“Most people don’t have profound philosophical thoughts all the time, they think like pop songs,” British artist Tracey Emin said in a 2013 interview, responding to criticism that her famous neon sculptures are “crass and corny.” Hot pink, purple, and turquoise, Emin’s neon sculptures look like an accessory straight out of Jules’s apartment in St. Elmo’s Fire, the sort of immediately eye-catching but not annoyingly imposing artwork that looks great on Instagram and striking in a living room. Yes, they’re a little corny, a collection of sincere slogans like “I Loved You More Than I Can Love” and “You Touch My Soul” rendered in cursive. Emin was drawn to universal emotion and simplicity and the result was works made for people who think like pop songs. “That’s how they get on in the world,” she explained.
The Kardashians aren’t typically associated with philosophical profundity, setting aside the time when Kylie Jenner said 2016 was the year of “realizing things,” which is actually the most profound statement anyone has ever said. But the Kardashians and Jenners love art, more specifically contemporary pop art. Kris, Kylie, and Kendall Jenner all have neon Emins in their home, prominently displayed in their sprawling mansions. The family loves art collecting so much that Kris once criticized Khloé Kardashian for not recognizing a famous metallic Jeff Koons balloon dog, saying that she “needs to go to, like, an art class.” That the mini balloon dog in question was just a miniature copy available at Neiman Marcus was entirely beside the point; a peek into the reality TV dynasty’s houses reveals an eye for some of the biggest names in contemporary art—and way too much money to spend on them.
In Kris’s Hidden Hills home circa 2019, there are works by Yoshitomo Nara, François-Xavier Lalanne, and Wes Lang. Kylie’s dining room, photographed by Architectural Digest in 2019, features a row of pink Damien Hirst butterfly works from his I Love You series, which also appeared in Khloé’s home movie theater in her old Calabasas home, as well as a collection of pieces from Hirst’s The Cure series and several Andy Warhol prints. There’s also a print of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Hollywood Africans in front of the Chinese Theater with Footprints of Movie Stars (1983) above her fireplace. And Kendall’s home, in addition to the Emin, includes work by photographers Beau Dunn and Lauren Greenfield, who once photographed a young Kim Kardashian, as well as a $750,000 glowing sculpture by Kanye West’s favorite James Turrell. (West’s film Jesus Is King was set in Turrell’s massive site-specific work at Roden Crater.)
Khloé and Kourtney’s taste is more laid back. Kourtney’s home photographed in 2017 includes the more understated black and white works of photographers Harry Benson, Herb Ritts, and Greg Gorman. There are also works by artists Hirst and James Turrell, again, and a framed Roy Lichtenstein above the dining table, as well as a graffitied Mickey Mouse print in Reign’s bedroom that looks like it could be by Mr. Brainwash. Khloé in the same spread for Architectural Digest opts mostly for editorial photography, with photos by Chester Higgins Jr. and Patrick Demarchelier. And who could forget Kim, who basically lives inside a blank, white gallery in the home she shares with soon to be ex-husband Kanye West, that includes work by some of the rapper’s favorite collaborators like Vanessa Beecroft and Anish Kapoor, as well as a gigantic soft sculpture by Isabel Rower.
The Kardashians aren’t groundbreaking art collectors betting on rising stars so much as they’re aware—as so many celebrities and the ultra-wealthy are—of what already wildly successful blue-chip artists to buy. These are artists who are celebrities in their own right. Hirst’s work is synonymous with excess, from diamond-studded skulls to the formaldehyde suspended shark of his most famous work The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), which sold for at least $8 million. Artists like Hirst are popular with celebrities: The Beckhams, Madonna, and Jay-Z and Beyonce all reportedly own Hirst pieces. Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen DeGeneres, and Jay-Z all own or have owned Basquiats. Everyone loves Andy Warhol, Banksy, and the oversized pop-inspired toys of KAWS (a favorite of boys like Drake, Justin Bieber, and Pharrell). Both Kourtney and Kendall have reportedly worked with art advisor Meredith Darrow to build out their collections. “She’s been buying great things. She’s been acquiring very serious artworks by Richard Prince and Raymond Pettibon,” Darrow told The Hollywood Reporter of their new working relationship.
There is a potential symbiotic relationship between the celebrity art collector and the celebrity artist. Buying an Emin, whose work sells well and is frequently exhibited, is a pricey but smart investment for any rich collector. But Kendall publicizing the ownership of a work of art can also potentially influence future sales of the piece because of its celebrity provenance. In 2006 a Steve Martin-owned Edward Hopper painting that was predicted to sell $15 million at Sotheby’s instead earned over $26 million. A 2016 auction of David Bowie’s expansive personal art collection attracted 720 bidders for 49 lots, more than for any other evening sale at Sotheby’s, Artnet reported. Provenance is valuable, especially when both artist and collector are celebrities. That financial symbiotic relationship isn’t particularly new nor unique to the Kardashians.
Many of the artists the Kardashians tend to favor, like Warhol, Richard Prince, and Koons, have made work about the ridiculousness of wealth, celebrity, and influencer culture, all while being art world celebrities themselves. “I’m making fun of myself for growing up in Beverly Hills and growing up in Los Angeles,” Dunn said of her pieces, which often feature Barbie dolls and served as the basis for a redecoration of Kris Jenner’s “Birkin closet.” In the 1990s Koons made borderline pornographic images featuring himself with his then porn star wife Ilona Staller, and Emin shocked the art world by positioning a messy bed as a work of confessional art, turning her into a tabloid sensation. “Becoming a brand name is a really important part of life,” Hirst said in 2011. The Kardashians would most certainly agree.
Social media-happy celebrities like the Kardashians, who largely live among their art collections rather than stuff them in storage, help cement fine artists into household names for an audience that, like Khloe, may not know who the hell Jeff Koons is. “Lots of celebrities have been collecting for a long time but nobody knew because they kept their collections private,” art advisor Maria Brito, who has worked with Gwyneth Paltrow and Diddy, said in an interview with Artnet. “But now with Instagram and all of the art activations, it’s easy to know what everyone is doing, so that has given us another eye into their lives.”
The Kardashian art collection doesn’t give fans or begrudged followers another eye into their lives, an admittedly tall order considering how much they’ve lived in front of a constant audience. Instead, it reaffirms what we already know about them: they are skilled architects of celebrity and spectacle that invest in artists who are exactly the same.