Kanye West’s prodigious talent has never had much to do with originality. Rather, his genius lies in the way he curates outside influences to bold new effect, like a rap-game magpie picking up the shiniest offerings from across the art world.
When the world was floored by the The College Dropout in 2004, it impressed critics because he brazenly reworked the old rather than coming up with something new; plundering classic tunes so good nobody else dared to steal them, and reworking them into contemporary chart hits.
It’s hard to imagine The Arc Choir’s "Walk With Me" getting mainstream airplay outside of its inclusion in West’s "Jesus Walks," while the pitched-up version of Chaka Khan’s "Through The Fire" never sounded as fresh as it did as a sonic background to Kanye’s "Through The Wire."
West’s approach to visual art takes the same approach, with Kanye using visual rather than audio samples. His video for "Famous," in which a camera pans across twelve major celebrities lying next to each other, asleep and naked in bed, is so effective because it immediately feels familiar as an art piece. This is hardly surprising, given the significant number of influences we can reasonably speculate that the video draws upon.
We've rounded up the top influences that inspired Kanye's "Famous" video below.
The Official Influences
West acknowledged that he was “directly inspired” by intellectual, New York-based painter and sculptor Desiderio’s work Sleep. Desiderio is a realist painter who leans towards postmodern themes and who could only be matched in his dizzying ambition by West himself - Sleep is 24-feet long and took the painter four years to complete.
Desiderio was inspired by something far different to fame, celebrity or paparazzi, though: he was inspired by his struggle with nasal cancer. “I began being visited by this image of a continuous band of sleepers,” Desiderio told The Virginia Quarterly Review.
“I mean, it’s not all that mysterious how such a notion might have originated for me, all alone like that, feeling so terribly vulnerable and separated from the world of healthy people; this primitive longing for company, the fantasy affording me a sort of comfort.”
If you need to clap back at anyone who classified West’s appropriation of Sleep as theft, be sure to note that Desiderio’s tableau is itself a collection of outside influences. In his interview above, he cites as influences Pollock’s Mural, Van Eyck’s Last Judgement (1430) and “the graphic imagery of slave ships with their shackled recumbent cargo sardine-packed one against the next."
Overall, though, the works feel different in spirit. Desderio’s piece focuses on the vulnerability of the human condition, while West’s work references the distance created between celebrities and non-celebrities by voyeurism and paparazzi culture. "Famous" is so impactful because it embodies that gossip mag cliche: “Celebs! They’re just like us."
However, when West showed Desiderio the work personally, Desiderio noted that it was charged “with the same kind of intrinsic strangeness that haunted my thoughts as I made the original painting.” He also mentioned the eeriness of West pre-empting an artistic project of Desderio's that he couldn’t possibly have known about – a projection onto the ceiling of Grand Central Station of “figures sleeping in real time, like slumbering gods, around the green zodiac vault. We concluded that our minds were clearly operating on the same wavelength, albeit from different transmitters.”
“Matthew Barney is my Jesus,” Kanye West announced in his Vanity Fair interview about "Famous." Barney is responsible for some of the most significant video art pieces ever made, so West citing him as an influence isn't all that surprising. West doesn’t name any one piece in particular, but it’s tempting to speculate, as Vanity Fair does, that West was most inspired by Barney’s most famous and well-reviewed work, The Cremaster Cycle.
However, beyond the fact that they’re both pieces of video art that focus on the human body, the parallels between "Famous" and The Cremaster Cycle are actually rather oblique. The Cremaster Cycle is a series of five surreal films that last a sum total of nine hours, which aren’t available in video or DVD format, and, until a few years ago, weren’t available on YouTube, so could only be viewed within the setting of a gallery.
The video piece is named after the muscle that controls the height of the testicles and this is a prominent enough theme that the sheet accompanying the viewings explains that the number of each film corresponds to “the height of the gonads during the embryonic process of sexual differentiation.”
In contrast, West’s piece was available online on the day it dropped for anyone to watch on their laptop or phone. It lasts 10 minutes. It’s extremely accessible, and whether or not you’re into video art, you’ll probably get it. In short, it’s pretty much the opposite of Barney’s wonderful yet challenging piece. Still, it's promising to see West championing the well-known, but not exactly mainstream, Matthew Barney.
