Bowie/Collector @ Sotheby’s – Journey 1. Inside (A to Z)

After a week on public display, David Bowie’s art collection went to auction today.

I took a tour around the eclectic exhibit during last Friday’s all night viewing, from a kind of A to a kind of Z…

Bowie/Collector is an expansive collection, in content and expectation. It’s so expansive it’s heading to auction in three distinct sessions, and so zeitgeist you might think it’s quite the coup for Sotheby’s. Bowie fans and art collectors alike would flock to an opportunity like this at any time, but this collection’s going to auction a mere 11 months after the singer’s passing. Unsurprisingly, Bowie/Collector exceeded all estimates at its first auction, taking £24.3m. But just as unsurprisingly, the range of furniture, sculpture and art that comprise it cover a broad range of art theory and a swathe of time from modern day to Renaissance; it’s as eclectic and difficult to categorise as its previous pre-eminent owner’s career. And that’s even when seen through the prism of its intelligent distribution through the auction house’s distinct galleries (A).

Bowie’s face was prominent throughout the collection, taken from various well-known stages of his chameleon career. You could never forget who these works belonged to, and there was no mistaking the shouting portrait that took the collection’s cover image: this is something to shout about, as much as its an impossible chance to gain a tincture of insight into the riddle of Bowie. Once proclaiming that he collects very little of anything except art, if there’s one musician/artist who could grant you access to his private collection only to leave you with more questions, it’s David Bowie.

That main image of the late star adds a distinctly pop vibe to the the collection, coming from the Gavin Evans’ photoshoot of his mid-90s era. Soon after, his Earthling album would have the goateed, spiky-haired Bowie adorned in Union Flag coat on its cover. So, it made a fitting lead image for a collection with a strong line of Young British Artists running through it; from Damian Hirst’s gift of a formaldehyde, yet sadly untitled, fish (B) to Chris Ofili’s discreet Celestial (C). Casting further out from the figureheads of the YBA, Ken Currie’s distinctive work, including the haunting Three Remembered Heads, won their rooms from a distance and up close (D).

Modernism held sway in the Main and East Gallery’s mix of furniture and artwork (E, F), flitting around the great modern italian style of the Brionvega turntable that early promo sheets of Collector fell in love with, and even more so in the crimson (and oh-so biddable) typewriter and phone (G) from that other great Italian influence, Sottsass. Around his vibrant red, points of colours were picked out throughout, sharp dots gleaming from functional furniture or clock faces (H) as tempting to unravel as the Blackstar vinyl cover. In the Main Gallery, a DJ stand backed the exhibit with a unavoidably eclectic mix of Bowie tracks (Labyrinth, eh?), bracketed on one side by Gilbert and George and on the other Hirst and Bowie’s distinctive, collaborative Beautiful, Hello, Space-boy. That latter imposing piece, a sole example of Bowie’s own work in this collection, soon became the exhibit’s second poster boy when the singer’s face, which afterall graced all but the last of his album covers, let it.

Few works gained more attention than Jean-Michel Basquiat’s (I), including Air Power which Bowie bought before he took the role of Andy Warhol in a biopic of that younger painter’s life. Just about winning the vibrance of the East Dallery, despite strong competition, was Norman Catherine’s splendid shelf installation, the vast Fangalo Store (J), that merges pop-culture with Cenobite horror and the Day of the Dead. If only it was a split lot and not a complete package thought every passer-by, but how could you bear to separate them?

Several influences on Bowie’s own art work shone through. His figurative, expressionist style sat in the lineage of Hekel’s woodcuts that burned from the walls of the azure soaked Heroes gallery (K).

As might be expected, portraiture was well-represented, but landscapes held a proud place, taking the collection to the exotic Andalusia of Hillard’s Bull Fight at Mijas or rather closer to my home county – near where I first saw one of Bowie’s own artworks in Chichester’s Pallant House – in Hitchen’s The South Downs (L).

Intriguingly, the greatest influence came from that quiet seaside town the South West: St Ives. Its presence was felt through the landscape of  Nicholson (M), but also the many modernist works of late resident Peter Lanyon (N). Exemplified by Lanyon’s works, abstraction had a firm hold on Bowie’s interest, which comes as little surprise. Particularly arresting were some exquisite pieces from that great advocate of putting art back in the service of the mind.  Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending Staircase No.2 is quite probably one of the greatest Cubist works to hang against those gallery walls (O).

And there were many walls, necessarily seizing nooks from the white space. Hidden away in a late opening screening room sat David Bomberg’s marvellous Flowers in a Vase (P). Bomberg’s Flowers series played a major role in that Whitechapel Boy reawakening his interest in painting after being refused for over 300 teaching positions in the early 1940s. Things had changed by later that decade when Bomberg taught another giant of Bowie’s collection, the expressionist and figurative painter Frank Auerbach. All his works were as stunning, none more so than his 1965 Head of Gerda Boehm (Q).

The pre-cursor of that current giant of the Camden art scene came with Harold Gillman of the Camden Town Group, his Interior (Mrs Mounter) quietly stealing a great deal of thunder with it precise beauty (R).  On a lower gallery there was time to hover in the frame of the great appropriator Glenn Brown’s interpretation of another figurative giant, Lucien Freud (S). The shadow of such giants were never far away. An affecting mini Moore gave space to that great voice of British modernism (T), while Bernard Leach, the father of British studio pottery took an unassuming but noticeable spot (U).

Bowie wore many of these artists in his character: his purpose and performance, not least in his approach to life as an artist. His collecting no doubt sometimes an acknowledgement of a overdue debt or changes yet to come. Perhaps no artist drew a better parallel than Eric Gill – as contradictory in outlook, contrary in style and influential in his field as Bowie was in his. In the warren of galleries his precise figures of the Arts and Crafts Movement bridged the doorway to Collector‘s most interesting room (V).

Quiet and atmospheric, in soft light the brilliantly simple Man Ray Chess Set (W) glimmered in modernist simplicity, a creation inspired by that artist’s great friendship with Duchamp. And to its left one of the collection’s most intriguing pieces, a Tintoretto (X). A key work, the name of the artist lent to Bowie’s production company is testament to that. The presence of the Tintoretto is challenging, but as satisfyingly contradictory as it should be. In a career that had taken in, not exclusively, vast influences from the Crowley- and Nietzsche-infused Hunky Dory to the Kabbalah strung Station to Station and more recently the Catholic-baiting The Next Day. It’s no wonder that as many Bowie fans considered him a committed Christian, as were convinced he was a Buddhist or atheist.

Bridging the gap to Blackstar, prematurely Bowie’s final era, and one that’s cast a major shadow over 2016, there’s a distinct connection between the Renaissance of Tintoretto’s The Angel Foretelling and the modern touch of Lee Wagstaff’s Shroud (Y).

It was perhaps behind the dance-floor of the Main Gallery, where Lee provided the most telling piece of Bowie/Collector. Sat next to a sound desk, both hidden and facing a door yet to open, was his Z. Baptism (Z). Vivid, vital. This exhibition was after all about sound and vision.


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