For Kanye Collaborator Vanessa Beecroft, People Are the Perfect Palette

Beecroft with models wearing Valentino Haute Couture on set for Italian Vogue. Concept and performance by Vanessa Beecroft. Photo: Federico Spadoni
The Bodies Artist
For Vanessa Beecroft, longtime Kanye West collaborator, people are the perfect palette.
Concept and performance by Vanessa Beecroft
Photograph by Federico Spadoni
Beecroft with models wearing Valentino Haute Couture on set for Italian Vogue.

The Anglo-Italian artist Vanessa Beecroft is not hugely concerned with conventional labels. The large-scale performance-art pieces she has been creating for the past 25 years have been entirely about bodies — often nude, usually female and standing stock-still in various martial phalanx formations — and she has always described this work as autobiographical. But for the past eight years, a significant percentage of what she has produced has been made in mind-meld with Kanye West. “I have divided my personality,” she says. “There is Vanessa Beecroft as a European white female, and then there is Vanessa Beecroft as Kanye, an African-American male.” Later she tells me, “I even did a DNA test thinking maybe I am black? I actually wasn’t. I was kind of disappointed, and I don’t want to believe it. I want to do it again, because when I work with Africans or African-Americans, I feel that I am autobiographical. If I don’t call myself white, maybe I am not.”

Beecroft’s studios open off a modest courtyard behind a big wall in a Mexican section of East L.A. Inside, she is wearing a white lab coat over black leggings and T-shirt, her hair in a bun. The effect is serious, and Beecroft is being serious — as she tends to be. She is open and direct when she speaks, describing her childhood, her relationship with her father, and her feelings about the art world with an earnest, unguarded romanticism. Nothing feels off-limits with her, and you also get the sense that she has never read a magazine or watched a television program. But she is not exactly a recluse. Despite her claim that she “withdrew from the art world” almost six years ago, Beecroft occupies an uncanny, distinguished space both between and above the newly adjacent art and fashion universes. At 47, she has become something like the high priestess of the strange, entitled dreamworld that floats above all the art fairs and the fashion shows, where spending countless dollars on performances involving thousands simply for the sake of beauty is considered not only normal but admirable. She appears unaware of — or at least unconcerned with — the debates and discussions that captivate most members of these industries (and their critics). Nor is she preoccupied with political correctness, and in fact seems to enjoy blithely poking at its taboos. For all of this, she owes a lot to West, and their collaboration, even if the credit most regularly seems to flow, in that relationship, in the other direction, with West suggesting Beecroft has helped elevate everything from his wedding to his music videos to the exalted status of art.

The collaborations have a very distinct style, which you could call imperial naïveté. They are large-scale spectacles that make ideologically slippery use of bodies, race, and gender. In West and Beecroft’s hands, these potentially radioactive subjects are treated as simple aesthetic choices (in “Yeezy Season 2,” the models are grouped loosely by skin tone, reduced to something like human Pantone chips), used as supple metaphors of personal struggle and spiritual yearning. For the politically conscious, this is a complicated trick to pull off, but to hear Beecroft tell it, it’s all just poetry.

In recent years, the work with West has become all-consuming. She designed the wedding at a villa in the hills near Florence. It was her idea to engrave the name of each guest into the large marble slab that served as a table, and to surround the couple in Carrara-marble statuary (in various stages of decay or dismemberment), and to border the sanctuary with a towering wall of gardenias. “We were conflicting with a wedding planner from L.A.,” she explains. “I did want to make it very minimal.”

Yeezy Season 3 at Madison Square Garden. Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Yeezy Season 3

Soon after, Beecroft and her husband, photographer Federico Spadoni, became full-time employees (she’d previously masterminded some things like a short film in which Selita Ebanks plays an elaborately feathered bird who is asked to eat a similarly feathered relative at a banquet). Beecroft has collaborated with West on all of his Yeezy fashion shows, but the most notable was the performance she orchestrated at Madison Square Garden for “Yeezy Season 3” featuring some 1,500 people dressed in dyed clothing (from Adidas and thrift stores) in a re-creation of a photograph taken of refugees escaping the genocide in Rwanda. “That was a random pick,” she says. “The image came out of one of my books, and I thought, Perhaps this is Woodstock, because it looked really fashionable and glamorous, but no. That was a refugee camp … I wanted the people to look poor. Poverty and elegance were the key words. Poverty and elegance. No trends, no fashion. Real poverty, what you encounter when you travel to Africa, Mexico, those countries where people wear their clothes with dignity and they look elegant and they look like they have intelligence. When we were casting, I said, ‘Please don’t have anyone who looks stupid. Or fancy. Please. Classical, poor, and elegant.’ ” It has been called the most viewed piece of performance art in the history of the medium.

