On Sept. 20 and 21, portions of David Bowie's outstanding collection of art and design objects will be on display for the public at Sotheby's gallery in Century City. The event is part of a tour leading up to the massive, three-part “Bowie/Collector” auction that will take place this November in London.
“There are so many Bowie fans out there who know him as a musician, as an actor, as a writer, as really somebody who shaped the cultural landscape of the last 50 years,” says Bryn Sayles, specialist in modern British art for Sotheby's, by phone from London. “But his art collection and his collecting was really a private passion. This is a really great opportunity to see a whole other side to Bowie.”
Sayles adds, “I think the link between everything he did in his life is that he did it really passionately, and that really comes across in his art collection. He was extremely passionate about the works collected, and he was also extremely knowledgable.”
The day before the show's opening, Sayles gave L.A. Weekly a sneak peek into the works that were about to go on public view. This tour shed light on Bowie's passion for art and how it influenced him.
1. David Bowie had an art collection fit for a museum.
“If David Bowie's name wasn't connected to this group of works, we would still consider this to be a really amazing collection with outstanding examples by these artists,” Sayles said when we first spoke by phone. “It's doubly special that it's coming from David Bowie.”
Later on, at Sotheby's Century City gallery, some of the works from Bowie's collection were already on display. This was a very small sampling of what will be up for auction. Overall, the “Bowie/Collector” sale will include 400 pieces divided into three separate auctions.
Sayles explains that Bowie had enough art to fill multiple homes and still kept some in storage to rotate the pieces. He managed to fuse quantity with quality in his collection. Sayles notes that pieces from his collection were lent out to museums, like a painting from Cornish artist Peter Lanyon that had been on loan to the Tate St. Ives.
Certainly, you'll recognize at least a few names while touring the exhibit. There's a Henry Moore maquette displayed in the exhibition. If you've visited Pasadena's Norton Simon Museum, you have likely seen the sculptor's larger works in the garden.
2. Bowie's relationship with art was about much more than owning things.
David Bowie was truly a student of art. He was a collector, but he also learned a lot about what he was collecting. In the exhibition is a beautiful, abstract landscape by Peter Lanyon called “Witness.” Sayles mentions Lanyon both times we speak. He was a fascinating artist whose interests in landscapes prompted him to start gliding. By 1961, when he made “Witness,” you could see how soaring over the landscape influenced his work. Unfortunately, Lanyon died in a gliding accident a few year later. Bowie was captivated by Lanyon's work and, Sayles notes, traveled to Cornwall to see the landscapes that the artist had painted.
3. Bowie was involved in the making of some of the art in the collection.
“I think that's another thing that people are less aware of with Bowie is how really involved he was with the art world and the artistic community,” Sayles says. “He was on the board of Modern Painters, which was the highbrow art magazine of the '90s. He helped come up with 21, which was an art-book publishing company in the '90s. He wrote extensively on artists. He was a critic and a patron as well.”
Bowie wrote about Jean-Michel Basquiat and interviewed Damien Hirst. He actually joined the latter in the studio. The massive spin-art piece that resulted from their collaboration is hanging near the entrance of Sotheby's. “[Hirst] was really a contemporary artist that he admired a lot and they had long talks about the meaning of art, the meaning of what it is to be an artist,” Sayles says. “There was a great relationship between the two of them.”
4. Bowie was devoted to 20th-century British art in a time when that was not fashionable.
“At the time when Bowie was collecting at his peak, mid-1990s, a lot of people were collecting things like the Pre-Raphaelites, the Victorian painters,” says Sayles. “That was the stamp of approval, footballers were collecting that sort of thing.” But Bowie was not one for following the crowd. His collection was heavily focused on British art from across the 20th century. Even in the small selection that's on view at Sotheby's, you can see how deep his interest in this area was. There are pieces by Percy Wyndham Lewis, whose career began before World War I. “He's an artist who distilled a lot of what was happening on the Continent into a very particular style that was also very British,” Sayles explained. Wyndham Lewis also was involved with the vorticism movement and a publication called Blast, which Sayles notes were among Bowie's myriad art interests.
