David Bowie as Andy Warhol with Jeffrey Wright as Basquiat in Basquiat. Credit: That’s Not Current
[This essay previously appeared in Spanish in La Revista de libros.]
Even for the hyper-inflated contemporary art-market, more accustomed to records being broken than the Olympic Games, statistics for the auction of works belonging to David Bowie (1947-2016) at Sotheby’s in November last year are staggering. Over fifty thousand people attended the pre-sale exhibition in New Bond Street, a milestone not only for Sotheby’s but for any London auction house. The collection had been valued at between eleven and fourteen million pounds, but total sales amounted to 32.9 million. Record prices were set for the acquisition of works by over half of the featured artists. The more direct the link with their former owner, the greater the boom: a classic jukebox by Italian designers Pier Giacomo and Achille Castiglioni went for £257,000 (its value had been estimated at between £800 and £1,200), whilst the highest bidder paid £3,789,000 for Frank Auerbach’s “Head of Gerda Boehm” (Sotheby’s had predicted a sale price anywhere between £300,000 and £500,000) that had hung in one of Bowie’s homes. As was emphasised in the press pack and in the auction catalogue, the Artist formerly known as Ziggy Stardust had said of the painting: “My God, yeah! I want to sound like that looks”.
Bowie’s estate put around sixty percent of his collection on sale, and what was on display in Sotheby’s was purportedly representative. Encompassing everything from Old Italian Masters to contemporary African art, a clear emphasis was nevertheless placed on twentieth-century British art and not necessarily the marquee names. There were, for example, no Francis Bacon or Lucian Freud’s on show, whilst the work of the group of artists who congregated in St. Ives, the Cornish coastal village famed for its light and sky, was afforded prominence. Eleven paintings by David Bomberg, one of Bowie’s favourite artists, amassed sales of over one million pounds. Given that a case could be made for the best British landscape paintings of the twentieth century being of scenes from beyond Albion’s borders, it was entirely fitting that the largest sum went to “Sunrise in the Mountains, Picos de Asturias”, one of several Spanish-themed works by the Birmingham-born artist. A cultural magpie, Bowie had a gift for looking outwards and downwards: scanning the periphery and the underground, packaging the unknown and the avant-garde for mass consumption.
Since his early admiration for self-destructive cult musicians such as Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, Bowie was prone to adopting lesser known sounds and visions both for his own purposes and as an act of cultural promotion. A 2013 exhibition at the V & A in Kensington simultaneously functioned as an evasion and exaltation of what might otherwise be construed as chameleon opportunism. In the word of the Museum’s director, Martin Roth:
Bowie is not only one of the great musicians and performers of the last half century, but is also among the great design visionaries. An instigator, not just of memorable individual pieces – an album sleeve, a costume, a hairstyle – but of a particular zeitgeist that is uniquely his and yet resonates with enormous numbers of people around the globe.1
Imbued with an inquiring and acquisitive mind (even in his most drugged out period in the mid-late-1970s, friends and acquaintances remember him invariably being armed with a book), artists patronised by the Thin White Duke may have seen their ideas appropriated, but rarely has the encounter been to their commercial or aesthetic detriment.
Most of his collaborators have, at least in retrospect, acknowledged this fact. Notable exceptions include first wife Angie, and Iggy Pop. A cheap shot is taken in the documentary film Gimme Danger (Jim Jarmusch, 2016) which cuts between a discussion of the punk godfather’s pale imitators with footage of Bowie singing a cover-version of Iggy and the Stooges’s “I wanna be your dog” from the 1987 Glass Spider tour, generally considered to be the low-point of a forty-plus-year career. Thankfully for David there is no extant footage of the earliest Ziggy Stardust concerts where he tried to replicate Pop’s party trick of diving into the audience. At a time when few beyond the coterie surrounding Angie and David Bowie believed him to be a star, he repeatedly fell flat on his face in dives around the UK. Bowie’s an expert at exercising editorial control over his public persona. In an exhibition of his photographs held at Somerset House in London in 2014, Blondie’s lead guitarist Chris Stein commented on how The Thin White Duke was perfectly friendly when the group accompanied him and Iggy Pop on tour but that he would not allow photographs to be taken if he could not control the situation or have editorial control over the final product. Keeping secret the recording of his last two studio albums (The Next Day  and Blackstar ) was genius, evidence of marketing savvy and the loyalty he was able to instil in his collaborators. Although never hiding away, there are fewer photos of a sixty-plus year old Bowie than there are of many far more reclusive celebrities, a handful of exquisitely framed photographs monopolising publicity materials for his last album, the Sotheby’s auction and Lazarus, his characteristically unconventional musical. The stage-managed nature of his death on 10 January 2016 was iconic and dignified; in a year of illustrious pop casualties (Leonard Cohen, Prince, George Michael), he was assured a privileged place in the pantheon.
