Should anyone ever doubt the gravity of David Bowie's import, one need only be pointed in the direction of “David Bowie is.” Now at its final stop at the Brooklyn Museum, the whirlwind travelling retrospective of the incomparable pop star and self-made Space Oddity has taken the world by storm, making an irrefutable case for David Bowie’s extraordinary cultural brilliance. Amidst the 400-plus objects from David Bowie’s personal archive, including original costumes, handwritten lyrics, diary entries, and photographs, even the most die-hard devotees of Ziggy Stardust will likely discover entirely new reasons to be in awe of the man who, in posterity, was dubbed “The Greatest Rock Star Ever” by Rolling Stone magazine. Even as a 17-year-old London suburbanite named David Jones, the effusive charm, irreverent wit, sincerity, and uncompromising sense of style that would come to define all of Jones’ forthcoming iterations are witheringly plain as day—one of the highlights of the exhibition is an interview with a young David Jones on the "Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Men with Long Hair," which he founded.
Equally apparent is how integral art was in Bowie’s life. Apart from playing Andy Warhol in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 film “Basquiat,” the depths and details of David Bowie’s involvement in the world of fine art are relatively obscure—and, as a result, are entirely underrated. A collector, curator, critic, collaborator, and painter, Bowie’s career in the fine art world, like all things under the tutelage of the Thin White Duke, will leave you in awe, obsessed, and wanting more. David Bowie is:
In a 1998 interview with the New York Times, Bowie stated that "art was, seriously, the only thing I'd ever wanted to own." He got what he wished for, and when a large portion of Bowie's never-before-seen private art collection was put up for auction at Sotheby's after his death in 2016 (his estate remarked that they simply didn't have anywhere to put them), it demonstrated a collector of impeccable, and eclectic—as Bowie put it, "catholic"—taste. “Bowie was a true collector,” said Christina Shearman, a British-born art adviser based in New York, where Bowie lived during his final years. “His acquisitions were not commercially motivated; he cared about the art, not the market. His was a deeply personal collection, reflecting his British roots and his real passion for art.” David Bowie's name was also frequently featured in ARTnews' "Top 200 Collectors" lists.
Spanning the course of three days (the work was exhibited for ten), the Sotheby's auction sold about 65% of Bowie's private collection to the total tune of $7,213,250 GBP (or $10,098,550 USD). While the Bowie stamp of approval surely offered an increased price tag, his collection stands quite well independent of a celebrity provenance. Not only does it include the expected heavy hitters, including a Basquiat, some Hirsts, and Duchamps (the Dada artist was one of Bowie's all time greatest inspirations), Bowie was also (though unsurprisingly) an avid discoverer of the new and often lesser-known with a true and thoughtful scholarship.
Romuald Hazoumè, Miss Pretoria (1995). Image via Sotheby's.
His collection of contemporary African Art, for example, demonstrates an appreciation that goes far beyond the all-too-frequent exoticism and 'othering' of art from the continent. In 1995, Bowie pushed for an exhibition of contemporary South African art in the UK to coincide with africa95, hoping to "challenge our preconceptions of 'otherness' and establish African art as being some of the most tantalizing and provocative work to be seen. If we continue to categorize art that is outside our cultural experience as somehow 'low art,' curio or merely artifact, we will be dealing these artists a serious injustice and we ourselves will be far poorer for it." He also covered the 1995 Johannesburg Biennale for the magazine "Modern Painters" (we'll get to Bowie's stint as an arts critic in a bit), in an article titled "The Cleanest Work of All," wherein he described the immense cultural diversity of African art, stating that African artists have "only one common thread: an unquenching thirst for national—and self-understanding."
Among some of his favorite artists was Romuald Hazoumè, the Benin-born and based multimedia artist best-known for his tongue-and-cheek masks that reappropriate expectations and stereotypes of African art. In an interview with Sotheby's on Bowie's collection, Hazoumè recounts his first encounter with the international superstar at the Johannesburg Biennale in 1995: "...a friend came running to me in a panic to say that David Bowie wanted to buy a piece of my work. And I thought; this is a joke. But I arrived, and sure enough, there he was. A man said to me: 'I represent David Bowie; he is very interested in buying your pieces'... a week later, somebody telephoned me and said: 'I'm calling to pay for the works that David Bowie bought'. After a week! That never happens."
Frank Auerbach, Head of Gerda Boehm (1965). Image via WikiArt.
