​​Simon de Pury on How Trailblazing Hip Hop Stars Kanye West, Pharrell Williams and Jay-Z Built Bridges Between the Worlds of Music and Art

Every month in The Hammer, art-industry veteran Simon de Pury lifts the curtain on his life as the ultimate art-world insider, his brushes with celebrity, and his invaluable insight into the inner workings of the art market.

When back in the early eighties I heard for the first time the music by artists such as Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, or the GB Experience, it was an exhilarating shock. Rap, the rhythmic rhyming chanted speech, was beginning to conquer the world, and it was only one element of the cultural revolution ignited by Hip Hop. Music, DJ’ing, dancing, art, fashion and jewelry have all been transformed by the burst of creativity and energy that emanated from this movement that originated at 1970s block parties in the Bronx, among African American, Latino American and Caribbean American communities.

Jean-Michel Basquiat experienced initial fame as part of the graffiti duo SAMO, before his meteoric rise. There was initially something totally rebellious about this new movement. As curator of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection I was excited in 1983 to give a guided tour of the collection that was then based in Lugano, Switzerland, to Rammellzee the “graffiti writer,” musician, painter, and sculptor.

He was walking through the galleries of the Villa Favorita with a huge boombox perched on one of his shoulders with music coming out of it at maximum volume. Looking at the masterworks by Carpaccio, Ghirlandaio, Caravaggio, Holbein, and Van Eyck he kept repeating “Holy shit! This is amazing!” At the end of the tour I asked him to sign the golden book reserved for V.I.P. guests. He filled a double page with his oversized scribble of a signature. When Baron H.H. Thyssen-Bornemisza next was in Lugano and wanted another guest to sign the guest book, he was very upset and felt it had been defaced. He asked me to have the double page taken out. I was luckily able to dissuade him from doing it when I explained that Rammellzee was an important artist.

Jacob the Jeweler, musician Pharrell Williams and Designer Nigo. Photo by Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images.

Jacob the Jeweler, musician Pharrell Williams and Designer Nigo. Photo by Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images.

While I have been involved in numerous auctions of Fine Jewelry, I tended to be bored by the lack of originality and creativity going through the sale catalogues, regardless of at which auction house these were taking place. The emphasis was invariably on the quality and purity of stunning diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires, but not on design and innovation.

In the mid eighties, R&B singer Faith Evans was struck by the originality of the jewels being made by a young jeweller Jacob Arabo under his new brand of Jacob & Co. Evans acquired some jewels and then brought in her husband, the Notorious B.I.G., who started commissioning more from Arabo. Rapidly, other Hip Hop stars followed and a genre was created, which, in the world of jewels, is today as important as Fabergé was at the beginning of the 20th century, or Cartier from the 1930s to the 1950s. When I was chairman of Phillips de Pury I tried to put together the first ever auction of Hip Hop Jewelry. We produced what I considered the most beautiful catalogue I did in my career. The sale was scuppered when one rap star disputed his connection to one of the rings. Doing a major exhibition or auction devoted to the topic remains one of my unfulfilled dreams.

KAWS's artwork for Kanye West's album <i>808s & Heartbreal</i>. Courtesy KAWS studio.

KAWS’s artwork for Kanye West’s album 808s & Heartbreal. Courtesy KAWS studio.

I used to be surprised how little overlap there was between the worlds of contemporary art and music. The one person who changed that is Kanye West. For Kanye’s sensational Graduation album that he released in 2007, he asked Takashi Murakami to do the cover art. Murakami went on to work with other hip hop stars including Pharrell Williams, who collaborated with him for the sculpture The Simple Things that was the talk of Art Basel when it was first shown in 2009. It was sold at auction at Christie’s Hong Kong ten years later. There was a particular bond that developed between Japanese artists and creatives and the main stars of Hip Hop. Nigo, the brilliant creator of Bape, played no small role in this phenomenon that I would call “Nip Hop.” Nigo also worked with Pharrell Williams to create the fashion brand Billionnaire Boys Club.