Now that Bowie’s critical stock and cultural significance are arguably at an all- time high, it is easy to forget that this has not always been the case. If, as David Buckley notes, “his career in the 1960s was characterised by a rather manic rummage throughout the costume department of contemporary culture in an attempt to find the right combination of tastelessly mismatching attire”,2 then he was widely dismissed during the late 1980s and early 1990s as a legend long past his sell-by-date. If he had once found himself dancing in the shadows of fame with figures as diverse as Marc Bolan or Lindsay Kemp, his post-imperial wilderness years constituted a similar process of floundering in the search for a new vehicle of expression that would allow him to leave the artistic and commercial failure of his recent output behind. The Sound + Vision tour saw his return to the world’s biggest stages at the turn of the decade to perform his greatest hits, but it was more interesting from a visual than a sonic perspective. It is hardly a coincidence that he began collecting art systematically and joined the board of highbrow art magazine Modern Painters at precisely this juncture.
Bowie had always been sharply attuned to the visual – the traditional place of a support band was occupied by a screening of Un Chien Andalou (Luis Buñuel, 1929) for 1976’s Isolar I Tour – but revisiting Modern Painters and encountering his private art-collection not only provide us with a fascinating insight into Bowie’s tastes and predilections, but are also key to understanding his creative renaissance. In a series of talks organised by Sotheby’s, William Boyd recalled first coming across Bowie at an editorial meeting in 1994. The prize winning novelist commented on revisiting his old diaries and being surprised to discover that this initial encounter had not made more of an impression on him. He attributed this to Bowie’s modesty, the rock star actively seeking out environments where people were unlikely to pigeon hole or flatter him. Undoubtedly these factors came into play, but it was also the case that the myth of Bowie was hardly what it has been during the 1970s or what it would come to represent in the new millennium.
Boyd noted how Bowie was keen to publish an interview with Balthus, an artist far from the height of fashion at the time. The novelist recalled how the rock star had to convince the rest of the editorial board before being given the go-ahead to travel to Switzerland to interview the artist for his first authorial contribution. Leaving aside some unfortunate synergies between Balthus’s predilection for the female pubescent form in his works and the more unsavoury stories that have emerged surrounding Bowie’s sexual encounters with teenage girls, the interview is typical of virtually all of the articles he wrote for Modern Painters: expertly researched but prone to a baroque pseudo-academic style not uncommon in highly intelligent autodidacts. There is something rather forced about his claim that the “tragedy and chaos of the twentieth century rushes through the memory of its Last Legendary Painter”;3 the opening gambit of a later piece read as follows: “What makes Basquiat’s work so powerful is his transcendence of the black-white posturing and the truly dignified indifference of the existentialist”.4
Bowie was, however, stepping back into the cultural zeitgeist, cannily acquiring “Untitled” and “Air Power” in 1995, the year before he would appear as Andy Warhol in Basquiat (Julian Schnabel, 1996), the biopic that would thrust the Brooklyn born artist back into the limelight. As an interviewer, he was remarkably perceptive when it came to supplying succinct market and psychological insights. Talking with Jeff Koons, he observed that “[h]e quietly paddles through non-sequiturs, and half-finished sentences, or gets himself all entwined in a network of would-be-high-minded words and phrases”.5 This tendency was attributed to the fact that, in Bowie’s view, his subject was socially isolated and hardly by choice. In conversation with Schnabel, the artist-come filmmaker notes how the rock star had previously tried to convince him that London was going to be the new capital of modern art, a claim he had disputed but that he was increasingly buying into.6
From early on, Bowie championed the Young British Artists who would help transform the UK’s biggest city into a creative commercial hub. In addition to writing a hagiographical article on Damien Hirst,7 they undertook a playful collaboration, (“Beautful, hallo, space-boy painting”), featured in the Sotheby’s auction, the same year Hirst won the Turner Prize; Bowie had his first exhibition as an artist; and released “Hallo Spaceboy”, a mash-up of his own classic hits “Scary Monsters and Super-Creeps” and “Rebel Rebel” filtered through the industrial aesthetic popularised by Nine Inch Nails. It was, by some margin, his best single since “Absolute Beginners” (1986) and a highlight of 1. Outside, his best-received album for years. It was the song he chose to perform when Tony Blair presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Brits.
