The work of Kadir Nelson, a frequent contributor to the magazine, could, in one sense, be called classical: like the Old Masters, he meticulously layers oil paint onto his canvas, lending the image a radiant depth. In his latest cover, though, Nelson plays with a more modern style, presenting two onlookers struck, in passing, by a splash of graffiti. Nelson developed his own tag for the image, and he recently talked to us about what draws him to street art.
A painter showing us art lovers admiring street art. What inspired this image?
I’ve been thinking about the history of fine art and its ever-expanding boundaries, from the early Egyptians to Banksy, and contemplating what defines fine art and where it’s going next. It reminded me of Norman Rockwell’s “Art Connoisseur” painting, which asked the same question. In some ways, this reimagines his painting with contemporary subjects.
You’ve spent time on both coasts. Have you noticed any differences in the street art?
I think that New York street art is harder-edged than its West Coast counterpart. New York has defined the graffiti genre, but I’m interested in the broader trends. Over all, street art is expanding to figurative, three-dimensional, and representational art on a much larger scale.
Painting a tag involves something of a departure from your usual style. Did you look to any street artist in particular for guidance?
As a teen-ager, I explored painting graffiti on canvas, and incorporated it into an album cover I painted for Swizz Beatz. For this painting, I found inspiration in graffiti art by Cope2 and others, and then designed my own tag. It reads “HIGH ARTT.” I signed it with the mark of a fictional street artist named Deezy, an abbreviated form of KaDeezy or KaDir.
Nelson’s album cover for “Swizz Beatz Presents G.H.E.T.T.O. Stories,” which was released, in 2002, by DreamWorks Records.
The classical references—like the Horus, in the bottom left—are interesting. Why did you include these details?
I thought about some of the original artists who painted on walls—Leonardo da Vinci, or Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, for example. And the first to come to mind were the ancient Egyptians.
See below for more covers that celebrate the art world.
“September 27, 1941,” by Constantin Aladjalov
“Cave Opening,” by Harry Bliss
“The Plastic Arts,” by Art Spiegelman