Drake may know a guy at Sotheby’s, but the show “I Like It Like This,” presented by the auction house’s gallery arm, S|2, which features 56 works of art by 31 black American artists, is a success, surprisingly not in spite of its celebrity endorsement. For the exhibition, which is premised on the longstanding artistic interchange between art and music, its organizers asked Drake to choose songs to accompany 20 of the works on view. (These 20 works were selected by the curators, not Drake—apparently an oft-confused point.) His selections are played—blasted, to be specific—through a set of nearby white Beats by Dre headphones.
“As you’re walking around the gallery,” Eliza Howe, a Sotheby’s researcher, said at a preview on Tuesday, “you’ll hear bits and pieces as you walk by different stations and it makes you want to go up to the station and hear what Drake chose.”
First of all, the show is pretty well-curated—it’s predictably market focused (yes, there are a number of Basquiats), but it’s actually dynamic.
Glenn Ligon’s powerful 1992 painting Untitled (I Remember The Very Day), though inconspicuously hung amongst other paintings on a large back wall, is intended as the centerpiece of the show according to S|2 director Jackie Wachter. Other works include Jacob Lawrence’s 1946 painting The Lovers (“very rare on the market,” Wachter said), one of Nick Cave’s Soundsuits, Theaster Gates’s Throne, Towards The Close of Day, a Kehinde Wiley painting, a silver gelatin photo and two collages by Lorna Simpson, a drum stand by the late artist and musician Terry Adkins, and pieces by David Hammons, Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, and Mark Bradford. John Outterbridge’s Together Let Us Break Bread (Containment Series), Faith Ringgold’s Jazz Stories: Mama Can Sing, Papa Can Blow #2: Come On And Dance With Me, and Theaster Gates’s Civil Rights Throw Rug (7200.44), which is a throw rug made of fire hoses, were particularly nice inclusions.
Many of the works are musically themed, from Basquiat’s Jazz to Hammons’s Untitled (Record) to the record player seen in The Lovers to Betye Saar’s painted washboard in Birth of the Blues. But Drake’s involvement may overshadow the multimodal experience offered, the real laudatory aspect of the show.
Recently, museums have been experimenting with various sensorial additions to enhance viewer experience, an idea that virtual technology as a whole appears to be moving towards—a nostalgic replication, or recreation, of a specific mood or scene. (“Tate Sensorium,” a Tate Britain show opening this fall, will utilize interactive technology that allows viewers to “taste” art.) Here, the addition of music was enormously successful when it really clicked with the visual. I felt like images became (marginally but definitely perceptibly) sharper and more vibrant, and my immediate response was (marginally, though barely perceptibly) more visceral.
This brings me to the music itself. While Drake’s side of this collaboration invokes the flourishing phenomenon of the “celebrity DJ,” a special kind of bull in the china shop of contemporary culture, Drake’s sonic footprint actually integrates fairly non-awkwardly.
His selections, made in a period of a few weeks and sent in very recently, place a strong emphasis on of-the-moment artists—ILoveMakonnen, Rihanna, A$AP Rocky, Chief Keef, the Weeknd (ft. Drake!), a Riff Raff track—and, taking into account my memory’s margin of error, what I recall as a vaguely surprising absence of first-gen hip-hop, though a 1930s-era Robert Johnson song about coal mining was included. My favorite was the moving combination of Anthony Hamilton’s “Lucille” with Glenn Ligon’s Untitled (I Remember The Very Day). Jay-Z & Kanye’s “The Joy” (featuring Curtis Mayfield) paired with Kehinde Wiley’s Ferdinand-Philippe-Louis-Henri, Duc D’Orléans was a runner-up. The rest were competently matched, but not brilliantly so.
“If you go to these music stations, you can see that they’re linked to his music [choices],” Wachter said during an introductory speech. “But in addition, we’re encouraging viewers to Instagram or tweet their own musical selections to go along with the works. Soon, a playlist will be generated for each artist—the Bradford playlist, the Basquiat playlist, and so forth.”
She added, “Drake has been very adamant that these works are solely the way he sees them [hence the “I” in the exhibition title], and he wants everyone to participate.”
I felt obliged to ask Howe about the choice of Drake, and she said, “Drake was really who we had in mind from the beginning. He’s sort of a really inspirational, popular musician of the moment, and we thought he would bring a really interesting angle to the exhibition. There are musicians like Jay Z, who rapped the “Picasso Baby” song, and others who would have been a bit more obvious, but we sort of liked the angle of someone new to the art dialogue who would bring some interesting perspective.”
Excluding the technical fact that Drake is Canadian and this is a show featuring American artists, the choice of Drake feels kind of right for this collaboration. Even after years of top-tier household-name status, Drake has an earnest (Degrassi-like?) greenness about him that softens the clash of pop culture and art, unlike, say, Jay Z or Beyoncé, and he lacks Kanye’s intimidating cross-platform omnipresence. As a result, his contribution feels as equally whelming as the artwork on view, and, on the whole, in good taste.