“I realized that the people were moved,” she says. “They started crying, the kids. That was something that made me happy. That was an achievement. Like, as if the trauma that was perpetuated for so many years finally …” She trails off. “Look, if Kanye’s there to help people of color start to identify and go on a new form of awareness and revolution, then I am happy about that because he is doing it in a gentle way.”

But earlier this year, right around the time West was tweeting about his debts, Beecroft was removed from his regular payroll and placed on a project-by-project basis (“It was Kim Kardashian,” she says. “She cut everything out.”) That’s okay, though, she tells me: Now she can recommit herself to her own work. Which she has already begun, despite her reservations about the art world and her conflicted feelings about fashion and popular culture (she says she has “no interest”). This past season alone, Beecroft created an installation for Tod’s in Milan and another for Valentino’s popular “Rockstud” collection: In each, models wear the house’s clothing while standing in Beecroftian arrangement. (Both also feature celebrities: Karlie Kloss in the case of Tod’s, Alessandro Nivola and Emily Mortimer for Valentino.) She has begun a large sculpture project — having cast enormous women in both bronze and marble, she’s now molding them again in clay, this time from memory — that she plans to show at her husband’s new L.A. gallery in October. As for popular culture, she’s working on “a Barbie doll project” for Mattel. Perhaps some of them will have “caramel Beyoncé skin,” she says, acknowledging murmurings (including from her husband) that Beyoncé’s “Formation” video owes her some creative debt. But she doesn’t get into any of it too deeply, she says, because she has only the vaguest idea that someone named “Beyoncé” actually exists.

Beecroft in her Los Angeles studio. Photo: Federico Spadoni

Beecroft speaks softly and musically with an Italian accent and has pale, freckled skin and long, curly red hair. She is beautiful like a painting: a Botticelli, maybe, and her affect is childlike: wide eyes, eyelashes batting, a posture of innocence. The words she uses more than any others, the qualities she most exalts, are gentle, classical, and poetical. (According to Beecroft, Kanye West is all three.) Her ex-husband, Greg Durkin, has recently sued her for full custody of her two older children (Spadoni is the father of her two younger children), and she is rattled one morning when she arrives for our first interview at the studio.

“I do not understand this,” she says. “I am 200 percent maternal, and until they are taken care of I cannot think of anything else. It’s really compulsive. My children are a totally different experience: completely human and natural and primitive. It is beautiful, and it is the first time I experienced real life.” It’s an unusual place to start a conversation. (“Vanessa is very worldly, but she’s also in her own world,” says Jeffrey Deitch, who discovered Beecroft and invited her to the United States 20 years ago.) Obsession and compulsion, it quickly becomes clear, are common themes with Beecroft — they touch every part of her life. When she focuses on something, the engagement is complete, which may explain how prolific she’s been. Since 1993, she has produced 75 performances around the world. “Hardworking” doesn’t seem the correct way to describe the way she works; “full-body possession” is more like it.

Beecroft was raised by a stern, complicated Italian mother in Santa Margherita di Ligure and Lake Garda in a strictly vegan, Waldorfian style, a world Beecroft describes as a little bit harsh and wholly matriarchal. The women followed a macrobiotic diet and practiced avid disdain for carnivores, protein, anything deemed too masculine. “We used to call our neighbors ‘cage people,’ ” she says, “because they were eating meat.” Her father, whom her mother had met as a student in Genoa, lived in the English countryside and shared their Luddite tendencies but not much else. “He was very against the contemporary world,” Beecroft says. “He was completely radical. He drove old cars and smoked cigarettes, and he had a tweed jacket, white sneakers, tight pants, coconut oil. I really loved this. People say, ‘How can you like him if he caused so much trouble to you and never helped?,’ but I still like him better than actors in movies.” She’d pore over the rare letter he’d send, each with impeccable handwriting and classical references. “He was very mean to me,” she says. “He always treated me as if I was just trash.”

