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Tiffany & Co.’s new marketing campaign, featuring Beyoncé and Jay-Z in front of a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, truly has something for everyone. Fans of the Carters are celebrating the duo’s first appearance together in an ad, while others, perhaps unaware of the advanced stage of capitalism we are in, are horrified that a multibillion-dollar luxury retailer would use the work of a once-fringe artist to sell diamonds.
And still, others have been captivated by the painting itself: “Equals Pi” (1982), a canvas covered in Basquiat’s idiosyncratic, seemingly improvisational mix of scribbled texts, motifs, and diagrams, selected by Tiffany for its distinctive robin egg-hued ground reminiscent of the company’s signature “Tiffany Blue.”
Shot by Mason Poole, the photograph is part of Tiffany’s larger “ABOUT LOVE” campaign, which also includes a film by director Emmanuel Adjei with a Beyoncé cover of the song “Moon River.” The couple is smartly dressed in evening attire, Beyoncé flaunting the massive 128-carat “Tiffany Diamond” once worn by Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s; the painting leans casually on a wall behind them.
The campaign has become mired in controversy, not least because of the company’s claims that it reflects its “continued support towards underrepresented communities.” Tiffany’s says it will pledge $2 million toward scholarships at Historically Black Colleges and Universities as part of the initiative. But critics have pointed to some uncomfortable contradictions — from the source of company founder Charles Lewis Tiffany’s wealth, likely derived in part from the labor of enslaved people, to the inherent racism of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a movie in which a white actor, Mickey Rooney, taped his eyes back to play a Japanese character.
Perhaps most contentious, however, has been Tiffany’s own language around “Equals Pi” and its acquisition and marketing of the work on the basis of what may be a chromatic coincidence.
Although the work’s palette bears a striking resemblance to the jeweler’s Pantone 1837, there is no evidence to suggest the artist was inspired by the brand. This fact has not prevented the company from widely circulating its speculations on the matter: while admitting to a lack of literature backing the connection, Alexandre Arnault, executive vice president of products and communications, said in an interview that “the color is so specific [it] has to be some kind of homage,” adding that Basquiat “loved jewelry.” (The Basquiat Estate has not responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.)
The manufactured allure that Tiffany’s inference bestows on the work has been compounded by a media narrative insistent on its purported rarity. But despite a slew of headlines describing the painting as “never-before-seen,” its existence and whereabouts have been known for years: before its acquisition by Tiffany’s, the work was owned by the Sabbadinis in Milan, another big jewelry family, who posed with the painting above their couch for a flashy 2018 W Magazine feature that was anything but discrete. Auction records dating back three decades show the work was offered in the public market twice before landing in the Sabbadini collection. The work first came up at a Sotheby’s sale in London in 1990, where it went unsold; it went under the hammer again in 1996, this time fetching £155,500 (~$253,000).
According to Tiffany’s press release, the painting has remained in private hands from its creation until now, making the ad campaign its “first public appearance” — an interesting turn of phrase, since the painting is not currently on view to the public. It will eventually be permanently displayed at Tiffany’s flagship boutique on Fifth Avenue, according to WWD, but Tiffany’s framing is akin to saying the work’s digital reproduction anywhere constitutes a “public appearance.”
Tiffany & Co. has not responded to Hyperallergic’s requests for comment.
Amid the Twitter storm, many have rightly noted that Black celebrities, including Beyoncé and Jay-Z, are disproportionately scrutinized for their participation in projects like the Tiffany ad campaign — and that the mass commercialization of Basquiat’s art long preceded this moment. The artist’s work has been printed on everything from yoga mats to eye make-up palettes. And any hypotheses about Basquiat’s outrage at seeing his painting in a Tiffany ad are just that — much like the art historical assumptions behind the jeweler’s marketing spin.
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