“When something happens like this, yeah, there’s a push—but there has to be a pull,” the legendary music executive said of the collection of works inspired by the label’s artists. That plus the latest on Kanye and Julia and more in this week’s column.
By Nate Freeman
"On Wednesday night at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Lana Del Rey walked into the Resnick Pavilion and had a look at Lana Watched, a new painting by the artist Jenna Gribbon inspired by the singer’s 2012 breakout album, Born to Die. Del Rey was staring at the painting, mesmerized. On the canvas, her face was being projected onto a screen, and foregrounded in the painting was a woman seated in the nude seen from behind, watching the projection. The woman gazing at the pop star was Gribbon’s partner, the singer-songwriter Torres. Just then another museumgoer sidled along.
“Ahhhhh!” said Del Rey, turning to see who it was. “Jimmy!”
That would be Jimmy Iovine, the legendary record producer and music executive who cofounded Beats by Dre, served as an Apple Music exec, and became a megarich art collector and education philanthropist along the way. On Wednesday, Iovine was on hand as the founder of Interscope Records, which was celebrating its 30th anniversary with “Artists Inspired by Music: Interscope Reimagined,” a show up at LACMA for a few weeks, in which leading contemporary artists—Rashid Johnson, Damien Hirst, Ed Ruscha, Henry Taylor, Stanley Whitney, Kehinde Wiley, and more—reimagined albums from the label’s storied catalog.
At the private opening, members of No Doubt snapped pictures with Lucy Bull, the artist who turned the sunburst ska-punk of Tragic Kingdom into a citrus-tinged abstract painting, while Steve Berman, the longtime Interscope executive Eminem used as a comic foil, led The Game over to a large canvas by the self-taught Mr. Wash, who learned to paint during a two-decade prison sentence that was commuted by President Obama in 2016. Shepard Fairey explained to Karen O and Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs how he ran their album Fever to Tell through his street-art-gone-pop sensibilities. Jared Leto—who, if you recall, was in the Interscope-signed band Thirty Seconds to Mars before winning an Oscar and hamming it up as the Joker—stopped by to kick it with current label head John Janick. Billie Eilish posted up with works by Cecily Brown, Lisa Yuskavage, and Anna Park, all inspired by her music. Olivia Rodrigo dutifully filed an Instagram missive from LACMA to her 21 million followers, posing in front of a Henni Alftan painting made in reaction to the cover of the singer’s 2021 hit record Sour.
“It’s going to bring a different audience to the museum,” LACMA director Michael Govan told me, standing near Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor. “Most exhibitions take years to plan, and this went start-to-finish pretty quickly. I just try to keep the exhibition calendar flexible so we can disrupt everyone once in a while.”
And then Govan was whisked off to meet Umar Rashid, the artist who turned Tupac Shakur’s Me Against the World into a painting with the late rapper as a laser-eyed hero surrounded by a mélange of halo-headed angels, a baby blue Cadillac, and a black boom box. The yearlong process of putting together a show of new work by the world’s most in-demand artists responding to musical artists was handled almost entirely in house. Iovine, Janick, Berman, and Josh Abraham—another music executive and a collector with serious Los Angeles art world bona fides—did A&R but for painters, not rappers. The idea first came at the start of 2021, when Justin Lubliner, a rising star who signed Eilish in 2016 and whose company the Darkroom partners with Interscope, suggested some kind of crossover event with the art world.
“He said, ‘Why don’t we, for the 30th anniversary, get the musical artists and visual artists, and they can do the album covers,’” Iovine told me Tuesday. It was a warm January morning, and Iovine was sitting on the 75-degree, sun-dappled terrace of a palm-tree-dotted Beverly Hills hotel wearing green socks with loafers, a vintage L.A. Raiders shirt under a leather jacket, a plain white cap, and a chain. He ordered green tea and told the staff to turn the music down.
“That’s a great idea,” Iovine went on. “But also a great idea is: Why don’t you cure COVID, and cancer, this weekend? That’s how Herculean this job was.”
He started out by reaching out to Ruscha, the dean of living Los Angeles artists, a longtime friend of Iovine’s who made the work Our Flag—a massive painting of a torn American flag—on commission for the Apple Music founder. Once approached about the germ of an idea, Ruscha offered to make one of his signature text works in response to Shakur’s All Eyez on Me. From there, the team reached out to Abraham, the founder of Pulse Recording, to coordinate with artists and their galleries. Janick is also a collector, mostly of younger L.A.-based artists such as Lauren Halsey and Sayre Gomez, both of whom agreed to participate, as did the painter Anna Weyant, who asked if she could paint an interpretation of Gwen Stefani’s vacation-as-hit-single classic “The Sweet Escape.”