It wasn’t the happiest childhood. As a late-developing teenager, Beecroft was given growth hormones, which she found traumatic, and she was later hospitalized for overeating specific foods: nutshells, flaxseed, and clay, for example, because she had heard they would cleanse her system. “When I see Grey Gardens, I am reminded of the dynamic,” she says.

By the time she landed at Academy of Fine Arts of Brera in Milan, she was fixated on women’s bodies. She began painting her fellow students, particularly the ones who suffered from eating disorders, whose bodies were skeletal, or who kept sneakers on them at all times in case they felt compelled to run from place to place in a fit of calorie anxiety. Her first show, “VB1,” comprised two series of watercolors: one of her moods and one of these women. But the day of the show, “I didn’t just bring the watercolors,” she says, “I brought the women. They were an extension of me in their suffering. Eating disorders, melancholy, depression. All these issues, you could see them. I distributed to them garments that were red, pink, green, that came from my wardrobe, but they were all undressed, and they put a little slip on, a pair of red shoes, and then they looked like my drawings. The whole art world in Milano were horrified, saying these are prostitutes, this is juvenile, don’t do it again. So I did it again.” Clothes were always an important piece of the project. “I’m not talking about the ‘Eve,’ ” she says, “or the primordial, primitive woman. It’s the woman that is civilized, wears shoes, makeup, has her hair done, but she has nothing else. And there is no clothing that can represent her without being ridiculed.”

For Beecroft, her work was a kind of ridicule back, with the women put forward as an aggressive affront to the audience, daring the spectators to watch their own unease — to confront it, and to consider her own internal panic made flesh. She enjoyed the audience’s discomfort, and if viewers’ thoughts turned sexual, she enjoyed watching them squirm.

VB19: A 1996 performance at the Renaissance Society in Chicago. Photo: © Vanessa Beecroft, 2016

Deitch saw a small piece about her in an art magazine and asked her to come to New York in 1996. “Vanessa is one of the rare artists who invented a new way to make a work of art,” Deitch says. “Ninety-nine percent of artists are treading ground that’s already well established, they are making small innovations, and then there are very rare artists who come up with a whole new concept of how to make a work of art and expand our sense of what a work of art can be. Vanessa has done that.”

He began to represent Beecroft, finding benefactors for her performances and selling large-scale photographs of the events, which created a commercial market for her work, a nearly impossible feat for a performance artist. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Beecroft is quite beautiful and fashionable. So she became one of the artists anointed “interesting” by fashion. It makes sense: Both Beecroft and the fashion world are obsessed with women on display; both puzzle over the meaning of the addition or subtraction of a shoe, a stocking, a wig. In 1998, the Art Production Fund’s Yvonne Force Villareal arranged for Beecroft to collaborate with Tom Ford on a massive show at the Guggenheim. For that project, Beecroft cast women with model-type bodies, a departure for her, and the result was far sleeker than anything she had done before. The women who were not naked wore Tom Ford–designed Gucci bikinis, and everyone wore stiletto heels. 

A few years later, she met a man named Greg Durkin, who worked in media research; he was outside her Williamsburg loft apartment in a great big coat, and he had a profile she considered classical. His nose, she says, was big in all the right ways, and the coat was the kind of thing a Russian intellectual might wear. They married. She quickly became pregnant, and began to find the city oppressive. After September 11, she retreated with her family to Cold Spring Harbor, a small town on the North Shore of Long Island, where Durkin was able to find a glass-wood-and-steel house on a pond with an Olympic-size indoor pool where Beecroft could swim the laps that had become compulsory for her mental health. It was a peaceful period in the forest: She found a yoga studio, took a lot of long walks, and felt she was giving her son, and the son who followed four years later, a bit of the magic she had experienced in her own Italian youth. “An uncontaminated childhood,” she says.