Bowie's collection also features a great number of British artists (even Starmen have a homeland). His description of his relationship with a Frank Auerbach piece is indicative of Bowie's genuine adoration for art, and will definitely leave a lot of you thinking #relationshipgoals: "I think there are some mornings that if we hit each other a certain way—myself and a portrait by Auerbach—the work can magnify the kind of depression I’m going through. It will give spiritual weight to my angst. Some mornings I’ll look at it and go: 'Oh, God, yeah! I know!' But that same painting, on a different day, can produce in me an incredible feeling of the triumph of trying to express myself as an artist. I can look at it and say: 'My God, yeah! I want to sound like that looks.'"
Room from the Memphis Design Collection. Also what David Bowie's living room might have looked like. Image via Culture Trip.
It should also be noted that the entire third day of Bowie's auction at Sotheby's was devoted to his collection of Memphis Group furniture. Defined by its bold and revolutionary introduction of "fun" to design, it's clear how much Memphis designers like Ettore Sottsass, Peter Shire, and Nathalie Du Pasquier clearly influenced Bowie's Mod aesthetic. What we would have given to be in David Bowie's flat in the '70s, surrounded by Memphis Design furniture—now there's a virtual reality experience we would actually pay an arm and a leg for.
The 1994 cover of "Modern Painters." Image via Martin McClellan.
For a few years in the mid-nineties, while sitting on the board of the quarterly art magazine, "Modern Painters," David Bowie essentially did what we do here at Artstpace, only obviously far better, with a grace, style, and sex appeal that is encouraging and inspiring (but also makes us think we should probably just quit now). "When he was first introduced to us," recalls one Bowie's fellow board members, "everyone just carried on as normal, pretending it was nobody special. It wasn't even discussed afterwards. But then at the next month's dinner they all came wearing really trendy, snazzy ties." As a contributor, Bowie's CV is impressive. With exclusive access to some of the biggest names in art (including Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst), Bowie might have been the last person to interview the enigmatic, controversial painter Balthus (Bowie's home in Switzerland was a hop-skip away from Balthus'). In this 1994 interview, the 86-year old artist speaks candidly and enthusiastically about his life, unfettered by the trappings of a "real" art critic interview.
His 1997 profile and interview with YBA artist Tracey Emin is sensational: "I never knew her before this year, but who I see in front of me now is someone highly charged with solipsistic overdrive. Within 30 minutes of meeting her I have a full run-down on her newest intimate relationships, her hopes and dreams for her personal life as well as proffered opinions on Balthus ('a dirty old man, a pervert'), my interviews with Damien Hirst ('You're obsessed by him') and her sponsorship contract with a rather exotic alcohol brand. The latter it seems is extremely important to her as booze is a 24-hour companion to her life."
Earlier on, in 1996—the same year he played Andy Warhol in Julian Schnabel's "Basquiat"—Bowie wrote a beautiful eulogizing op-ed on the late painter, titled "Basquiat's Wave": "Waking up every day to a world of pieces and bits we spend the remaining hours putting it into some kind of form we can deal with. No order, no function. Basquiat takes a cursive swipe and re-establishes the disorder that is reality. The pure joyful chaotic miasma of it all. Goo-goo-ga-joo. Refracting fact fractions facting refact. He's milking the diction-dairy, wiping up the puddles of Anglo detritus and scoffing the lot. He's stealing us limb by word."
INDEPENDENT ART BOOK PUBLISHER
David Bowie casually reading. Image via Deer Waves.
It's one thing to be a voracious reader and to have a book club, but you don't see Oprah establishing her own independent, small-press publishing company (actually, as of last year, Oprah does actually have her own publishing imprint, though it's not independent). "21" publishing was established in 1998, spearheaded by Bowie and Modern Painters editor Karen Wright. In an interview with ARTnews regarding the venture, Bowie discusses the importance of being a small, independent company as opposed to a major one, stating, "The great freedom within a small indie company like ourselves is that we get the last word on how something is presented and which books we publish. I would only be a tenacious contributor of ideas at a big house. As long as we break even at year’s end, I think we’ll be happy.” Bowie's vision for 21 was populist in its intentions, seeking to re-address British art without all the dense, pretentious art-talk. Bowie wanted 21 to make art, and art criticism accessible (Jerry Saltz, only a little before his own time).
One of 21's most well known publications is Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960, recounting the life and work of an artist, obscured by the giants of history though a friend to many, including Picasso. The biography of Nat Tate is an illuminating ode to a Modernist who found his own worst enemy in himself, eventually submitting to alcoholism, destroying 99% of his work and leaping to his death from the Staten Island ferry. During the book's debut, hosted in Jeff Koons' studio, many a gallerist and art aficionado praised the publication for finally shedding a light on this victim/genius of modernism—"it's about time!" The only hitch there was that Nat Tate was not a real person.
