Vanessa Beecroft is no stranger to controversy—from the beginning of her career in 1993, she has been a lightening rod in the art world. "Hooters for intellectuals'' is how Roberta Smith once described her work in the New York Times. But eight years ago, Beecroft, who has always enjoyed celebrity fans, began collaborating with Kanye West, possibly the most incendiary of all celebrities and her equivalent in the mainstream as a cultural bomb thrower. She gave him artistic gravitas, and he, in turn, exposed her to a much, much bigger audience. At his Yeezy Season 3 fashion show-cum-listening party, West singled her out by name for praise, leading all of Madison Square to applaud for an Italian artist most there had probably never heard of.
Since they started working together in 2008, first with the debut of West’s 808s & Heartbreak album, then on his short film Runaway, followed by a performance at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2013, Beecroft has slowly shifted her attention from her own practice —and dealers including Jeffrey Deitch and Larry Gagosian— to focus almost exclusively on West. Like Virgil Abloh, she has become one of his closest collaborators. She has designed sets for the rapper’s tours, and even spearheaded the art direction of his wedding to one Kim Kardashian, which featured Carrara marble statues.
Fashion has always kept a close eye on Beecroft; Tom Ford once designed the wardrobe for one of her shows. And her involvement with West has only heightened her profile. For fall, Tod’s tapped her to stage their presentation during Milan Fashion Week, where she wrapped models, including Karlie Kloss, in pieces of leather secured by oversized needles. “The models looked like savages to me,” she said. Despite her canny understanding of media, Beecroft rarely grants interviews, but she agreed to a conversation only if she could do so over e-mail. Here she is, in her own words, on fashion, the limits of the art world, and the passion of Kanye West.
How did you and Kanye first meet?
I met Kanye in October 2008 in L.A. He had reached out to my studio but I didn’t know who he was since I don’t follow pop culture. At the time, he explained, he was presenting his album 808, an album that came out of a moment of suffering - the loss of his mother, of his lover and the trust of a group audience. I was experiencing a similar moment in my personal life and, due to the fact that Kanye is an African American male, [and because] he respected art and he was in a moment of crisis, I decided to follow him. On the same day I met Kanye I also met my husband.
How do you approach Kanye’s shows? What sort of instruction does he give you?
Kanye is extremely respectful and humble towards others' creativity. I never felt as if I received instructions but rather a brief, a verbal visualization of thoughts. A daydreaming type of confession and aspiration. During these briefings, ideas, memories, stories, dreams, fantasies and visuals are presented. I usually listen and allow these ideas to enter my head. Then, after spending some time with them, I select what I can hold on to, in order to build a symbolic image. Sometimes I stay close to the original, sometimes I don’t. I am given carte blanche. Since the very beginning, my husband Federico Spadoni helps me in this process.
What were the challenges of working in a space as large as Madison Square Garden for Yeezy 3?
I was actually surprised on how small MSG was compared to what I expected. I found an “outdoor” inspiration image from a Rwandan genocide refugee camp that didn’t have any physical limitation. We tried to fill all the space there was with people.
What do you like about working with Kanye over creating your own work for galleries and dealers?
When I work with Kanye I am liberated by the fact of being a female, what is considered a white person. I am free from the schemes of the art world, I gain another audience. I am protected by Kanye’s talent. I become black. I am no longer Vanessa Beecroft, and I am free to do whatever I want because Kanye allows it.
A lot of what you’ve explored in your presentations—poverty and feminism, for example—seem at odds with West’s persona. How do you deal with that juxtaposition?
I think Kanye’s social work is presented in a new form. Kanye doesn’t follow the traditional standards of political work. However, by being extremely sensitive to the zeitgeist, Kanye, to me, is the most political, experimental and fundamentally humanitarian of all. Not by explicitly donating, supporting or consoling the poor, but by living, in his own body, the change in a way that is not easy. He embodies the persona that makes his life a project and he is truthful to his lyrics. Kanye is a poet. There is no discrimination while working with Kanye. The only discrimination is [against] the demagogic, the old, the politically correct, even in the art form.
On the other end of the spectrum, there was Tod’s presentation.
Tod’s asked me to realize a work in which the handmade was emphasized and where nudity was not exhibited. Inspired by a photo by Guy Bourdin, I had a woman lie on a giant work table surrounded by others. I asked the seamstresses to give me samples of leather they use and stitched them around the models’ bodies with sharp metal needles creating a second skin for them and reestablishing the violence of being nude, wrapped in animal skin in tone with their incarnation. The models looked like savages to me.
Between Kanye and Tod’s, you were on the fashion calendar twice this season. Does that surprise you or have you always been interested in fashion?
Fashion deals with humans and embellishes them or locates them socially. I am interested in using the body as a vehicle of communication and clothes as formal elements with political and poetical content.