Behind David Bowie – a reflection on his personal collection at Sotheby’s

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David Bowie

David Bowie

David Bowie’s art collection was auctioned off in Sotheby’s and Getintothis’ Paul Fitzgerald visited to find himself just that little bit closer to the man and his incredible artistic vision.

I quite like being misunderstood. I was happy to be the Marcel Duchamp of Rock. I waved such a flag for Duchamp when I was a kid. He was everything, because he said that art is dead. That was such a brave thing to say’

David Bowie

It’s fair to say that many are still reeling from the shock of Bowie’s death, and we know his legacy is far reaching and in many ways yet unseen, untapped. Such a multi-faceted artist who has left such a voluminous body of work, it would be no surprise if there was still more to come, more layers to peel back, new angles for the light to be shined on this creative genius.

The David Bowie Is exhibition, originally at the V&A, is thankfully still touring and due in Barcelona in 2017. The musical Lazarus is playing to sell out crowds in London’s West End, there will no doubt be more music to be released, and of course, we have the genius of Black Star, his beautifully orchestrated parting move, his final note to us. Even in death, wondrous creativity. And in the Bowie/Collector sale at Sotheby’s came a brief but very special opportunity to try and understand further the images and shapes that inspired and informed so much of his life’s work.

For just two days prior to the sale, Sotheby’s opened its doors and welcomed thousands of admirers to view this most personal of collections. The excited and intrigued fans. The obsessive and passionate collectors. The fashionistas and rock stars, the fellow artists, the hedge fund investors and the many representatives of those who seek the shade of privacy in their investments.

Bowie was once quoted as saying that the only thing he’d ever wanted to own was art. He was a passionate and avid collector and supporter of art and artists, as intrigued by the creator as he was in what they created. For Bowie, in every field he worked in, the beginning of the story was a picture, an imagined scene. He spent his life creating images, either tangible or imaginary.

He understood, moreso perhaps than any other artist, and certainly any other musician, the importance and the power behind an image. Further, he knew well that more than in any other era, his time was defined, shaped and coloured by imagery, musically, and in the visual arts, photography, design, architecture, film, and of course, painting.

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Bowie’s collecting was an intensely personal and private part of his life, one area which wasn’t left exposed by his fame and success, an activity he could indulge in largely without the rest of the world knowing, and for those reasons, his collection was cherished, his passion nurtured.

For such a public figure, to have been able to keep this activity private must have given him a huge sense of freedom, we imagine. Ever supportive of new, and unknown artists, he would occasionally mention one or two in an interview, in order to highlight their work to a greater audience. Much of the focus at the centre of his collection is on the mid 20th Century British art, often overlooked in favour of its American and European counterparts. This was, of course, all part of the thrill for Bowie, appealing to his strong sense of the understated. A road less travelled.

David Bowie was a champion of the new and unique, those on the outside, those who may not be championed by others, certainly for some time after Bowie’s lead. Always at the very edge, always on the frontline before everybody else, he was an originator in every sense. In many ways, and for many years, that forefront of artistic endeavour belonged to David Bowie. And in this unique one-off showing of some of his collection, that fact was the central, integral theme.

He was a true collector. His collection was about the art and the artists, with little or no regard for the market or investment opportunity. The narrative of the piece and its effect on him came first always.

Looking at the collection as a whole, there was a profound sense of the playful, almost joyful and celebratory, counter balanced by a calm stillness, with some darker elements and ideas. A curious mix which felt intriguing yet somehow familiar and unsurprising. Ceramics by Jean Cocteau and Picasso. Modernist deco inspired furniture and ceramics. Fruit bowls, side boards, tea sets, like 3D Mondrian images.

From the angular pop art fun of his vast ceramics collection to mid 90s African Art, favourites such as American neo-expressionist Warhol acolyte Jean-Michel Basquait (Bowie famously played Warhol in the film of Basquait’s life), Modern Scottish painters such as John Bellany and Ken Currie, huge Damien Hirst spin paintings, abstracts by Peter Lanyon, Bomberg and his pupil Frank Auerbach, the honesty and purity of his incredible, eclectic vision as displayed in this collection was striking and profound. This was collecting as a creative activity of its own. Unscripted, understated but uniquely informed, it stood as a vibrant insight into the world behind the eye of one our most uniquely gifted creative spirits.

Several items, bookcases, chairs tables showed signs of use, the odd scratch, chip or mark standing as testimony to the fact that they were loved, used, an everyday part of David Bowie’s every day. The beautiful Radio -Phonograph, model no. RR126, by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, a stereo and turntable with clear signs of regular use and love, had us wondering what records were played on it. With a low estimate guide price of £800-£1200, it eventually sold for £257,000.

South African Norman Catherine’s Fanaglo Store, with its selection of ghoulish carved wooden characters arranged on a set of shelves like a child’s super hero figure collection is a fun and playful piece, literally full of character, its colour influenced by traditional African art and delivered as cartoonish surrealism, it carries some darkness in the otherwise cheerily stretched and contorted faces, split skulls and sharpened teeth.

Bowie spoke often of one particular painting, mentioning it in several interviews. Head of Gerda Boehm by Frank Auerbach hung in his New York apartment. It was a work he lived with and loved since he acquired it in 1995. He mentioned that he wanted to make music that sounded how that picture looked. It’s a strangely hypnotic piece, an image of a woman’s face, formed by layer on layer of oils, giving it an sculptural and textural quality, it is as if the paint is somehow striving to leave the canvas, which gives a sense of movement and stretching.

And therein lies the tale. By staring at pieces such as Head Of Gerda Boehm, we were gaining some further insight, some closer knowledge of the man, his vision, his drive and his passion. This was a one-off opportunity to once more gain some sort of closer understanding of David Bowie, for both his fans and for lovers of contemporary art alike. Two days later, the collection was sold for record breaking amounts, and sent out across the world on the next leg of its journey.

This unique event, the first and last time these important works were shown together in public, highlighted to great degree David Bowie’s understanding of the aesthetic and affective power of art, the focus it brings and the simplicity in which an emotion or an idea can be turned, changed and shaped by a picture, be it real or imagined. The simple but intrinsic ability of art to shine a light on ourselves, our individual narratives and lives.

Art was, seriously, the only thing I’d ever wanted to own. It has always been for me a stable nourishment. I use it. It can change the way I feel in the mornings. The same work can change me in different ways, depending on what I’m going through’  

David Bowie.

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