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Sunday, 9 December, 2001, 00:38 GMT
Madonna shows her artistic roots
Madonna: A big fan of Mexican artist Kahlo
Madonna: A big fan of Mexican artist Kahlo
By News Online's Robert White

Among the runners for this year's Turner prize are two installations, one of which has already been mistaken for an empty room, the other for Tate Britain's storage area.

The contenders are clearly as radical and experimental as ever.

So it might come as a surprise that the prize itself is going to be presented by Madonna - the world's most famous practitioner of that most conservative of art forms, the three-minute pop song.

Maybe you'll see the singer's attendance at prize day as the cynical stunt of a veteran bandwagon-jumper seeking yet another route to the limelight.

Or you might find yourself recoiling at the sight of the art establishment cravenly doffing its cap to celebrity - a case of high art courting its funkier cousin, pop, and hoping some of the glitter will rub off.

Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo: known for her self portraits

But both these views overlook the depth of Madonna's roots in the contemporary art world.

The length of the star's global pop reign means it's easy to forget that she first burst out of the New York of the late 1970s and early 1980s - arguably one of the most creative periods in the city's cultural history.

The old avant garde, the generation that included rock star Patti Smith and photographer Robert Maplethorpe, was overlapping with a new crowd whose artistic tools were not electric guitars and cameras, but spray cans and record decks.

As the Ramones deafened audiences at punk venue CBGB's, early experiments with a new form of music called hip hop were under way in the Bronx.

In the city's clubs, galleries, bars and bedrooms, the boundaries between black and white, gay and straight, "low" and "high" art, were being challenged and explored.

Artist Andy Warhol
Warhol was a guest at Madonna's first wedding

In 1982, says Madonna's unofficial biographer, Andrew Morton, British singer Sade was serving drinks in the New York club the Danceteria.

At the same time, the late artist Keith Haring, whose paintings would later sell for staggering sums, was doing shifts in the cloakroom.

And in 1983, pop met art even more directly as the then little known Madonna embarked on a relationship with the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, Morton reports.

Basquiat would go on to be hailed as genius and lionised by the New York art world until his death, from heroin addiction, in 1988.

More widely known than the Basquiat link is Madonna's admiration for the work of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

Tate Modern
Tate Modern: Borrowed a work from Madonna's collection

In October, the singer lent the Kahlo painting Self-portrait with Monkey to London's Tate Modern, where it is one of 450 works on display in the exhibition Surrealism: Desire Unbound.

Also part of Madonna's collection is Kahlo's My Birth, a painting which the singer reportedly uses a social litmus test - if you don't like it, she doesn't like you.

Having grown up with people like Haring, Basquiat and Andy Warhol - who, incidentally, attended the singer's first wedding, to Hollywood star Sean Penn - it's no surprise that Madonna has become a serious collector of modern art.

'Nice sin'

She has now been steadily accumulating art for 20 years.

Andrew Morton claims she would like to be remembered as a modern-day Peggy Guggenheim, and quotes her as saying: "Paintings are my secret garden and my passion, my reward and my nice sin."

In the New York of 1983, who could have foretold that Basquiat or Haring would be taken up by the art establishment rather than, say, graffiti artist Five Five Freddie? Probably not even Madonna.

Enough time has gone by for the singer to become a sort of living link to a rich period of creative exchange between the street and academy in the US - one that found its own echo in the 90s in Britain in the shape of the so-called Young British Artists, who adopted rock-star mannerisms and generated huge publicity.

The Turner's organisers must be very happy that Madonna has agreed to act as go-between for them on Sunday night.

See also:

30 May 01 | Arts
Don't worry, it's Blu-tac
24 Apr 01 | Music
'Huge interest' in Madonna gig
30 Mar 01 | Music
Madonna plans world tour
12 Apr 01 | Showbiz
Morton to write Madonna biography
03 Apr 01 | Arts
Tate leads museum boom
02 Apr 01 | Arts
Tate team wins major award
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