The invitation to the super-secret Jay Z event came out of nowhere, three days before it was scheduled to happen. The event's producer, the beloved-in-the-art-world gallerist Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, e-mailed, asking whether I'd be free Wednesday at noon. The rap artist, impresario, cultural force, and art collector would be performing his new track “Picasso Baby” at the Pace Gallery in Chelsea. For. Six. Hours. Over and over and over. Heck yes. But even though I'm a fan — The Black Album blew my mind — I had a queasy feeling about this. Though hip-hop is not exactly my bailiwick, performance art I know a little about, and this Jay Z thing sounded depressingly familiar. It had a loud echo of Marina Abramovic, the performance diva known for her marathon performances-spectacles-drudgeries. It also reminded me of the Icelandic wizard Ragnar Kjartansson’s renditions of the same song performed live non-stop for hours. Last season at MoMA — which is addicted to the genre — Tilda Swinton slept in a glass box for an all-day performance. Milla Jovovich spent a day this summer living in a glass box on the roof of a palazzo on the Grand Canal as an ancillary event at the opening of the Venice Biennale. Does every celebrity have to turn into a performance-art marathoner?
“Picasso Baby” teems with references to art. The first line is “I just want a Picasso, in my casa.” The last one is “I'm the modern day Pablo Picasso, baby.” The chorus repeats “Picasso baby.” There are name-checks of Leonardo; the Mona Lisa; Rothko; Francis Bacon; Warhol; Basquiat by first name, last name, and tag-name SAMO. There’s George Condo and of course that idiot savant Jeff Koons. Not to mention the Met, the Louvre, Tate Modern, MoMA, Christie’s, and Art Basel. One of the most well-known Americans since Muhammad Ali, talking not about just Lamborghinis and jewelry but about art? The thought that this might entice kids, intimidated by museums, to give them a visit? Come on! Whether it was going to be weird, cringe-worthy, or what: I was there.
I arrived at 11:45 a.m., expecting that the word would have leaked, and that there would be tens of thousands of people outside Pace, fighting to get in, and that the police would have to shut it down. Instead, the scene on West 25th Street was normal. I gave my name, signed a release, and went in. No clothes displaying brand names were allowed, so I couldn't wear the ridiculous GAGOSIAN baseball cap that some artist made for me as a gag. (I asked whether Gagosian was now a brand. The production assistant said, “Yes.”) Just after noon, I was led into the next room, where a whole bunch of other people were waiting. A marathon performance is supposed to start and end on time — that's what makes them marathon — and this one was late. The negative queasy feeling grew.