There is also a piece from David Bomberg, who was active in the first half of the century and ultimately taught Frank Auerbach. Sayles describes Auerbach as “arguably Britain's best living painter.” Bowie's interest in this century of British art is certainly a big part of his collection.
“I think the parallel between a lot of artists in Bowie's collection and Bowie himself is that a lot of these artists were pushing boundaries,” Sayles says. “A lot of them were extremely innovative and I think that Bowie found that really interesting, especially in terms of the British artists.”
5. Bowie's art collection was influenced by his travels.
“David Bowie went to South Africa in the mid-'90s and went to the Johannesburg Biennale, so he became interested in a lot of contemporary African art that was being produced,” Sayles says. Among the artists he collected was Romuald Hazoumè, who is from Benin and used found objects — such as a record or a telephone or a can — to create sculptural pieces that recalled African masks. “It's playing with those ideas of art history and he's slightly poking fun at this, what was from the 19th century almost an obsession with African art within the modern art world,” Sayles says.
6. Bowie was drawn to designers who challenge the norm.
Included in the collection are pieces from the Memphis Group, a design collective that existed for a short period during the 1980s and made furniture that was bright, geometric and totally awesome.
“They were seeking at that time to differentiate themselves from what was popular in the '70s [with] stark, minimalist design style,” Sayles says. “As you can see, the group sought to bring in lots of color, different forms, mix them all together, something very playful, very fun.”
The Memphis Group set the stage for '80s style; you can see its influence in everything from the brightly colored Swatch watches that adorned wrists to the upside-down triangle on the back pocket of Guess jeans. It's a style that people either loved or loathed. “As with so much of Bowie's collecting, he was unswayed by popularity or what was considered in good taste,” Sayles says. “He just went with what appealed to him, and what he thought was fun and good was interesting.”
7. Bowie's interest in Basquiat goes beyond the movie.
There are two Basquiat paintings in the exhibition, including a large piece called Air Power that dates back to 1984. Bowie played Andy Warhol in the 1996 film Basquiat, but that's not the only connection between the artists. Bowie had written about Basquiat for Modern Painters. “It's interesting to read what Bowie wrote about Basquiat. … There was a real link between Basquiat's painterly work and rock music,” says Sayles. She adds that Basquiat did play music and was in a band that performed at New York's Mudd Club, a venue that Bowie frequented.
8. David Bowie also had an interest in outsider art.
Outsider art was also a part of Bowie's collection. One such piece by Johann Fischer is on display at Sotheby's. “Fischer worked at the Gugging Institute, which was a mental institution in Vienna that had a whole wing that was dedicated to art therapy,” Sayles says. “A lot of these artists became famous within their own right.”
Bowie was intrigued by the outsider art world and, for Sayles, that makes perfect sense given his own work. “I think it's obviously pertinent that he was interested in outsider art because in his music, you can see a lot of the themes of being an outsider,” says Sayles.
9. You didn't have to be extremely famous to impress Bowie.
Inside the Sotheby's gallery, we look at a painting by Graham Sutherland. “Graham Sutherland isn't somebody that most people outside of a British context would know the name of,” Sayles says “I think that's something that's really interesting about David Bowie's collection. You can have a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat next to Graham Sutherland. He didn't collect painters because they were very well known or because the so-called wider art world had given them their stamp of approval. He very much went with what he felt was high-quality work, interesting work, innovative work.”
Similarly, there's a piece from Wilhelmina Barns-Graham in the exhibition. “I think this is so great because outside of people who love 20th-century British art, not many people are going to know Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. It's a piece that Bowie really responded to,” Sayles says. “I think it's great to see because it represents some of the subtlety that you see in Bowie's collection.”
10. Even his record player looked cool.
There's a record player in the exhibition that was designed by Pier Giacomo and Achille Castiglioni. It's a beautiful, mid–20th century piece with a sleek design. Even though it was made sometime around 1966, Bowie kept the piece up-to-date. “Bowie did use this record player,” Sayles says. “He had it adapted so he could plug in his iPhone and use it as well.”
“Bowie/Collector,” Sotheby's, 2029 Century Park East, Suite 2950, Century City; Tue.-Wed., Sept. 20-21, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. sothebys.com.