Damien Hirst, Marcel Duchamp, Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland— these are some of the major names whose works figure among the collection. Each extraordinary artists in their own right, collectively their work is rendered the more fascinating in light of Bowie’s idiosyncratic method of collecting, offering an invaluable insight into his inner life.
Bowie himself described art as the only thing he bought addictively – but it was not just artwork in its own right that he was addicted to, but the personalities and ideas he saw contained within them. Oliver Barker, the Chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, describes how, ‘Eclectic, unscripted, understated: David Bowie’s collection offers a unique insight into the personal world of one the 20th century’s greatest creative spirits’.
The main bulk of the exhibited collection showcases Bowie’s attraction towards modern and contemporary British art. A Londoner through and through, he was drawn in particular to the works of the capital’s chroniclers, including Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, both famous for their expressive urban landscapes of London and portraits of its inhabitants; ‘My God, yeah— I want to sound like that looks,’ he famously told the New York Times in response to Auerbach’s work. The works of later post-war and contemporary painters such as Ivon Hitchens and John Virtues also feature in the collection, moving the focus outside of the capital and towards the broader British landscape.
Beyond Britain, Bowie also collected the work of European greats such as Marcel Duchamp, and the American Jean-Michel Basquiat— whose graffiti-style painting, Air Power, is the most valuable piece up for auction at £2.5-£3.5 million, bought by Bowie after he played the artist’s mentor, Andy Warhol, in the 1996 film Basquiat – as well as contemporary African art and ‘Outsider’ art. Over 400 items in total will be on offer (including 120 items of 20th century furniture and sculpture), his entire collection, bar some work of particular sentimental significance, which are to be kept by his family.
Bowie’s life was peppered with clues to his affinity with the art world. Born in Brixton in 1947, the nine-year-old David Robert Jones (his real name) would impress his primary school teachers during their dance classes with his ‘vividly artistic’ interpretive movement. He would later study art, music and design— including layout and typesetting— at secondary school, and completed a foundation degree at Ravensbourne College of Communication and Design, working as a Junior Visualiser/Paste Up artist at an advertising agency after leaving school at 16.
These roots in the visual arts were to exert a major influence over his music career, his work always noted for its bold visual accompaniments, whether in his imaginative music videos or the eclectic, now iconic costumes he wore on stage. Bowie once remarked on the role visual arts played in his compositions, saying, ‘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.’
Later in life, in 1994, Bowie joined the editorial board of Modern Painters magazine, a highly unusual move for a man of his superstar status. Whilst working with the magazine, Bowie even conducted interviews with prominent artists including Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Tracey Emin. Four years later he founded 21, an art-book publishing company, which he used to mock the elitist nature of the art establishment, seeking to make contemporary art accessible to the many— after the launch, he described to ARTnews how, ‘Everything was either art at an academic level or so dense with art-talk that it excluded 90 percent of the reading market. We thought it might be a good thing to go at least halfway to changing that.’
In their first year of business, and in a move designed to expose the pretentiousness of over-zealous art pundits, 21 published the ‘biography’, Nat Tate: an American Artist 1928-1960. Written by his friend, novelist William Boyd, with a cover blurb produced by Bowie himself, the novel caused a flurry of excitement over the existence of an overlooked and forgotten artist. They held a glamorous release party on the 1st April, 1998, in Jeff Koon’s New York studio, where attendees reminisced about a retrospective of Nat Tate’s they had managed to catch years back, despite his obscurity. There was only one problem— the artist was entirely fictional.
In a way, this event— which has remained one of the most famous hoaxes in art history— is a perfect illustration of Bowie’s own relationship with art. Unpretentious, low-key, Bowie’s consumption of art was greatly at odds with that of the general glitterati, driven by passion, underpinned by his personal connection with each piece, and serving as an ongoing source of inspiration throughout his career. As artist and writer Matthew Collings puts it, ‘He really collected because he had a use for that work and it was a personal use. He looked at those things and they changed his state of being.’ Sotheby’s exhibition is not just a collection of paintings, then, but an archaeology of the life and works of an artistic genius, who has his fingers in every creative pie.
Bowie/Collector will be exhibited by Sotheby’s from November 1st-10th