Her work was selling well, and she was in demand. But for reasons she can’t explain, she could not stop thinking about Africa. “That’s where I started my decline,” she says. Until this moment, the predominant theme of her work had been gender, and everything she did with gender seemed personal, even autobiographical; the women she cast for her projects were typically versions of her. And so when race began to dominate the work, it was puzzling, but she has never seen any problem. Beecroft operates so unusually with regard to race, with such entitled swagger, she seems to be living in something of a cave, entirely cut off from any public debate or conversation on topics of identity. She says race always fascinated her, even during her childhood, when she rarely saw people of different races. “When I was a child, I won a prize at school for drawing black children in a ship,” she says. “There were probably 30 or 40 of them. A lot. I drew so many of them, and I won a prize because the sisters of the nursery school were kind of mesmerized. So you see, everything comes from somewhere.”

As an adult, she began to cast black women when she first came to America. “My first black project was originated by the fact that I met a bluesman from Chicago in Italy and he was white and he was really, really upset by being white, he kept saying, ‘If only I was black.’ He felt discriminated against. And that really triggered something for me. I said, ‘I’m going to be black, too,’ ” she tells me. “I had wanted to move to the States because of the presence of African-Americans. When I landed at JFK, my first impression is being welcomed by all of these African, or maybe Jamaican, air people that help you at the airport with your luggage. They were so kind. Welcome! I was so happy to see mixed races. In Italy, they are in the street selling gadgets.”

White Madonna With Twins, 2006. Photo: © Vanessa Beecroft, 2016

Beecroft decided that she would make a film in Africa. Deitch advised Beecroft to skip it. She says he told her it wasn’t her issue and she should avoid it; he says he gave her more-conventional career advice: Her work was on fire, and such a profound shift could stop her momentum and would almost certainly conflict with existing commitments.

But Beecroft did go to Africa, just a year after having her second child. She set out for Darfur but would end up in what is now South Sudan. “It was so beautiful,” she says, “really aesthetical! And everyone looked like Alek Wek.” She was comfortable in flip-flops, whereas the workers from the local NGOs were suited up in boots. I was not intimidated,” she says.

Her plan had been to shoot a documentary film in the spirit of Pier Paolo Pasolini, one of her creative heroes, but she wound up abandoning that project. Instead, she began spending time breast-feeding infant twins who had lost their mother in childbirth. A documentary filmmaker who was in the area working on a project about land mines saw a better opportunity in Beecroft, who ultimately, against the protestations of local women, created an art project with the twins (her milky-white self nursing the children in a custom-made Martin Margiela dress with a burned hem and cutouts for her breasts). In the documentary, called The Art Star and the Sudanese Children, she attempts to adopt the children, without consulting her husband, who was back on Long Island with the couple’s two young sons. The movie had a brief run at Sundance and on the indie circuit and in many ways symbolizes the end of the first part of Beecroft’s career — she became immensely unpopular, criticized for being a privileged white woman “shopping for a baby,” and even received death threats (“Which, by the way, is very different from getting a bad review from a critic,” she says). “Vanessa is one of those artists — and a lot of artists are like this — who can lose the ability to differentiate between her artistic fantasy and reality,” says Deitch. “It’s part of what makes her great.”

Beecroft did not, in the end, succeed in the adoption. She and Durkin divorced shortly after her return to the States; he had visited Africa and was, in Beecroft’s words, “disgusted.”

VB48: A 2001 performance at the Palazzo Ducale in Genoa. Photo: © Vanessa Beecroft, 2016

Driving to pick up her son at school in her large ’80s Mercedes coupe, Beecroft looks, with her giant Céline sunglasses against a backdrop of parched and thirsty hills, like I’ve always imagined Maria Wyeth must have: beautiful and haunted, displaced among the cactus and the clog of the freeway. She is talking about her divorce, which she still can’t quite fathom. “He divorced me for nothing,” she says, “nothing!” She worries about her children getting enough nature in their lives, about the parking lots at L.A. schools, where kids play outside beneath a punishing and relentless heat. She longs, always, for the cool forests of her childhood.

The new version of Beecroft’s life began on an October day in 2008, when she met both Kanye West and Spadoni. “Usually my modalities exclude music, pop music, pop culture, mass culture,” she says. “I hate it. When Kanye approached me, his studio to mine, my assistants said you have to meet him, he’s important. I had just come from several trips to Africa where a Sicilian intellectual academic man who I had consulted for the documentary said, ‘You will find your Orestes in the U.S., and it will be an African-American man.’ So when Kanye contacted me, I said, ‘Here he is!’ Also, Pasolini said the next king of Africa will be an African-American king of music, so I said fine. I decided to go with it.”

