The Art Collection of David Bowie: An Introduction

Today, it hard­ly sur­pris­es us when a suc­cess­ful, wealthy, and influ­en­tial rock star has a large art col­lec­tion. But David Bowie, ahead of the cul­ture even at the out­set of his career, began accru­ing art well before suc­cess, wealth, or influ­ence. He put out his debut album when he was twen­ty years old, in 1967, and did­n’t hes­i­tate to cre­ate a “rock star” lifestyle as soon as pos­si­ble there­after. As the world now knows, how­ev­er, rock star­dom meant some­thing dif­fer­ent to Bowie than it did to the aver­age man­sion-hop­ping, hotel room-trash­ing Con­corde habitué. When he bought art, he did so not pri­mar­i­ly as a finan­cial invest­ment, nor as a bid for high-soci­ety respectabil­i­ty, but as a way of con­struct­ing his per­son­al aes­thet­ic and intel­lec­tu­al real­i­ty.

Bowie kept that project going until the end, and it was only in 2016, the year he died, that the pub­lic got to see just what his art col­lec­tion includ­ed. The occa­sion was Bowie/Collector, a three-part auc­tion at Sothe­by’s, who also pro­duced the new video above. It exam­ines Bowie’s col­lec­tion through five of its works that were par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant to the man him­self, begin­ning with Head of Ger­da Boehm by Frank Auer­bach, about which he often said — accord­ing to his art buy­er and cura­tor Beth Greenacre — “I want to sound like that paint­ing looks.” Then comes Por­trait of a Man by Erich Heck­el, whose paint­ings inspired the record­ings of Bowie’s acclaimed “Berlin peri­od”: Low, “Heroes,” Lodger, and even Iggy Pop’s The Idiot, which Bowie pro­duced.

As we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture, Bowie also loved fur­ni­ture, none more so than the work of the Ital­ian design col­lec­tive known as Mem­phis. This video high­lights his red Valen­tine type­writer, a pre-Mem­phis 1969 cre­ation of the group’s co-founder Ettore Sottsass. “I typed up many of my lyrics on that,” Bowie once said. “The pure gor­geous­ness of it made me type.” Much lat­er, he and Bri­an Eno were look­ing for ideas for the album that would become Out­side, a jour­ney that took them to the Gug­ging Insti­tute, a Vien­na psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal that encour­aged its patients to cre­ate art. He end­ed up pur­chas­ing sev­er­al pieces by one patient in par­tic­u­lar, a for­mer pris­on­er of war named Johann Fis­ch­er, enchant­ed by “the sense of explo­ration and the lack of self-judg­ment” in those and oth­er works of “out­sider” art.

The video ends with a mask titled Alexan­dra by Beni­nese artist Romuald Hazoum, whom Bowie encoun­tered on a trip to Johan­nes­burg with his wife Iman. Like many of the artists whose work Bowie bought, Hazoumè is now quite well known, but was­n’t when Bowie first took an inter­est in him. Made of found objects such as what looks like a tele­phone hand­set and a vinyl record, Alexan­dra is one of a series of works that “play on expec­ta­tions and stereo­types of African art, and are now high­ly sought after.” Bowieol­o­gists can hard­ly fail to note that the piece also shares its name with the daugh­ter Bowie and Iman would bring into the world a few years lat­er. That could, of course, be just a coin­ci­dence, but as Bowie’s col­lec­tion sug­gests, his life and his art — the art he acquired as well as the art he made — were one and the same.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Behold the Paint­ings of David Bowie: Neo-Expres­sion­ist Self Por­traits, Illus­tra­tions of Iggy Pop, and Much More

96 Draw­ings of David Bowie by the “World’s Best Com­ic Artists”: Michel Gondry, Kate Beat­on & More

Bowie’s Book­shelf: A New Essay Col­lec­tion on The 100 Books That Changed David Bowie’s Life

How Aladdin Sane Became the Most Expen­sive Album Cov­er Ever — and David Bowie’s Defin­ing Image

“David Bowie Is” — The First Major Exhib­it Ded­i­cat­ed to Bowie Spans 50 Years & Fea­tures 300 Great Objects

Meet the Mem­phis Group, the Bob Dylan-Inspired Design­ers of David Bowie’s Favorite Fur­ni­ture

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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