As was intimated by the choice of guests (Foo Fighters, the Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails etc.) at his fiftieth birthday concert held at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1997, Bowie clearly felt invigorated by the presence of younger artists. On visiting Dublin on his Outside world tour, he met up with and interviewed Tracey Emin:
I love her fractured energy and could sit and listen to her for hours. Although her viewpoints, tastes, and interests are standard and unvaryingly those of any eighteen-year old art-student, it slowly dawns on me that she is a 34-year-old-woman. Her natural youthfulness is exhilarating. She is also extraordinarily sexy. The elastic lips, famous broken teeth, and half-closed eyes, deliver one of the more seductively interesting faces in British art. I think I can look at her face for even longer than I can listen to her talk.8
The charge of middle-aged voyeuristic condescension is mitigated by the fact that Bowie’s own trajectory bore such obvious testament to the importance of looks and force of personality when it comes to outlasting and outgrowing ostensibly greater talents.
It is a common misnomer that Bowie attended art-school. He didn’t, but he did belong to the art-school generation and art was the only O Level he passed at school, where he received classes from Owen Frampton, an unusually attentive and talented teacher whose guitarist son Peter would sell millions of live album Frampton Comes Alive!, and frequently toured as part of Bowie’s band. As was the case with Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, Bowie found work in an advertising company, an experience he drew on most explicitly for his role as a ruthless profiteer in the film adaptation of Colin Macinnes’s Absolute Beginners (Julien Temple, 1986), but which would also inform the rest of his career. His former employer, Nevin D. Hirst Advertising, was located on New Bond Street, where Sotheby’s is also housed. As Matthew Collings (author of Blimey!: From Bohemia to Britpop: The London Artworld from Francis Bacon to Damien Hirst which came out with Bowie’s publishing house)9 observed in his talk at Sotheby’s, the 1950s was at the heart of the collection, with so many of the works on display either pointing towards or departing from Britain during this pivotal decade. The attraction of Britpop and the Young British Artists to Bowie was that, to his eyes and ears at least, they were drawing upon a common heritage whilst looking forward. He commissioned Alexander McQueen to design a post-punk militaristic Union Jack frock coat for the cover and accompanying tour to the drum-and-bass inspired Earthling (1997) after seeing Gavin Turk’s 1995 exhibit “Indoor Flag”.
As the art market became increasingly lucrative over the course of the 1990s, Bowie was hardly the only celebrity to express an interest. There is always the temptation to be cynical about trophy collections and financial incentives when one reads of Metallica’s drummer Lars Ulrich acquiring Basquiat’s “Untitled (Boxer)” in 1999, or of Eric Clapton buying Gerhard Richter’s “Abstraktes Bild” for two million pounds in 2001 and selling it for twenty-one million eleven years later. Conversely, however, when I talked to Beth Greenacre (curator of Bowie’s art collection since 2000), she contended that the negative attributes frequently attributed to rock-star collectors should not be directed at this group of high profile collectors, and that there are a number of popular musicians who have a genuine interest in and passion for contemporary art.
Evidence of this can, for example, be currently seen at the Tate Modern’s “The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection” exhibition (until 21 May). In conversation with the Rocket Man, Jane Jackson commented on how he was “a catalyst for expanding the photography market in the 1990s”,10 and this early patron of Sam-Taylor-Johnson nee Wood arguably has a more trained visual eye than the Starman, his old musical competitor from the 1970s. Addictive personalities frequently replace one obsession with another, as was the case with Sir Elton, who began collecting photography after coming out of rehab for drugs and alcohol addiction. From a prosaic perspective, visiting art galleries and exhibitions can help alleviate the tedium of touring. John, however, evidently envisages peddling out his greatest hits in Las Vegas and amassing arguably the world’s greatest collection of modernist photography as concurrent but distinct activities.
Bowie, by contrast, stands out for the extent to which the commerce and creativity of the art-world impacted on his musical output and cultural significance. Having reconnected with producer Brian Eno at his wedding to second wife, super-model Iman, in 1992, Bowie and his former producer travelled to Gugging Hospital near Vienna where psychiatrists had opened a house of artists. In addition to gaining inspiration for 1. Outside, an album whose “sessions were consciously arranged as an art happening” according to Paul Trynka,11 eleven Outsider works on show at Sotheby’s collection were amongst the first Bowie acquired for his collection. By the time of Inspirations (1997), a portmanteau of interviews with seven artists working in different media, director Michael Apted filmed Bowie recording Earthling, with studio gadgetry and canvases carefully arranged to complement the musician’s claims that he saw his paintings and songs as indivisible elements in his identity and output.
