The interview took place on August 25, 1998, in the living room of Madonna’s duplex apartment on Central Park West. The space is large and imposingly formal, with oversize deco armchairs and a plush sofa across the room from a fireplace flanked by shelves that are empty save for a few deco vases and some art books. There are paintings by Tamara de Lempicka on two walls, a small exquisite Dali canvas near the fireplace, and some frames photos of her child, Lourdes, on a sideboard. A book by the Peruvian photographer Martin Chambi sits on the coffee table, where an assistant has placed a tray with a china tea service, but the room feels like a public space, a meeting room for guests rather than an integral part of the apartment’s regular domestic life.
Madonna, fresh from emergency root-canal work, says she’s a bit groggy from the gas, but she looks just fine in all black, and she moves quickly from subdued to playful to witty woman of the world – Vince Aletti
Vince: I found a quote from your interview with Bill Zehme, when you said “I’d rather own an art gallery than a movie studio. Or a museum. I’d rather be Peggy Guggenheim than Harry Cohn.”. Where did your interest in art and photography start?
Madonna: My interest in art started as a child because several members of my family could paint and draw and I couldn’t, so I was living vicariously through them. And from going to the Detroit Institute of arts, which is how I got into Diego Rivera, which is how I found out about Frida Kahlo and started reading about her. Then, if you go to enough Catholic churches, there’s art everywhere, so you get introduced to it that way, from a religious ecstasy point of view. And then just coming to New York and dancing. As an incredibly poor struggling dancer, you could get into museums for free, so that was my form of entertainment. It was just something I was interested in. And then you get into it, and when I started collecting, I started reading more and more about the artists themselves, and names would keep popping up – you know, Peggy Guggenheim. And of course I started reading about her and she was just –
Vince: She was definitely a character.
Madonna: Oh, my God! What a life she led! Just the idea of being in contact with all those great artists and nurturing them and giving them a place to show their work and being their patroness is, to me, fabulous.
Vince: It’s the one great thing to be.
Madonna: Totally! I mean that’s real art. And to be able to be a part of that and to nurture it – it’s a very enviable and honorable position.
Vince: I’ve always collected images and torn pages out of magazines and put them up on the wall –
Vince: And one picture that’s been up on every dorm room or apartment wall I’ve ever lived in was this Richard Avedon photo of Lew Alcindor from Harper’s Bazaar. I wondered if there was anything like that in your life early on. Was there an image that you’ve carried with you?
Madonna: The image that always struck me was one that I ended up using as an inspiration for one of my videos, and that’s a really sort of Cubist photograph – I forgot who the photographer is – of a man working on some big, huge piston-shaped cylinder.
Vince: The famous Lewis Hine photo.
Madonna: Right. Well, that ended up in my “Express Yourself” video; that was totally the inspiration for that. Every video I’ve ever done has been inspired by some painting or some work of art.
Vince: That’s what I was wondering. Obviously “Vogue” with the Horst references, which I know you got into some trouble for.
Madonna: Well, those were all pretty obvious. I consider them to be hommages of course. And I didn’t get into trouble, the director did. Fortunately, I owned the Tamara de Lempicky painting that I used for the opening of “Open Your Heart”. That one over there. Only we put lights on her nipples.
Vince: What else? Most of the others aren’t so –
Madonna: Obvious? Well, my “Bedtime Story” video was completely inspired by all the female surrealist painters like Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo. There’s that one shot where my hands are up in the air and stars are spinning around me. And me flying through the hallway with my hair trailing behind me, the birds flying out of my open robe – all of those images were an hommage to female surrealist painters; there’s a little bit of Frida Kahlo in there, too. What else? The “Frozen” video was totally inspired by Martha Graham – I have a lot of photographs of her dancing; the big skirts and all the iron shapes and stuff like that.
Vince: I thought that the “Vogue” video was especially terrific because those were all pictures that –
Madonna: We brought to life.
Vince: Yeah, and it angered me that Horst couldn’t see that as a tribute. What could be better?
Madonna: Yeah, and those images are really powerful, and it’s great to remind people of them and to bring it into pop culture and not to keep it so outside where people are never going to exposed to it.
Vince: When did you start collecting?
Madonna: When I got my first paycheck, $5’000 or something.