Kanye West seems like the type of person who likes to “talk” more than he likes to “listen.” However, there is one prominent artist who seems to have his ear when it comes time for him to roll out his latest creative vision.
When Kanye West spoke to Style.com’s Dirk Standen regarding YEEZY Season 1, he didn’t mince words when it came to charges that many of his visions are informed by his peers, saying, “Just as much as Drake is influenced by Kanye West, you know my fucking influences. You see Raf Simons right there, you see Helmut, you see Margiela, you see Vanessa.”
While most will recognize the first and last names of some of the largest figures in fashion, West also attributed his general aesthetic to Italian artist, Vanessa Beecroft. The New York Times wrote in 1998, “Ms. Beecroft’s work is so au courant in its aloof sexuality, its ambiguous borrowings from popular culture and its use of real time, real space and real flesh that it would have to be invented if it didn’t already exist.”
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Much of Beecroft’s work is informed by her own personal struggle with an eating disorder and the exploration of issues of body image and femininity in contemporary culture. In a 2005 interview with The Guarian they noted, “Everything in Vanessa Beecroft’s life revolves around food. She and her husband bought their rural retreat in Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, partly because it would cut Beecroft’s access to the 24-hour convenience stores available on every street corner in New York City – too much of a temptation when the craving for a binge comes on.”
While her models are often motionless – perhaps as an indicator of just how powerless a person can feel when it comes to dealing with external pressures – many who have seen her work in person point to an intricate relationship and a two-way street between the viewer and the viewed.
Although she and Kanye West have worked together on both YEEZY Season 1 and Season 2, many would be surprised to learn that their partnership spans many years prior to their collaboration at New York Fashion Week.
Here are five notable instances.
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808s and Heartbreak Listening Party
On October 15, 2008, Kanye West held a listening party at a Los Angeles loft for his forthcoming album, 808s and Heartbreak.
As Rolling Stone noted in their coverage, the mood was instantly set thanks to Beecroft – who challenged 40 models in wigs and masks to slowly change positions with each song – much to the delight and befuddlement of the 700 invited guests.
This general aesthetic is something that has become synonymous with Beecroft’s work – making her world famous for the usage of the human form to make a silent critique as it relates to cultural and gender norms. Whereas Kanye West was delineating from what constituted a “rap record” due to his own personal struggles, so too did Beecroft find her own personal connection to the project.
“When he contacted me a month ago, he caught me off-guard,” she told those in attendance. “But when I heard the album, I heard things that touched my own life.”
In a full-circle moment, West returned to Los Angeles this past weekend to perform songs from the album. It should come as no surprise that the tone was set with visuals and models indicative of West and Beecroft’s initial collaboration. As The Los Angeles Times reported, “Tiers of stairs were filled with expressionless, powder-smeared young men who emptied into the crowd. A gold-painted female dancer commanded the amphitheater with a few small movements. And the giant glowing orb that dominated the stage slowly shifted color to change the emotional timbre of each song.”
“Runaway” short film
In 2010, Kanye West released an ambitious short film, “Runaway,” which served as a visual compilation of songs from his album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Written by Hype Williams based on a story from West himself, the visual aesthetics were once again handled by Vanessa Beecroft – in addition to cinematography by Kyle Kibbe and costumes by Phillip Lim and Martin Izquierdo.
“Purple Rain, The Wall, Michael Jackson’s Thriller — I wanted to do a modern version of that,” Kanye said in his introduction, before pointing to other great masters like Picasso and Matisse as “an overall representation of what I dream.”
Conceived over four days in Prague during the summer, West added, “We were doing 20-hour days with no sleep.”
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When Flaunt magazine decided to curate a show at Miami’s Mana Wynwood Complex for Art Basel 2013, they honed in on a collaboration between Vanessa Beecroft and Kanye West.
Affordable Care saw the duo produce a performance piece made up of a group of nude women covered in clay, standing, sitting, existing, amidst the attending crowd for hours.
According to Arrested Motion, “Rumored the whole time was that Kanye was to perform live with the models and that kept the crowd speculating and growing as it drew nearer to the performance time. But after an hour, the crowd grew restless and unsubstantiated rumors of Kanye flew about the audience. From car troubles to drunken rants, it was surprising to hear what the annoyed and bored audience would make up to keep themselves entertained. All the while, the stone sculpted models in Beecroft’s formation seemed to also lose their focus. One by one, the ladies abandoned their performance stance and literally sat down in fatigue.”
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The YEEZUS Tour
Kanye West is no stranger to employing prominent visionaries to help give his live show a grandiose feel – notably working with the likes of Esmeralda “Es” Devlin – an award-winning stage and costume designer – on the stunning visual display and stage design for the Watch the Throne Tour.
When West was doing press for YEEZUS, he even mentioned “architecture” as a leading inspiration for the project. “Architecture — you know, this one Corbusier lamp was like, my greatest inspiration,” he told The New York Times. “I lived in Paris in this loft space and recorded in my living room, and it just had the worst acoustics possible, but also the songs had to be super simple, because if you turned up some complicated sound and a track with too much bass, it’s not going to work in that space. This is earlier this year. I would go to museums and just like, the Louvre would have a furniture exhibit, and I visited it like, five times, even privately. And I would go see actual Corbusier homes in real life and just talk about, you know, why did they design it? They did like, the biggest glass panes that had ever been done. Like I say, I’m a minimalist in a rapper’s body.”
Ultimately, West enlisted Beecroft, Devlin, Virgil Abloh, and Oana Stanescu to achieve his vision which included prominent elements like a towering volcano and 12 female dancers in skintight, see-through outfits made of nylon who played an integral role in the show.
The Spike Jonze-directed video for “Only One” seemed to eschew past Kanye West sensibilities that dictated that “bigger was often better.” Conceived by Beecroft, the simple stroll through a hazy field seemed to rely on the artist’s intimate understanding of West as a father.
In his lecture at Oxford in 2015, West said, “I work with an artist called Vanessa Beecroft, and she bought my daughter some toys. I’d see toys that some people would buy for my daughter and I’d say this toy isn’t quality. I don’t want my daughter playing with this. There’s not enough love put into this, this is just manufactured with the will to sell, and not the will of inspiration. Vanessa is very focused, she’s like my eyes, she’s a piece of my brain.”
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