Lawrence Neil is the only art historian you need.
“Slide” dropped in February, a marquee collab between Calvin Harris, Frank Ocean, Quavo, and Offset—four artists firmly in pop culture’s limelight. The next day, Frank made his first ever annotation on Genius, the wiki that allows users and artists to decipher or explain the meaning behind their lyrics. In reference to his intro and outro verse “I might / Empty my bank account / And buy that ‘Boy With A Pipe,’” Ocean annotated, “A Picasso painting that sold for so much money.”
This referenced Picasso (titled Garçon à la Pipe in its original French) made a splash in 2004 when it sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $104 million to an unknown buyer, breaking the record for highest sale price for a painting.
We know Frank has a contentious relationship with fine art (Boy, you missed your moment / perusing the MOMA), but it’s certainly not one of ignorance, so boy, is there a lot to unpack in this.
Rumors suggest that the current owner of ‘Boy With A Pipe’ is probably the patriarch of the Barilla pasta fortune, Guido Barilla. In 2013, Guido made anti-gay comments to much backlash and the threat of boycott before switching up his rhetoric and the company receiving passing marks from LGBTQ advocacy groups. Sound familiar to a certain trio of cultured Atlantans?
In that Sotheby’s auction, Barilla bought the painting from the estate of John Hay Whitney, who first purchased the painting in 1950 from Picasso himself. Whitney, not to be outdone in his potential Ocean connections, was the former director of the aforementioned MOMA following a stint as ambassador to the UK, where Ocean spent his last few years as an under-the-radar expat.
(Want to go down a fun and terrifying Wikipedia rabbit hole? Check out the Whitney Family, who have filled the top ranks of the Illuminati by runningevery powerful American institution literally for centuries. Catch you in a week.)
Of course, these types of deeply rooted references are likely coincidental—Frank just picked the most expensive painting to flaunt his crazy wealth, right? Wrong. While ‘Boy With A Pipe’ carried the most expensive selling price at the time of its auction, the record’s been broken since — fifteen times actually. Frank chose this painting for a reason.
In 1905, Picasso was an expat living in Paris, and had just moved to the artist neighborhood of Montmartre. ‘Boy With a Pipe’ has been frequently analyzed for its homosexual overtones, and Picasso’s new digs in the sexually liberal Montmartre don’t contradict the suggestion. While Picasso himself was “determinedly straight,” Artnet critic Blake Gopnik commented that it, “doesn’t seem far-fetched to imagine that his painting of bad-boy ‘P’tit Louis,’ with his legs notably spread, was meant as a kind of tribute” to this new culture rejecting sexual restriction. Picasso was 24 when he painted ‘Boy with a Pipe,’ this “tribute” to sexual liberty. How old was Ocean’s when he dropped Channel Orange, the album that served as his public coming-out and his own tribute to sexual liberty?
Hm. Not to mention that “pipe” is slang for blowjob in French.
Frank also sets up plenty of syntactic ambiguity. “I might empty my bank account and buy that boy with a pipe” can be parsed out to a few different meanings:
Purchasing the ‘Boy With A Pipe.’ The explanation we’ve been deconstructing.
Using the J.R. Smith definition of “pipe.” He may be saying he’s about to spend lots of money to gain the affection of a particularly well-endowed man
Using the french definition of ‘pipe,’ this becomes a man who gives good head
These two clauses might be actually unrelated, a sort of full embrace of a bohemian lifestyle; Ocean liquidating his assets and taking the cash, using his own sexual prowess (JR Smith or French “pipe”) to “buy” (read: capture, captivate, acquire, engage) some unknown but presumably desirable boy.
Or maybe, just maybe, it’s a flex for flex’s sake. Frank is saying he’s so rich, he can buy a Picasso.
But even this suggestion comes drenched in subtext, as a main reason ‘Boy With A Pipe’ came under scrutiny during its ‘04 sale is because Picasso experts said the painting’s purchase price heavily outstrips its artistic significance.
“I’m stunned,” Picasso scholar Pepe Karmel had said at the time, “that a pleasant, minor painting could command a price appropriate to a real masterwork by Picasso. This just shows how much the marketplace is divorced from the true values of art.”
If that’s the case, maybe this is just Frank saying, ‘Yo, I’m so rich I can spend money on an item that operates solely as a signifier of wealth and taste, completely independent of its actual value, which is coincidentally how most contemporary art operates today, as a signifier of an ideal rather than the actual thing, likely even explaining the critical frenzy surrounding my own long-awaited follow-up album.’
How rich is that? Rich as fuck.
We’ll never get the real answer. Ocean’s enigma is not his only appeal, but is certainly fundamental to it, one that leaves a few of us reeling for months from a couple of his words on a pitched-up intro to a Calvin Harris song.
Carry on, Frank, carry on.