The quality of his visual art is respectable, comparing favourably with, say, the paintings of Ronnie Wood or Bob Dylan, but its major achievement was to reinforce the image of Bowie as a Renaissance man, transcending the parochialism of popular music. Through the creation of Bowie Bonds, he effectively floated himself on the stock market. In the words of David Buckley: “Bowie’s name and reputation, and everything that signified, was used as a guarantor of a certain sort of cultural kudos, and this was translated directly into dollars for the Bowie estate”.12 Quick to realise the internet would reverse the post-1950s trend for song-writing credits to be the greatest surety for musicians to be replaced by touring and ancillary rights, he knew he had a limited number of concerts left to give and was on the look-out for artful ways to market his image and secure his legacy.
Three years before Sir Mick Jagger’s Rolling Stones opened their more crassly commercial touring Exhibitionism at the Saatchi Gallery in London, Bowie had his exhibition down the road at the V & A. In the words of Paul Morley:
The exhibition was something he particularly wanted to do, of more interest to him than a knighthood as an acknowledgement of his ideas and achievements from within the establishment. He was anticipating that this was the beginning of a way someone like David Bowie could continue touring the world as a living entity even after he had died.13
As was the case with the most successful Young British Artists, Bowie cottoned onto the idea that controlling the dialectic of creativity and commerce was an art in itself.
Hardly the most naturally gifted musician or performer of his generation, he is one of the very few one can imagine triumphing as anything other than as a rock star. Musical compositions were as much a means as an end, and it is impossible to gauge his legacy without taking into account the interdisciplinary multi-media nature of the finest creation of the lad born as David Jones in Brixton: global super-star David Bowie. In line with a raison d’être pursued throughout his life and career, his art collection accrued significant economic and symbolic capital, whilst allowing him to adopt an almost avuncular role. In coming years, popular musicians are likely to become regular fixtures in art galleries both through their roles as modern-day-patrons and as their own biographies and works enter the canon. Bowie’s genius resides in the synthesis of these two facets. Remarkably generous when it came to allowing and even encouraging his works to be exhibited in both prestige and modest spaces, the coherence and quality of the works on display in Sotheby’s reveal he was a man of wealth and taste. May he rest in peace.
Professor Duncan Wheeler holds the Chair of Spanish Studies at the University of Leeds, where is also co-convenes the centre for European Popular Music(s). Wheeler is the editor (Hispanic Studies) of Modern Language Review. His latest book is titled The Cultural Politics of Spain’s Transition to Democracy. Duncan is a Fellow of the Spanish Academy of Stage Arts and regularly publishes journalistic pieces in outlets such as The Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian and The London Review of Books. For more details, see here.
1 V & A, David Bowie is the Subject (London: V and A Publishing, 2013), p. 17.
2 David Buckley, Strange Fascination. David Bowie: The Definitive Story, 2nd ed. (London: Virgin Books, 2005), p. 82.
3 David Bowie, ‘The last legendary painter: Balthus’, Modern Painters: A Quarterly Journal of the Fine Arts. Autumn 1994: 14-33 (p. 15).
4 David Bowie, ‘Basquiat’s wave’, Modern Painters: A Quarterly Journal of the Fine Arts, Spring 1996: 46-7 (p. 47).
5 David Bowie, ‘Super-banalism and the innocent salesman: interview with Jeff Koons’, Modern Painters: A Quarterly Journal of the Fine Arts, Summer 1996: 27-34 (p. 30)
6 David Bowie, ‘Painting the veils of time: Julian Schnabel interview’, Modern Painters: A Quarterly Journal of the Fine Arts, Winter 1998, 26-31 (p. 29).
7 David Bowie, ‘s(Now)’, Modern Painters: : A Quarterly Journal of the Fine Arts, Summer 1996, 36-39.
8 David Bowie, ‘It’s art, Jim, but not as we know it’, Modern Painters: A Quarterly Journal of the Fine Arts, Autumn 1997, 24-32 (p. 24).
9 Matthew Collings, Blimey!: From Bohemia to Britpop: The London Artworld from Francis Bacon to Damien Hirst (Cambridge: 21 Publishing, 1997).
10 Jane Jackson. ‘Sir Elton John in conversation with Jane Jackson’ in Simon Barker and Shoair Mavlian with Newell Harbin, The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection (London: Tate Publishing, 2016), 12-28 (p. 19).
11 Paul Trynka, Starman. David Bowie: The Definitive Biography (London: Sphere, 2011), p. 363.
12 David Buckley, Strange Fascination. David Bowie: The Definitive Story, 2nd ed. (London: Virgin Books, 2005), p. 457.
13 Paul Morley, The Age of Bowie: How David Bowie Made a World of Difference (London: Simon and Schuster, 2016), p. 396.