“The visual artists were steered by the musical artists; we were letting people do their interpretation,” Janick said, sitting across from Iovine at breakfast.
“I couldn’t imagine in a million years that Emily Mae Smith would want to do Nine Inch Nails, but she wouldn’t do it unless she could do Nine Inch Nails,” Abraham said, a seat away.
“Rashid had to do Kendrick’s Good Kid, MAAD City,” Janick said.
Another natural pairing was Eminem with Hirst, two brash ’90s outsiders turned ’90s superstars. Berman connected Eminem’s longtime faceman Paul Rosenberg on a Zoom with Joe Hage, a lawyer and collector who is currently managing Hirst’s expansion into the murky waters of NFT-dom. They hit it off, and Hirst made new iterations of his obvious-but-iconic spin paintings atop Eminem album covers—and some medicine cabinet works too.
The show’s centerpiece is a Kehinde Wiley portrait of Dr. Dre. The producer, whose solo debut and subsequent releases put Interscope on the map in the 1990s, is co-headlining the Super Bowl halftime show in a few weeks, guiding the Iovine and Young Academy with his business partner, and prepping for a new high school that will open in South L.A. this year. All the net profits from the sales of vinyl editions of the works, offered exclusively through the merch-drop app Ntwrk for $2,500 in a custom Gucci box, will benefit the Iovine and Young Foundation.
Wiley painted the producer in full golden armor, with a background of flowers similar to his official portrait of Obama that now has a home at the National Portrait Gallery. The work required that Dre stay in the studio for the entire hours-long sitting.
“Getting Dre in that suit had to be a conversation,” Iovine said.
“I said, if Obama did it, maybe it’s good enough for Dre,” Abraham said.
Govan’s decision to stage the show raised some eyebrows among the Angeleno art cognoscenti. In the pages of the Los Angeles Times, the paper’s art critic Christopher Knight—who is something of a LACMA bête noire for his sustained criticism of the museum’s Peter Zumthor–designed new building—pilloried the institution as a “corporate rent-a-museum” for hosting the show.
Iovine said this was not a corporate collection, and that all the works were owned by the artists, who could keep them or sell them as they wished, completely unrelated to Interscope. And more broadly, he argued that Knight has willfully missed this cultural moment. Contemporary artists, he said, chose to make works for the show so they could be placed on the same pedestal as pop music stars—some of whom are about to play the halftime show of the first Super Bowl hosted in Los Angeles in 30 years.
“When something happens like this, yeah, there’s a push—but there has to be a pull,” Iovine said. “When you see artists come together to do something, or you see a lot of artists do the similar thing at the same time, there’s a pull from the zeitgeist that wants that to happen. You can push all you want, but unless there is an overall pull from just the culture, it doesn’t happen. The way this came together made me realize, we’re onto something.”
Controversy or not, much of the Los Angeles art world was on hand at LACMA for the rollout. Henry Taylor, who painted Kendrick Lamar, bounded in and ran straight to the dealer Stefan Simchowitz, who was holding court near the bar. Jeffrey Deitch marveled at the salon-style hang and told me he was pleasantly surprised at how the artists delivered top-notch work. Amy Cappellazzo, the former Sotheby’s auction rainmaker, stopped by a Derrick Adams work inspired by Mary J. Blige—“incredible,” she said—as did her former auction house colleague Jackie Wachter, Iovine’s longtime adviser and confidante in the picture-buying business. Case in point: When Sean Combs bid through Wachter and spent $21 million on a Kerry James Marshall painting, Iovine was on the line too.
“I was on the phone with Puff—me, Jackie Wachter, and Puff—and I was saying to Puff, ‘Are you crazy?’” Iovine revealed to me. “And he was right! I was saying, ‘Are you sure you got a wall this big?’ In the middle of it, at $18 [million]: ‘Are you sure?’”
Later on in the night, I again found Del Rey and asked what it had been like to see Gribbon’s interpretation of Born to Die, which Gribbon called in an Instagram caption, “one of my favorite records of all time.” Del Rey took a breath and said that her music has often been misinterpreted by writers and critics.
“My dad always says, ‘Dumb it down,’ but if you listen to the lyrics it’s actually pretty simple,” she said. But a painting in response to an album is not a written review. Del Rey said that she came to terms with the Gribbon work.
“It’s hard for me to look at their perspective, and at first I thought it was too sexualized, and too voyeuristic,” said Del Rey. “And then I talked to Jenna, and they said, ‘That’s the way we see it.’”"