The Influences We Can Speculate About
"David" (2002) by Sam Taylor Wood
It’s hard to imagine West being unaware of Sam Taylor Wood’s 2002 video "David," which shows a naked David Beckham from the torso up as he sleeps in a Madrid hotel room. Her work is a homage to Andy Warhol’s video "Sleep," in which Warhol placed the camera next to a sleeping man.
Taylor Wood’s relationship with Warhol's work echoes West’s with Desiderio's: while the pieces are visually similar, in Warhol’s video the focus of the portrait is an anonymous man, while Beckham’s fame is a crucial difference in Taylor Wood’s work. We’re invited to watch Beckham not as football fans, but with the same intimacy as his bedroom partner.
However, there are a few key differences between "Famous" and "David." Unlike West’s video, Taylor Wood’s camera remains stationary and any movement on the video is Beckham’s own movements while sleeping. While Taylor Wood takes a lustful, worshipping look at Beckham (sure, he’s a good-looking man, but the camera angle and lighting are markedly flattering), West is more focused on a realistic, vulnerable look at the celebrities, who look less magazine cover-perfect and Photoshopped than in real life, provoking George W. Bush’s press secretary to respond that Bush couldn’t have been in the video because “he is in much better shape.” (Sure.)
But perhaps the biggest difference between the two works is that Taylor Wood filmed Beckham with his explicit consent and there’s no doubt that it’s him in the piece, whereas West’s piece’s is fascinating because of its ambiguity – who’s really in it, and who isn’t? Vanity Fair reports that West had “several different collaborators,” but wasn't able to cite exactly who acted in the video and who didn't.
'Last Supper' by Leonardo Da Vinci
It’s one of the most iconic artworks of all time, and it focuses on twelve extremely famous characters – after Taylor Wood’s, this is the most obvious un-cited influence on West’s work. While West’s "Famous" doesn’t have one clear main character, the fact that the artist both makes and stars in the work implies that West is the work's leading man.
Yeezy’s never been shy about drawing comparisons between himself and the leading man of Last Supper, Jesus (see, for example, his album Yeezus), and given that he compared himself to Leonardo Da Vinci last year (“Imagine if Da Vinci or Michelangelo or Galileo were asked not to think of anything except for the one thing they first became famous for”), we can fairly assume that Last Supper influenced his work.
"Blowjob" (1964) by Andy Warhol
Admittedly, a video focusing exclusively on the face of a man as he receives oral sex and a video of a bunch of naked celebrities catching some shuteye don’t immediately seem similar.
However, the end effect is the same: while "Blowjob" isn't as explicit as "Famous" (for all the raunch implied in the title, it’s just someone’s face), it does give the viewer the same voyeuristic thrill: we’re intruding into someone else’s very private sphere, getting a kick out of it and feeling the same queasy guilt for doing so. A key difference is that "Blowjob" seems to pre-empt reality TV, while "Famous" draws directly from it.
"A Family Finds Entertainment" (2004) by Ryan Trecartin
Trecartin’s 2004 film wasn’t just about queer identity and gender, but also functioned as a love letter to media consumption through its heavy use of melodrama and after-school-special moments, just as "Famous" celebrates the media fixation with celebrity far more than it critiques it.
The kooky night vision camera recalls the first few minutes of AFFE vividly, while the framing narrative of the heavenly clouds, and West’s eagerness to continually disrupt his dream of sleeping celebs with recordings, recalls the hyperactive tone of Trecartin’s work.
As intense and exciting as "Famous" is, it would be an exaggeration to call it West’s first major piece of video art. Way back in 2008, his music video for "Good Morning" was one of the few music videos to be shown in multiple museums - it toured alongside video director Takashi Murakami’s pop up shop which visited the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA, and the Brooklyn Museum in New York.
Moreover, in 2006 he pre-empted the lawsuit-hungry feel of "Famous" with a video containing his best Evel Knievel impression, and faced a lawsuit from the man himself.
"Famous" has been a long time coming, but it’s well worth the wait. Who better to tackle the nature of celebrity than one of the most famous residents of Planet Earth? Forget the haters, and embrace the hype: West as a visual artist is here to stay.
If you're in NYC, why not head along to the "Famous" viewing that Kanye announced today?