If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, then what is a podcast about modern visual art? For Broad City star Abbi Jacobson, it’s a patchwork of conversations. A Piece of Work, her new 10-part bi-weekly series that began earlier this month, features Jacobson strolling different corners of the Museum of Modern Art – and its Queens outpost PS1 – in conversation with curators, historians and conveniently famous friends like Hannibal Buress, RuPaul and Questlove. Besides describing works in highly visual language, the show’s website includes works discussed in each episode, so listeners can easily follow along and supplement mental images with specific ones. It’s like an art history class, but taught by people you wish were inviting you to happy hour.
Before the show, Jacobson was no stranger to podcasts, having appeared on shows like How Did This Get Made? and Adulthood Made Easy. But when comedian Phoebe Robinson invited her on Sooo Many White Guys, something clicked. “I had so much fun with Phoebe,” Jacobson tells Rolling Stone. “I remember thinking right after, ‘Podcasting’s so fun.'” And who hasn’t entertained the idea of creating and hosting their own podcast? The only problem was finding a focus and approach. “I [didn’t] know what I would do,” she says. “I [didn’t] want to do just a straight-up interview show.'” About two months later, WNYC, New York’s NPR affiliate, and MoMA approached her with the idea for A Piece of Work, a concept that involved guests, but that deviated far from the interview model.
And, as it turned out, Jacobson had a peculiar connection to the art institution. After graduating from Baltimore’s Maryland Institute College of Art with a degree in fine arts in 2006, Jacobson moved to New York City to pursue comedy and illustration. “I asked for a membership to the Museum of Modern Art for Christmas – Hanukkah, we’re not super Jew-y,” she explains in the first episode. She began creating and hiding greeting cards in MoMA’s gift shops – a tactic she hoped would lead to someone important discovering her dazzling works, kismet-style. “I don’t even know what would happen next in the story, because nothing did.”
She was happy to go back. “Obviously, my focus is comedy, and Broad City is my main gig,” she says. “Writing and acting and producing [are the] main hats I wear. The art world is something that I had to let go, but it’s something I’m still interested in and really want to continue pursuing.”
The podcast meant Jacobson had an excuse to work on a creative project apart from her Comedy Central series – a way to dig more into Yves Klein than yas qween.
Jacobson didn’t prepare for recording the podcast with a refresher in art history or anything of the sort. “No one is coming listening to the podcast thinking that I’m going to be providing facts about the art,” she says. “That’s not my job. That’s what the curators and the experts are there for. I’m with you along the way. I’m asking questions because I honestly do not know.”
It’s exactly that low barrier of entry that makes A Piece of Work great – it isn’t a podcast for the artistic elite. “If anything can be art, than anyone can be an artist,” Jacobson reminds listeners on the first episode. As a whole, the podcast serves as a hilarious, smart gateway to appreciating or understanding an artistic expression.
“Is this something you have to be… enlightened to understand?” a MoMA visitor asks in Episode Two while standing in front of a Jackson Pollock painting. Jacobson addresses some of the most nuanced instances of modern art in early episodes, namely abstract painters like Pollock and Cy Twombly. In the second episode – aptly titled “Tavi Gevinson Wonders When It’s Done” – Jacobson and the Rookie magazine founder take an approachable route to untangle meaning from the work, drawing heady parallels between Twombly’s visual cacophony and life’s frequent messes. Unlike Broad City, It doesn’t sound like the conversation between two stoned twenty-somethings plopped in front of a YouTube K-hole; it’s an honest dissertation and helps reinforce the idea that art isn’t always meant to be understood the same way by different people.
That’s not to say the show is for newbs only. Polished modern art scholars and card-carrying MoMA members can get a kick out of behind-the-scenes tidbits; like the fact painting and sculpture curator Anne Umland jams Madonna and Talking Heads while assembling installations. And even the most high-brow art lover likely never, as Hannibal Buress suggests, considered maybe Marcel Duchamp, when he leaned a galvanized-iron snow shovel on a crisp gallery wall, “was just trollin’.”
The array of commentary elevates A Piece of Work. Jacobson nails the art of podcast guest curation – though she says she can only take credit for the friends and colleagues she invited on the show, not the traditional art experts. “The selection for the curators and the experts was obviously MoMA and WNYC coming up with that list and inviting those people to take part in it,” Jacobson says. “I just thought about who I know and had recently worked with and who I thought would be interesting to talk about art. In other words, multi-disciplinary hustlers like her, as well as left-fielders like her 3-year-old niece, Stella – who Jacobson jokes is “kind of an art snob.”
The podcast meant a rigorous schedule for Jacobson as she recorded this first season, hitting the museum from 8 to 10 a.m. about 20 times to record. Not that she minds.
“Museums are interesting,” Jacobson says. “This place where we’re almost buying admission to take a break from our lives. You’re [like,] ‘Okay, I’m going into this place, and I’m going to let whatever happens in here take over my life for a second. I’m going to let whoever designed this place guide me.’ You’re trying to escape.”
A Piece of Work is another option for escape – an educational, entertaining one at that.