For his 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak Kanye entrusted the cover art to KAWS who hadn’t yet attained his global notoriety. Two years later, Kanye contacted George Condo to do the artwork for his album My Dark Twisted Fantasy. Because of America’s obsession with a nipple free world you can only see it in a pixelated state whether you look for it in Spotify or iTunes. Condo himself is a talented musician but he had never heard of Kanye West before that. On May 2, 2011 I was at Condo’s house with Jeff Koons and Jeffrey Deitch jointly listening to Kanye’s sensational music on that album. The reason I remember (or was able to look up) the exact date is that during the course of the evening we heard that Osama Bin Laden had been found and killed.

Screenshot from the music video JAY Z, Kanye West - Otis ft. Otis Redding on YouTube.

Screenshot from the music video JAY Z, Kanye West – Otis ft. Otis Redding on YouTube.

In October of that same year, Jay-Z and Kanye West embarked on the Watch the Throne tour. I saw it with the mother of my youngest child in Frankfurt the following June, and after the concert Kanye invited us to his hotel room where he spoke passionately for hours of his various artistic projects. He told us that his ultimate role models were Steve Jobs, Michael Jackson, Walt Disney and Alexander McQueen. In that same year, Jay-Z and Kanye West released the hit song Otis, an homage to Otis Redding. In the video they drive around in a Maybach that had been completely transformed. With the help of gallerist Jeanne Greenberg-Rohatyn I was able to obtain the car as lot 1 in our evening sale of contemporary art at Phillips. During the viewing, we had queues of teenagers wishing to see the car close up. It was acquired by a Chinese collector as a graduation present for her son.

A still from Jay-Z and Beyoncé's video for "Apeshit."

A still from Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s video for “Apeshit.”

The consecration of the love story between Hip Hop and the art world took place in June 2013 when Jay-Z launched his song Picasso Baby with a video that was shot at Pace Gallery in the presence of multiple art world stars such as George Condo, Marilyn Minter, Lawrence Weiner, Andres Serrano, and most notably Marina Abramovic whose tête-à-tête interaction with Jay-Z is the highlight of the clip. The lyrics of the song include a roll call of Basquiat, Warhol, Bacon, Rothko, Koons, Condo, Mona Lisa, Christie’s, and Art Basel. In October 2013 I saw the concert that Kanye gave in Las Vegas as part of the Yeezus tour. The scenography and choreography was brilliantly done by Vanessa Beecroft, the contemporary artist who had attained fame through her art performances in many of the world’s top museums almost 20 years earlier. The 2018 video clip for Ape Shit by The Carters (Jay-Z & Beyonce) was filmed inside the Louvre in Paris. The segments containing dancers are evidently inspired by Vanessa Beecroft

Recently, I was speaking on the phone to Vanessa Beecroft in L.A. She was putting the finishing touches on an exhibition of her paintings and sculptures that I will present from late August onwards. I could hear the sound of exciting music in the background. It was Kanye, who, in the studio next door, was finalizing his next album. I am impatiently waiting for both his album and for Vanessa’s exhibition. It symbolizes to me the bridges that have been built between music and art thanks to trailblazers such as Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, and Jay-Z.

Simon de Pury is the former chairman and chief auctioneer of Phillips de Pury & Company and is a private dealer, art advisor, photographer, and DJ. Instagram: @simondepury

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How Artist Ellen Altfest Built a Fully Functioning Studio Outdoors—and Manages to Resist Cell-Phone Distractions While Painting There

Ellen Altfest paints her subjects—gourds, armpits, male anatomy—in such painstakingly fine detail that it can take months, or even years, to realize a single composition.

In recent years, Altfest, who is based in New York, has increasingly turned her eye toward the natural world, painting scenes of moss, trees, and other features of her outdoor environment, always in natural light. A selection of these new watercolor works are on view now in an online solo show at White Cube titled “Nature.”

We spoke with the artist about how she learned to paint outdoors and where she’s finding creative inspiration now.


What are the most indispensable items in your studio and why?

1. My skylights. I make all my oil paintings from direct observation in natural light.

2. My 6/0 sable brushes are indispensable when making fine detail in both oil and watercolor.

3. A man-shaped tailor’s dummy that I use to pin still life objects to so they don’t move when I paint them.

4. The platform my husband built for me that keeps me level when painting outside.

5. My extensive leaf collection.

6. A tall wooden painting stool that I inherited from [the late New York City-based painter] Sylvia Sleigh, which is the perfect height and shape for painting.

Ellen Altfest’s studio. © Vincent Dillio.

