When he finally arrived, Beatz presented Keys with a bag containing some expensive glass. Still annoyed, she deliberately showed more interest in the bag than what it contained. After sharing a meal, they left the venue, and it was only at this point — da-da! — that Keys understood.
So keen, it turns out, had Beatz been to make a fine impression that he had made a painting for her, found it was too big to fit in the car, eventually secured it to the top and had it waiting for her when they came out. It showed piano keys with paintbrushes on top, an attempt to represent her as a musician and him as a painter (he has always loved art).
“So he wasn’t really late,” concluded Keys. “He was doing something sweet.”
I told you: cute. This story is told — with charm and understatement — by the couple in a video playing in the final gallery of “Giants: Art from the Dean Collection of Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys” at the Brooklyn Museum.
By the time I sat down to watch it, I was sold on the show — and I think you’ll like it too.
There are lots of big names, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Nick Cave, Henry Taylor, Deana Lawson, Mickalene Thomas, Kehinde Wiley and Gordon Parks. But there are also artists you’re less likely to know. Almost all the artists are people of color, but they’re not all American; others are from Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean. There’s a bias toward living artists — although the show also has a historical dimension — and toward figurative art, particularly portraiture — although there are also some abstract paintings and sculptures.
“Every person [in this show] … is just like you and I,” says Keys in the video interview. “We want you to see that you are also a giant. That you are special, incredible, unique.”
Collectors obviously stand to gain from having their works hung together in museums. Museums can gain too. But none of this is new, and similar arrangements occur all the time at America’s major museums. Swizz Beatz was on the board at the Brooklyn Museum until last year; he stepped down to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
I’m fine with all that. Nor am I profoundly disturbed by the Brooklyn Museum’s recent obsession with the draw-power of celebrities, from Hannah Gadsby to Spike Lee and Paul McCartney. Like Swizz Beatz and Keys, these people are all creative in different fields and the idea, presumably, is to break down barriers around art. Meanwhile, the museum can step outside the mainstream: Right now, for instance, it has mounted “Copy Machine Manifestos: Artists Who Make Zines,” an edgy survey of the past half century of countercultural zines.
“Giants” is not one of those collection shows in which everything is strenuously blue chip — where you can imagine the obsessive collector (whose art adviser fees and deep cash outlays have finally been validated by a museum) responding to a fellow titan of business mentioning his own forays into art collecting with thin-lipped, how-nice-for-you condescension.
No, this is a collection show that’s relaxed. It’s open-armed. It has some very fine work in it. It also has some duds. But somehow, that doesn’t matter. As you walk around the exhibition, you’re made to sense instead what must be a big part of the appeal of collecting work by one’s contemporaries: The process is intimate. You become friends with the artists. Your collecting leads to the formation of an ad hoc, mutually supportive community, a family. What’s more, it’s speculative — not in the mercenary sense but in the sense that you’re experimenting, following your instinct, developing your own taste, not emulating others.
So of course there are going to be duds. The best work might not always be available, for starters. But there’s a deeper dimension to it: When you understand that creativity is a process in need of support (as Keys and Beatz surely do), you want to provide it, regardless of whether every single thing you acquire is museum-worthy. (Is every single or album or performance by Keys or Swizz Beatz a total success? Of course not, and they get that.)
So that’s what I enjoyed about this show: its big-hearted vibe, its generous spirit. The atmosphere is reinforced by a sprinkling of sofas for visitors to kick back in and by Bang & Olufsen speakers emitting a Marvin Gaye-heavy playlist compiled by Swizz Beatz.
The good stuff? I love Jamel Shabazz, the longtime Brooklyn-based photographer. The selection of his work here reveals his dashing eye for color, for unusual and telling physical poses and for amusing group dynamics. For instance, in “Fly Girl, Brownsville, Brooklyn,” 1980, the tilted torso of the coy, grinning girl in the white shirt and bright-red skirt, which she spreads wide with her pocketed hands, causes her head to intersect with a maroon-colored car in the background. A diagonal white line on the road, meanwhile, aligns with her raised right shoulder. Color, contrast and geometry all unify the picture, but the result is not austere or mathematical: it’s simply gorgeous.
I also loved photographs by Mali’s Malick Sidibé, Burkina Faso’s Sanlé Sory, and Americans Parks, Kwame Braithwaite and Lawson.
Two works from the beginning and end of the career of Ernie Barnes (1938-2009), an artist who grew up in segregated North Carolina, were also engrossing. The Deans befriended Barnes and championed his work. His unfinished, large-scale charcoal drawing, “Study for ‘Spoken Word,’” is riveting: it shows a woman reading poetry against a backdrop of bookshelves. Disembodied hands emerge from the shelves, making gestures of praise.
Stenciled over the lower part of Barnes’s drawing are the names of six Black writers. One of them, Langston Hughes, is also the focus of the small Basquiat work in the collection.
Other highlights, for me (your list will be different), are the surprisingly sweet landscapes of Barkley L. Hendricks, an artist better known for his portraits, and abstract works, charged with conceptual content, by Esther Mahlangu, Odili Donald Odita and Hank Willis Thomas.
I adored, too, Cave’s “Soundsuit” and his wall sculpture, titled “Tondo,” and Taylor’s painting “Cornerstone,” which shows a Black man against a green landscape. The man holds a yellow sign that reads “FOOD.” Taylor, the subject of a recent retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, has a knack of combining incredible directness with tender reticence.
I’ve said before that I’m no fan of Kehinde Wiley, whose work forms part of the origin story of the Dean collection. There are two Wiley portraits of Keys and Swizz Beatz at the start of the show and a massive Wiley painting of a reclining youth in its largest gallery. For me, they’re formulaic, conceptually fatigued.
But no matter: the same large gallery contains a superb — and surprising — Arthur Jafa sculpture, two arresting pendant portraits of Baltimore youths on dirt bikes, and a superb, multi-panel painting, “Catfish,” by Nina Chanel Abney. Calling to mind Henri Matisse’s “Bathers by a River,” Abney’s painting electrifies the geometric severity and pressurized introversion of that painting with the explosive, syncopated energy of hip-hop and the danger of online sex and deceit.
One long room is taken up with a remarkable, multi-panel figurative painting by Meleko Mokgosi. It’s a slice-of-society mural that touches on colonial history, political enfranchisement, nationalism and private life. It will start great conversations about whether it succeeds or fails. I came away persuaded.
Less impressive, to me, were the works of Titus Kaphar (arch), Tschabalala Self (unresolved) and Derrick Adams (dull). But I’ve seen good things by those artists too. And, again, what I like about this show and love about this collection is the way, even in the formalized context of a museum presentation, it feels open to failure, adjustment and improvement.
It has, in other words, a pulse.
Giants: Art from the Dean Collection of Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys Opens Feb. 10 through July 7 at the Brooklyn Museum. brooklynmuseum.org.