the “durational” aspect of the live performance (six hours) and its obvious nod to Marina Abramovic’s landmark MoMA show, “The Artist is Present,” (she sat at the museum during opening hours for three straight months) Abramovic herself should be tapped for the piece. “I thought ‘We can’t just take Marina Abramovic’s idea—that’s super uncool,” recalled Romanek. So I said, ‘If we’re going to do this, you have to get her blessing.’” Abramovic not only agreed to participate on short notice, she also invited Jay over this past Tuesday for a tête-à tête. According to Greenberg Rohatyn, Abramovic showed Jay-Z slides of her work and gave him advice about how “to get into a rhythm, a trance“ while performing and how to mine the after effects for inspiration. Jay-Z liked the idea of interacting directly with visitors as Abramovic had done, so a bench was set up in the center of the gallery and select guests were cast for one-on-one moments. “Jay’s desire for that kind of connection intrigued me,” said Greenberg Rohatyn “as it was so experimental. There are many emotions set up with this ‘give and take’ of energy—desire, embarrassment, fear, power. The idea was for him to interact with other artists.”

For much of the day, the rapper owned the room—except, that is, when Abramovic made her own dramatic entrance, casting off her belt and shoes and staring Jay-Z down as she planted her forehead on his and kept bull-dozing forward. For a second, it was awkward as Abramovic took command. The Artist was certainly Present. But then she was gone and for the next three hours, Jay-Z drew on the after effects. As it happens, Jay-Z owns works by many of the artists he raps about in “Picasso Baby”—Jean-Michel Basquiat, George Condo and Andy Warhol—among them. But a Picasso still eludes him. Stay tuned.