We’ve heard his music and seen his own artworks, but the personal art collection of David Bowie has remained largely hidden from the public eye. Now headed to auction, the paintings, drawings, sculpture, prints, design objects, and photographs the late icon amassed over decades are gradually being revealed — quite fittingly — in a grand, international ceremony. A selection of works will tour London, Los Angeles, New York, and Hong Kong for three weeks before landing in London again for a 10-day exhibition and three-part auction at Sotheby’s.
Bowie was a voracious collector, and around 400 pieces from his holdings are going to auction. But this is hardly his entire collection; a spokesperson for his estate noted in a press release that his family is “keeping certain pieces of particular personal significance.” Of those pieces entering the market, over half of the lots are modern and contemporary British art, including works by Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, Peter Lanyon, and the German-born Frank Auerbach — whose paintings Bowie described as “extraordinary” in a June 1998 interview with the New York Times‘s Michael Kimmelman about his favorite artworks.
“I think there are some mornings that if we hit each other a certain way — myself and a portrait by Auerbach — the work can magnify the kind of depression I’m going through,” Bowie told Kimmelman. “It will give spiritual weight to my angst.” In that same chat, he generously heaped praise on Hirst, two of whose “spin” paintings will also be featured in the sale.
“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 said, adding that Hirst once invited him to make one of those rainbow works, a process that involved Bowie dressing up like an alien before throwing paint on a canvas.
“As a collector, Bowie looked for artists with whom he felt some connection, and for works that had the power to move or inspire him,” Simon Hucker, Sotheby’s Senior Specialist in Modern and Post-War British Art, said in a statement. “This is what led him to British art of the early and mid-20th century in particular, which, of course, also led him home.”
Bowie’s taste, however, did expand far beyond British art — as one would expect, given the eccentricity for which he was so known. He also collected outsider art, such as works by the Gugging Artists of Vienna’s eponymous psychiatric clinic, as well as contemporary African art. A sculptural assemblage of a battered LP with an old telephone by Beninese artist Romuald Hazoumé particularly speaks to his love of music and sound, though not as glaringly as a gorgeous, cream-colored stereo cabinet by Italian designers and brothers Pier Giacomo and Achille Castiglioni fro 1965. Bowie was evidently drawn to Italian design, collecting pieces by Ettore Sottsass and his Memphis group, known for bold and zany furniture that burst with color. One piece Bowie owned was the “‘Casablanca Sideboard,’” a speckled cabinet with protruding parts that seem to make it jump with joy.
The musician was certainly drawn to bright hues: he owned Basquiat’s bold painting “Air Power” (1984), which features bursts of red, blue, orange, and yellow amid an otherwise foreboding scene. The acquisition is unsurprising given that Bowie was a huge Basquiat fan — a fact easily gleaned from his delightful description of Basquiat’s work in a spring 1986 issue of Modern Painters, where he often contributed interviews with artists:
Basquiat takes a cursive swipe and re-establishes the disorder that is reality. The pure joyful chaotic miasma of it all. Goo-goo-ga-joo. Refracting fact fractions facting refact. He’s milking the diction-dairy, wiping up the puddles of Anglo detritus and scoffing the lot. He’s stealing us limb by word.
What makes Basquiat’s work so powerful is his transcendence of the black-white posturing and the truly dignified indifference of the existentialist … I feel the very moment of his brush or crayon touching the canvas. 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.
And don’t forget that Bowie played a key role in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic Basquiat as Andy Warhol. In fact, he acquired “Air Power” a year after working on the film.
Not all his interests skew modern or contemporary; Bowie also collected the Old Masters. In his interview with Kimmelman, he casually mentions that he owns a couple of Tintorettos and a Rubens. Sotheby’s, though, has not stated whether these made it into the sale or will remain within the Bowie estate. Come November, the entire collection is expected to raise over £10 million (~$13 million), with proceeds to go to Bowie’s family.
“Art was, seriously, the only thing I’d ever wanted to own,” Bowie told Kimmelman in 1998. “It has always been for me a stable nourishment. I use it. It can change the way that I feel in the mornings. The same work can change me in different ways, depending on what I’m going through.”