A Report From the Front Lines of Jay-Z's "Picasso Baby" Shoot at Pace

(Photo © Benjamin Sutton)

Jay-Z has more discerning taste in art than you might think — or at least his managers do. Though he’s been name-dropping blue chip artists like Picasso and Basquiat in his rhymes for years, Wednesday’s music video shoot for his new song “Picasso Baby” at Chelsea’s Pace Gallery featured a carefully curated lineup of some of contemporary art’s biggest names. Mickalene Thomas shared a dance with the 43-year-old MC. Sanford Biggers sketched furiously while PS1 founder Alanna Heiss spun around the gallery with a cast on her leg. Dustin Yellin performed an impromptu breakdance. Ryan McNamara pulled people from the audience to the bench at the gallery’s center, which faced a pedestal where Jay-Z stood, statue-like, at the beginning of each run-through of the track. “It’s not like I planned it,” McNamara said. “I found out about this today and I heard Jay-Z was involved.”

Though intended as a reference to “The Artist is Present,” the marathon performance art piece by Marina Abramovic (who was also on hand) and evocative of The National’s recent, six-hour performance of “Sorrow” with Ragnar Kjartansson (who was not), the event was essentially a cameo-filled music video shoot. The celebrities putting in appearances were perfectly tailored to the art-heavy track. Marilyn Minter bopped on the bench with Dana Schutz before standing up and kissing Jay-Z’s gold Roc-a-Fella pendant. Rashid Johnson traded jabs with the hip-hop superstar. Lawrence Weiner reclined patiently while the rapper went around cajoling the crowd standing on the edges of the vast gallery. He was eventually joined by a man in a harlequin outfit and cow mask. Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg got up and strutted to the bass-heavy track. “It was so much fun,” she said afterward. “You can’t imagine.”


The highlight of the afternoon, though, was Jay-Z’s showdown with Abramovic. Most guests spent little more than a minute engaging with the MC but, true to form, she lasted the track’s full four minutes and six seconds. She stared him down, getting so close that their foreheads touched, and he seemed to back down — though the pair was all smiles and hugs after the song ended. Their exchange may have been a far cry from Abramovic’s charged collaborations with Ulay, but it was also the only moment (save perhaps McNamara’s gesture toward inclusiveness) during the event when an art-world representative stopped fawning over the multi-millionaire recording artist and tried to lend his performance some kind of gallery-appropriate gravitas. Exactly how the scene’s short-lived intensity will figure in director Mark Romanek’s finished “Picasso Baby” short is anybody’s guess, but it seems safe to say that this won’t be the holy grail (or even the Magna Carta) of music videos.

To see pictures from Jay-Z's “Picasso Baby” music video shoot, click the slideshow.