Brooklyn-born artist Jean-Michel Basquiat painted “Equals Pi” in 1982. For nearly four decades, the painting remained in private hands — almost entirely hidden from the world — even as other Basquiats wowed museum crowds and sold for tens of millions of dollars.
This week, “Equals Pi” revealed itself in a new Tiffany & Co. ad campaign showcasing Jay-Z and Beyoncé.
The luxury jeweler this week launched its “About Love” campaign with the superstar couple, featuring Jay-Z dressed in a classic black-tie tuxedo and Beyoncé in the 128.54-carat Tiffany Diamond. The singer is one of just four women to ever wear the jewel, joining Mary Whitehouse, Audrey Hepburn and Lady Gaga, according to Women’s Wear Daily.
In the background of several of the photos is Basquiat’s 1982 work. Its background color, if not a spot-on match, is at least a close approximation to Tiffany’s iconic robin’s-egg blue.
Alexandre Arnault, Tiffany’s executive vice president of products and communication, told Women’s Wear Daily the company has no evidence Basquiat created the painting with the jeweler in mind. But, he added, it is not out of the question.
“We know he loved New York, and that he loved luxury and he loved jewelry. My guess is that the [blue painting] is not by chance. The color is so specific that it has to be some kind of homage,” he told the fashion publication.
Basquiat’s piece will be the only blue featured in the campaign, Arnault said.
“As you can see, there is zero Tiffany blue in the campaign other than the painting,” he said, adding that the work will ultimately live in Tiffany’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue. “It’s a way to modernize Tiffany blue.”
“Equals Pi” is one of thousands of paintings and drawings Basquiat created in a prolific career cut short by his death from a drug overdose at the age of 27.
Basquiat inspired Jay-Z, who is also Black and grew up in Brooklyn, long before Tiffany’s new ad. The rapper has repeatedly mentioned the late painter in his songs. In 2010, Jay-Z released a song titled “Most Kingz,” in which he raps, ”Inspired by Basquiat, my chariot’s on fire / Everybody took shots, hit my body up, I’m tired.”
In his 2013 song “Picasso Baby,” he mentions several famous painters aside from the track’s namesake: Leonardo da Vinci, Oscar-Claude Monet, Mark Rothko, Jeff Koons and Basquiat. Jay-Z cycles between bragging about acquiring the artists’ expensive works and claiming that he stands beside them as a creative of equal caliber.
That same year, the rapper bought Basquiat’s 1982 “Mecca” painting for $4.5 million, the New York Post reported at the time.
Basquiat took to drawing at 3 or 4, according to a website created by his estate. His mother, who had an interest in fashion design, often drew with him and took him to art museums throughout the city.
He first attracted attention as a high school student graffitiing in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan under the tag “SAMO,” according to a Sotheby’s article about Basquiat. In 1980, he had his first art exhibition. In 1981, he met lifelong friend and mentor Andy Warhol, according to the art company, and in 1982, Basquiat dated Madonna as the two flirted with mainstream stardom.
Basquiat’s fame has endured since his 1988 death. In 2017, his 1982 painting “Untitled” sold for $110.5 million, the most ever for an American artist at auction.
Tiffany’s ad campaign — which WWD reported will take over all of Times Square’s digital billboards — will expose thousands, if not millions, more people to the artist’s work.
In 1985, three years before his death, Basquiat did an interview in which talked about his life, inspirations and paintings. At one point, the interviewer asked him who he made paintings for.
“I was trying to make paintings different from the paintings that I saw a lot of at the time, which were mostly minimal and they were highbrow and alienating, and I wanted to make very direct paintings that most people would feel the emotion behind when they saw them,” he said.
A while later, the interviewer returned to the subject.
“Who do you make a painting for? Who do you think of when you make a painting?”
Basquiat didn’t answer and there was a long silence. The interviewer tried a slightly different approach.
“Do you make it for you?”
“I think I make it for myself,” Basquiat responded, “but ultimately I think I make it for the world you know.”