“Art has always been for me a stable nourishment,” said David Bowie. On the occasion of Sotheby’s historic three-part sale of the legendary artist’s personal collection, his close friend and fellow musician Bono offers an appreciation. Plus, a sampling of Bowie’s own insightful words on the artists he admired and a selection of the works with which he lived.
David understood the power of the image better than any musician who ever lived. He spent his life creating images, some of which he tried to occupy or personify, some of which he hung from his music and some his music hung from. He knew that in his time, more than any other era, ideas often arrived as pictures and that the world was being shaped by photography, cinematography and, even still, painting.
He knew rather a lot about painting, more than you’d think. He called me in the early 1990s to mark my cards on a particular Roderic O’Conor that was coming up for sale. I was vaguely familiar with the work of O’Conor, an Irish painter who spent most of his life in France. Roderic was a genius but a rather traditional Post-Impressionist, an unexpected choice I thought for such a hipster like David. I was continually struck by the fact that David’s knowledge of the art world was so catholic that it could include O’Conor or even William Orpen, yet another Irish painter we discussed, who was an official war artist in the First World War.
From his work, you would have imagined David’s knowledge to centre on German Expressionism or contemporary British and American painters – Auerbach, Hirst etc; for God’s sake, he even played Warhol in the film Basquiat. But no, his world was too big to be filled only by the avant-garde. He interviewed Balthus in the Grand Chalet in Rossinière, Switzerland for Modern Painters, an interview that led to my own interest and indeed a close relationship with the family that has lasted. Introductions to artists were one of David’s many gifts over the years.
In the end, his passion for art came from a deep conviction that ideas mattered and that the way we see the world has an enormous impact on the one we build, both personally and politically. David was also very, very funny: he saw the serious role humour could play as a weapon to defend the beautiful from the ugly. This might explain his respect for those Dadaists and Surrealists who stood up to Fascism – Hans Richter, John Heartfield, Méret Oppenheim – and certainly his use of the Dalí and Buñuel film Un Chien Andalou as an opener to his Isolar tour in the mid-1970s.
David didn’t go to any fancy art college but his work with Brian Eno became my alma mater, where I began a life-long interest in sonic art. His album Low was a high: such painterly sounds the world had never heard before, a new way of hearing and listening to music. But new eyes were the prize, new eyes to see the world. —BONO, SEPTEMBER 2016
BOWIE ON ART AND ARTISTS:
DAVID BOWIE was not just a collector of art, but also an informed authority on the subject. He was close to countless living artists and maintained conversations with them throughout his life. In 1994 he was invited to join the editorial board of Modern Painters magazine, to which he contributed in-depth interviews with the likes of Tracey Emin, Balthus and Damien Hirst, a review of the first-ever Johannesburg Biennale in 1995 and a response to the life and work of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Below is a selection of Bowie’s astute and deeply personal observations, first published in Modern Painters and The New York Times on the art and artists that fascinated and inspired him.
Bowie suggested to the editors of Modern Painters that he might be able to secure an interview with the reclusive Balthus. Both men were living in Switzerland at the time and had met at a gallery opening for Balthus’s wife, Setsuko. One afternoon in the summer of 1994, Bowie drove to a mountain chalet in Rossinière to meet the painter, whose works of “timeless, serene, but disturbed sculptural claustrophobia” he greatly admired. Their conversation as well as Bowie’s introductory text are extraordinary. Sitting at lunch with the artist and Setsuko, he observed: “Balthus puts down his knife and fork and, staring at some far off point, says quietly: ‘I awoke very early this morning. I went to my studio and started work. It would not come.... and I gazed at my painting then the small things around me and I felt such a tremendous...sense of awe.’” His voice dies away, leaving “a misty trail of remembrances, glories and maybe disappointments,” Bowie continued. “Locked in silence, we three sit, Balthus, Setsuko and I. The tragedy and chaos of the twentieth century rushes through the memory of its last Legendary Painter.”
ON MARCEL DUCHAMP
“Sometimes I wish that I could put myself in Duchamp’s place to feel what he felt when he put those things on show and said: ‘I wonder if they’ll go for this. I wonder what’s going to happen tomorrow morning,’ ’’ he said to Kimmelman in The New York Times. “I would understand that attitude perfectly, because the most interesting thing for an artist is to pick through the debris of a culture.”
ON DAMIEN HIRST
Hirst was one of only a handful of high-profile contemporary artists for whom Bowie publicly expressed his admiration, interviewing him for Modern Painters in 1995. “He’s different. I think his work is extremely emotional, subjective, very tied up with his own personal fears – his fear of death is very strong – and I find his pieces moving and not at all flippant,” Bowie told Michael Kimmelman in an extensive 1998 interview in The New York Times.
ON JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT
“I feel the very moment of his brush or crayon touching the canvas,” wrote Bowie of Basquiat in a 1996 issue of Modern Painters. “There is a burning immediacy to his ever-evaporating decisions that fires the imagination ten or fifteen years on, as freshly molten as the day they were poured onto the canvas.” Bowie acquired Basquiat’s Air Power in 1997, the year after he played Andy Warhol to Jeffrey Wright’s Basquiat in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic of the artist.
ON FRANK AUERBACH
“I find his kind of bas-relief way of painting extraordinary,” said Bowie of Auerbach in the 1998 New York Times interview with Kimmelman. “Sometimes I’m not really sure if I’m dealing with sculpture or painting.” Auerbach’s work provoked strong reactions: “It will give spiritual weight to my angst. Some mornings I’ll look at it and go, ‘Oh, God, yeah! I know!’ But that same painting, on a different day, can produce in me an incredible feeling of the triumph of trying to express myself as an artist. I can look at it and say: ‘My God, yeah! I want to sound like that looks.’”
ON TRACEY EMIN
“I love her fractured energy and could sit and listen to her for hours,” he said of the provocative Emin, whom he met in the 1990s. “She wants very much to be firmly identified in this modern world, but time and again she reveals a deep fascination with passions from another time – Munch, Schiele, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Giotto, narrative painting,” he declared in Modern Painters in 1997. Emin was mutually admiring: “Everything to me that David Bowie wrote was poetic, meaningful, a message,” she said in article for The Sun in 2013.