What is the studio task on your agenda tomorrow that you are most looking forward to?

I am enjoying spring and returning to my painting site, which is next to a stream. I have been making a painting of a tree with moss, which I began in spring 2019 and have worked on since, on days that are not too cold or wet. I’m at my favorite part of the painting, when many of the small pieces of bark are in the right place and mostly painted. After taking a break for the winter, I get to go back with a fresh eye and pull it all together, which should only take two or three more months, I hope. I will finish the trees in the distance at the end of October, which I can only see clearly when the leaves have fallen again.

What kind of atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Do you listen to music or podcasts, or do you prefer silence? Why?

When I’m indoors, I like to make a little nest around myself of natural objects and books. I need visual information and texture to feel creative. I like parsing an abundance of subject matter, like what I see when I’m outside. Painting in the elements is in turn stressful and stimulating, but I like the sense of urgency that natural conditions provide.

I love listening to music when I work, but I can’t trust myself with the phone. It interferes with my ability to focus. Podcasts are an especially slippery slope, because they seem to offer a way to buffer the stresses of making a painting. The Daily is my gateway drug—I innocently want to check in with it at the start of the day, but pretty soon I become curious about something else I subscribe to, and then hours have passed and I find myself in the grips of Casefile, or some other dark and dispiriting true crime program that seems to wriggle its way into my subconscious mind and reemerge when I’m sleeping. So it’s best for me to abstain.

Altfest’s outdoor setup. © Vincent Dillio.

What trait do you most admire in a work of art? What trait do you most despise?

I think great art has a combination of qualities that all need to be present. In painting, there is a formal inventiveness, singular execution, an intensity and complexity of ideas and impulses, and evidence of a personal sensibility. I like when I can feel that something is at stake. When I see a work that is fully what it’s supposed to be, that I connect with, I feel energized and humbled.

I can’t really think of anything I despise. But I have a short memory, so when I see something that’s not to my liking, I will probably forget it.

What snack food could your studio not function without? 

Matcha tea! I order it from the Sazen Tea Company in Japan. Matcha is made of ground leaves, the best of which are a bright green, like springtime. I whisk the tea into water, mix it with almond milk and raw honey, and heat it.

Altfest in the studio. © Vincent Dillio.

Who are your favorite artists, curators, or other thinkers to follow on social media right now?

@artsmagazinedotcom: A successor to the legacy publication Arts Magazine, it makes insightful, nuanced, and funny art reviews in video. These three-to-five-minute productions appropriate an eclectic mix of source materials, high and low, old and new, creating a space somewhere between video art and art criticism. Full disclosure: the editor-in-chief is my husband.

@oumanijacobstudio: Ceramics that use glaze in such beautiful ways that they are as much paintings as useable objects. With just 432 followers, his work feels like a discovery.

@davidrisley: I first admired the gumption of David Risley for going back to art-making after owning a gallery, and then I was won over by his guileless watercolors. Now I’ve begun to follow his absurd insights into the art world and pretty hilarious visual essays made while recovering from a broken back.

@special_plants_world: Not about art, but plants that I find mysterious and surprising. I used to be a loyal succulent and cactus lover (even painting them), but the patterns on the variegated varieties are so good that I may have new favorites.

Ellen Altfest. © Vincent Dillio.

When you feel stuck in the studio, what do you do to get un-stuck?

Seeing other art and travel are what I turn to when I need inspiration. Some people get ideas in the shower, but I find that kind of mental hum in museums. Years ago, I went to a Mantegna show in Paris that was mind-blowing to me, and I stood in front of each work and made myself fully present to absorb what I was seeing. Then, in the hallway outside of the the exhibition, I had the idea to paint part of a leg on the ground. I still don’t exactly know where this came from.

What is the last exhibition you saw (virtual or otherwise) that made an impression on you?

I saw this amazing Lee Krasner show at Kasmin gallery last month. I had read about her work in the book Ninth Street Women, but hadn’t seen her collage paintings before. The works from her 1955 show are so bold and raw, in color and composition. The fearlessness needed to rip up and reconfigure her own paintings (and some of her husband’s) was inspiring. I’m hoping for collage to work its way into my paintings, in its own way.

If you had to put together a mood board, what would be on it right now?

Compositions made of combinations of leaves as they have been arranged by water and wind on the forest floor.

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