A Chat With The Painter Whose Work Inspired Kanye West's 'Famous' All Vincent Desiderio knew when he agreed to fly to Los Angeles was that West was a fan of his work. Twenty-four hours later, he found out just how deep the rapper's appreciation went.
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A Chat With The Painter Whose Work Inspired Kanye West's 'Famous'

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A Chat With The Painter Whose Work Inspired Kanye West's 'Famous'

A Chat With The Painter Whose Work Inspired Kanye West's 'Famous'

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Brace yourselves for an unlikely pairing. A couple weeks ago, Vincent Desiderio got a phone call.

VINCENT DESIDERIO: It was very cryptic. And it was quite mysterious.

MARTIN: Mysterious because Desiderio is a New York artist with a long career as a realist painter. And the phone call was from one of the most famous hip-hop artists in the world.

DESIDERIO: I was told that Kanye's an enormous fan of my work. And he would like to meet me.

MARTIN: Yep. Kanye West was calling a fine artist who'd barely heard of the star. Kanye's people told Desiderio they wanted to fly him out to LA for an event. The painter was intrigued. His kids were psyched. They told him he had to do it. He had to go. So he got on a plane the next day and went directly to a theater, where he was met by Kanye and his entourage.

DESIDERIO: I walked in there. And it was as if I had entered into a surprise party for me.

MARTIN: But he still didn't understand why he was there. Then, Kanye's team said take a look at this.


KANYE WEST: (Singing) The sun is my eyes, woke up and felt the vibe.

MARTIN: They showed him the new music video for Kanye's single "Famous."


WEST: (Singing) We never going to die. I just wanted you to know.

MARTIN: In the video, a camera moves slowly over what appeared to be the naked figures of celebrities like Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, Amber Rose, Taylor Swift. Then, the camera pulls back to reveal the 12 bodies from above.

WEST: And the figures - their positions were awfully familiar. And I said to him - you must have seen my painting. This looks a lot like a painting that I did. And they were smiling because this was, like, the big - the buildup.

MARTIN: The big reveal? Kanye's latest video is, indeed, an homage to Vincent Desiderio's painting called "Sleep," which is a hyperrealistic depiction of 12 figures sleeping side-by-side, naked in a pile of rumpled sheets.

DESIDERIO: Gobstuck is the word. I was absolutely floored and honored. And I almost felt like crying. And I think that Kanye and I embraced each other. It was one of the most remarkable - I mean, you know, there are experiences like that in the arts were someone actually gets what you're doing. At that moment, I realized that Kanye and I were on the same page completely.

MARTIN: How did he get you? Because he's saying something different. These are not anonymous people. These are famous people. He is taking aim at each of those individuals. He's saying something specific that - that I don't think your painting was saying. But tell me if I'm wrong.

DESIDERIO: Well, one of the big similarities is that as I was doing my painting, I actually thought of them as, like, slumbering idiots really, who really needs to wake up to a different world. And so when I saw Kanye's video, I was also struck by the fact that though many of these people are - a few of them are certainly repulsive to me, everything in my - in the habit of my intuitions would steer me to seeing this, A, as a critique of these idiot people lying there and, B, a kind of vicious attack on them by Kanye. And yet...

MARTIN: We should also just point out that Kanye himself is in...


MARTIN: ...The image - and his wife, Kim Kardashian.

DESIDERIO: An incredibly important detail - an image like that is a mirror of the ridiculous cult of celebrity. And I think Kanye, who I believe is very much like Andy Warhol in that he does not let his guard down about who he is, and yet, he presents a mirror to people rather than tells them how to think, how to feel about these things.

MARTIN: It sounds (laughter) - to put it just in very simple terms, you were moved by the video.

DESIDERIO: Of course.

MARTIN: You liked the video.

DESIDERIO: Very much. And I think that what I like about it, you know, is that it's not a reproduction of my painting - that it is a conversation with my painting. And that is far more important than the simple idea of - he stole the idea. He co-opted the idea. He did this to the idea. He quote the idea and then brought something different to it.

MARTIN: You know, I probably don't tell you - Kanye West is a controversial guy. And part of his art is to be provocative. And he is married to a woman who has made her name based on fame and the idea of garnering more fame, which many would say has led to this kind of sleeping of our larger culture, some kind of degradation in our mainstream culture. Are you at all uncomfortable that it has taken someone from this world of mainstream pop culture to give you a certain amount of notoriety that you might not otherwise have garnered?

DESIDERIO: That's a good question. I - frankly, you know, I think the people around me are a lot more excited about the new notoriety - my kids, my wife, my friends - than I am. I saw this as a meeting of two artists. It represented a kind of tearing down of walls and an indication that, even coming from both worlds - the world of the ultra-celebrity hip-hop scene and the - which I'm not part of - the ultra-celebrity fine arts scene, that there is something going on beneath the surface of these things that is slowly, deliberately and very conscientiously undermining the obnoxiousness of those worlds.

MARTIN: Did he offer any kind of compensation?

DESIDERIO: No. I wouldn't have taken it. That's - that would have cheapened the entire endeavor when they revealed this to me. It was a gift. But the gift was not the gift of celebrity. The gift was that what I did had strains of ideas, of information in it that he was able to access. Believe me - I get so many questions now. Did he pay for you? He better be buying a painting. Or, you know, I hope he wrote the check to you and stuff like that. And I'm saying - this is ridiculous. If art is always created in the service of the almighty dollar, we're really in trouble.

MARTIN: Vincent Desiderio is a painter and senior critic at the New York Academy of Art. Thank you so much for talking with us.

DESIDERIO: Thank you so much. Pleasure to be here.


WEST: (Rapping) Y'all don't really understand how I feel right now, man. It's your boy, Kanye to the - Chi-town, what's going on? Yeah, I drink a Boost for breakfast, an Ensure for dessert. Somebody ordered pancakes. I just sip the sizzurp.

MARTIN: Our theme music is written by BJ Leiderman, who, to our knowledge, has not yet inspired any Kanye West songs or videos. It's WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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