The Art Collection of David Bowie: An Introduction
Published in Open Culture
May 29th, 2023
by Colin Marshall
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.