These days, Beecroft and Spadoni live in a house they call their “favela.” It is at the top of a series of winding roads just below the HOLLYWOOD sign. Beecroft is proud of the house, which has very little furniture and very beautiful, dramatic views, even on a smoggy day when everything looks like your glasses have fogged up. It is hard, she explains, to furnish when your attention to detail is so profound.

 “Kanye has a similar approach to life,” Beecroft says as she tours the mostly empty rooms overlooking the faded hills. “One song says ‘Couches couches couches.’ because for one year it was, Which couch should I get?, because it’s a big deal! How long, the proportion — he got this master from Belgium who studied proportion. He’s serious about it. He would lose years of life thinking, Which is the couch? I don’t have the financial power to follow my instincts, but I am like Visconti; even if you are shooting a film scene, you have to have the stuff in the drawer so that the actor feels it. It’s the same with me. In our house, everything has to be authentic. I was just born like that,” she says. “My mom was very casual. If she wanted to read a book, it didn’t matter which edition, but she really read the book. For me, I buy the edition and then I don’t really have to read the book, but then I have to have the cover a certain way and if it’s wrong, then I throw out the book. I have to get rid of it immediately. I put it in a bag in the street, and I just have to get it out.”

Beecroft in Los Angeles in june. Photo: Federico Spadoni

In the kitchen, a housekeeper in an apron is washing dishes at the sink beside large, immaculate bowls piled high with peaches and apricots. “A huge amount of food comes into the house,” Beecroft explains. “For Federico, this is irrational. But I have to see the food in there, but it is too much and the food goes bad. But it is so the children can eat apricots, peaches, cucumbers. Celery, nuts, almonds. Grapes. Berries. I always think to myself: This is not more than we need, but then the moment it arrives, I start panicking: Is it going to go bad? What do we do? What do we do with this food?” Beecroft doesn’t eat much of it herself, particularly if the children are not around. She relies on powders, briefly including a protein powder that a nutritionist told her would help ground her to the Earth; she’s since given up on protein entirely. “I realize I am a bit floating around in the sky,” she says.

While I’m there, the doorbell rings a lot: Beecroft’s four children have a rotating schedule of training (a young guy takes the older boys running in the hills) and tutors (a young woman in yoga pants helps with math), and it soon becomes clear that, in addition to its dreamy high-mindedness, there is also a compelling financial imperative driving the whole Beecroft operation: Four children are expensive, and Beecroft is determined that each moment of their lives be beautiful, that they attend beautiful schools where lunch must travel in a woven basket, where there are butterflies to be found and shade to be enjoyed. Her favorite thing is to travel with her entire brood — to see the volcano in Stromboli, to swim in the waters off Tulum and Lamu. She gestures to an empty closet; while the family was in Florence working on Kanye’s wedding, they were the target of Los Angeles fashion thieves who cleared out her collection of old Margiela and Yves Saint Laurent. “I need to generate value,” she says without bitterness, “because there are nannies and tutors and trainers. I do not like for my children to go to group classes; I prefer that they have the best.”

It’s easy to forget that Beecroft is a gifted painter who can work skillfully in both watercolor and oil paint, and that she can also shape realistic busts from enormous mounds of clay using only memory, imagination, and her large, freckled hands. Her studio is a busy place. On whiteboards in the office are her sketches of the Barbies. Enormous casts of bronze busts sit in one studio alongside huge slabs of clay and marble. In another studio, a number of assistants are moving enormous square monochromatic canvases around, in some cases covering them with gesso. “I deprived myself of the importance of working with color,” she says, gesturing at the canvas. “Maybe now that I’m older, maybe I’ll just take off and do my colors. Maybe this is why I withdrew from the art world, because I always felt that in front of the art world I had to be social, I had to show the women, I had to do my battle, it was just a battlefield. Now,” she says, “I’m playing with colors and for me it is therapeutical. The pinks, the yellows, the greens … never an earthy color, like terra-cotta, because I just can’t. I like the range of flowers and fruits.” A large yellow canvas is on the wall. “Like this yellow. I need it. And when I need something, I cannot think of anything else.”

*This article appears in the August 8, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.