In July, an elite group of artists—designers, actors, painters and beyond—were invited to a private gallery space in downtown Manhattan. The purpose was unclear until the top-secret reveal: Jay Z had invited them not only watch the filming of his new music video for “Picasso Baby,” but also be a part of it. The inspiration: Performance art. The result: A rare moment when the art and rap music worlds collided. Designer Cynthia Rowley was one of the lucky few invited to participate in the six-hour endurance feat. She attended with her husband Bill Powers, an art gallery owner, and her 14-year-old daughter, Kit Keenan. “There was no way you could have anticipated what would happen,” Rowley told InStyle.com in an interview after the performance. “That’s what made it so exciting and new and smart. He introduced the world of contemporary art to a new audience. In a single moment, the audience for contemporary art grew exponentially.” Last week, HBO released a film about the experience, still available for viewing on HBOGO. But there’s nothing like hearing about it from someone who was there. Scroll down to listen in on InStyle’s conversation with Cynthia Rowley about one of the most memorable art and music moments of the year.
What were you thinking as you entered the gallery space?
It was a veiled invitation. It was pretty secretive. I knew what was happening, but I didn’t know that we would be going up for a one-on-one with Jay. It was a little intimidating. I’m not shy—I’ve been on Letterman, interviewed by Barbara Walters, met Presidents of the United States. But I have never been that scared as I was that day.
What made it so intimidating?
The art world is this rarified exclusive world. To be in the combination of Jay Z and this rarified world was a little overwhelming. The flipside is that it was so exciting to see him creating this new genre. It was something that had never been done before where the art world is incorporated into music in that way. It was exciting to be there for that moment live.
Why did you decide to cover your daughter’s ears for your one-on-one with Jay?
It was really just freestyle. I think when I first did it, he looked at me like, ‘What you don’t want her to hear my music?’ But it was explicit language. Then, he realized why and he covered her ears when he was singing certain parts. My daughter [14-year-old Kit Keenan] was so not shy about it at all. She was super excited. She was shaking her booty. She stood up and started dancing around. She knows every single word and was singing along with everything.
Besides Jay, who else in the room were you excited to see?
I’m a big Judd Apatow fan and he went on right before me. He is such as funny guy and so smart. Every artist that was there was a major player. George Condo. Rashid Johnson. Marilyn Minter. Mickalene Thomas. Dustin Yellin. Marina Abramovic.
Marina looked like she got the closest to Jay Z.
Marina Abromovic and him came together to create the performance—it was loosely based on her MoMA show [The Artist Is Present]. Conversely, it was completely Jay Z. I think he is the most brilliant artist in his own right. He’s so smart. It’s such a smart and admirable thing that he’s introducing contemporary art into culture in this way.
What was the vibe you couldn’t see on camera?
In the art world, a lot of people are shy and not used to performing like that. I think that at the beginning, no one knew what was happening at all. We didn’t know why we were there. A lot of people didn’t know what was going to happen, which is exciting in itself. He just came out and started rapping and people were explosive. It was really a magical moment. It was just continuous. He just kept going. It was endurance. Performance artists are endurance-based—and that was perfect because he was really giving it his all.
Talk about endurance—he was on for six hours.
I know! I didn’t stay the whole time.
What was the most innovative part of the experience?
There was a huge range of people and personalities and ages in that room. Nothing like that has ever happened in the art world. It merged two things in a really authentic way—art and music. Fashion and art have collaborated at times, but I feel like one person wins more than the other or borrows more than the other. In this case, he showed he is the artist and it was the most authentic. It wasn’t like he was saying, ‘Come into my world.’ He was really putting himself out there and taking a big chance, too. That’s why it was so brilliant and so successful, because everyone was in it for the magical moment. Everyone took a big chance and everyone was scared.
As a designer, did you think about what you wore?
No. I wore ratty jeans and our Censored Tee ($150 at cynthiarowley.com). It says New York F****** City but the F word has flowers covering it. I was wearing it that day and didn’t even realize if it was good or bad. I used my jacket to cover it up a bit because I didn’t want to be too loud. But now, I realize it worked. There is censorship in art and music. It’s a statement in itself that was totally unplanned. And when I put my hands over my daughter’s ears, it was another form of censorship. I did it in a comedic way, the same way I did the shirt. I didn’t plan that.
Are you fan of the song, “Picasso Baby?”
On top on everything—forget even what happened—it’s a sick, awesome song! [With lyrics like] “Condos in my condos,” I mean, come on. It’s so smart. It’s really brilliant. I keep saying that but it’s really true. It is too smart to put into words.
What is the lasting impression of your experience?
I feel really, really lucky that I was there. I don’t think that could ever be duplicated or replicated in any way. That was it. That was my only chance. That was the moment.
Below is a clip from the filming of “Picasso Baby: A Performance Art Film.” Watch the entire film on hbogo.com, which originally appeared on HBO August 2nd.
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