Image via Wikipedia.
His namesake a rather blunt combination of two prominent London galleries (the National Gallery and the Tate, obviously), the biography of Nat Tate was a very elaborate prank played on the art world, devised by Scottish novelist William Boyd. Sponsored by David Bowie and Karen Wright, the book also featured contributions and reviews by Gore Vidal, and John Richardson (Picasso's biographer). Still, it might be Bowie's blurb statement on the book's jacket cover that truly speaks to how brilliantly this prank was executed: “The small oil I picked up on Prince Street, New York, must indeed be one of the lost Third Panel Triptychs. The great sadness of this quiet and moving monograph is that the artist’s most profound dread—that God will make you an artist but only a mediocre artist—did not in retrospect apply to Nat Tate.” Published on April Fool's Day, this Sunday actually marks the book's ten year anniversary, if you're looking to prank your local gallery representative.
Claude Cahun, Que Me Veux-Tu? (What Do You Want From Me?) (1928). Image via Reality Bites.
Fictional, prank artists weren't the only ones Bowie shed light on. As an autodidactic scholar of the arts, it seemed only natural that the singer should begin curating his own shows. Like the imaginary Nat Tate, much of the work of post-war surrealist artist Claude Cahun has been lost, though not by way of the artists own self-destructive tendencies. As a cross-dressing, gender-bending, lesbian artist, Cahun and her partner, Marcel Moore, were victims of the Nazi cultural purge. Imprisoned during the German occupation of Paris and sentenced to death, they were released during the city's liberation, returning home only to find their entire estate destroyed or confiscated. What remains was exhibited in a 2007 show at the General Theological Seminary in New York, curated by David Bowie for the unveiling of the Highline. Of Cahun's work, Bowie remarked, "You could call her transgressive or you could call her a cross dressing Man Ray with surrealist tendencies. I find this work really quite mad, in the nicest way. Outside of France and now the UK she has not had the kind of recognition that, as a founding follower, friend, and worker of the original Surrealist movement, she surely deserves. Meret Oppenheim was not the only one with a short haircut.”
Damien Hirst with David Bowie, Beautiful, Hallo, Space-boy Painting (1995). Image via Sotheby's.
Like many musicians of his era (see David Byrne, Patti Smith, Brian Eno, Mick Jones, and Keith Richards), David Bowie went to art school. Studying art, music, and design, Bowie would continue to paint throughout the course of his life. In discussing going public with his paintings in 1994, Bowie remarked:
"I kind of went public in about ’94 with the visual stuff that I do. I’m not sure why I made that choice, and I’m still to this day not sure if it wasn’t a mistake, but there’s no turning back. Up to that point, painting for me was private, and it really was about problem solving. I’d find that if I had some creative obstacle in the music that I was working on, I would often revert to drawing it out or painting it out. Somehow the act of trying to recreate the structure of the music in paint or in drawing would produce a breakthrough.
"This starts to become quite a complex issue, but I felt very dissatisfied with myself as a musician during a lot of the ’80s, the last part of the ’80s. I was going through my middle-age crisis smack on cue. Soon as I hit 40, it all went wrong. When I hit 1987, it just seemed that nothing worked for me musically. I’d lost the plot. It really felt bad. I felt awful with myself as an artist. And I probably started working on the visual side of things really quite desperately to find some salvation as an artist. And then during the very early ’90s, I found my way slowly back into music again. Now in music I feel fulfilled, hopefully not self-satisfied, by what I’m doing.
"On the other side, I find I’m bearing in mind how people respond to the art, which has produced a separation between the visual and the musical. I’m not sure that that’s a good thing. But I went into it with my eyes wide open. I expected ridicule—and I got it [laughs]."
Apart from painting his own works, Bowie was also an enthusiastic artistic collaborator, producing a series of prints for charity along with Brian Eno, and joining forces with Damien Hirst to create one of his own famous spinning wheel canvases, titled Beautiful, Hallo, Space-boy Painting. During the production of the work, it's said that Bowie donned an alien costume before climbing the ladder to spill the paint upon the spinning wheel. Recalling the experience, Hirst said, "I remember telling him to come to the studio in old clothes but he turned up in brand new expensive clothes, he said he didn't have any old clothes but didn't mind getting paint on the new shit he was wearing, I loved that!"
"David Bowie is" is on view at the Brooklyn Museum until July 15.