David Bowie’s Art Collection at Sotheby’s

Words: Emilie von Unwerth
Images: Courtesy of Sotheby's London

July 24 2016

David Bowie is a difficult person to attach adjectives to. Anything we say about him seems commonplace, and all our opinions seem trite. Perhaps it’s because everyone in the Western world knows Bowie, and – for many people – his music served as a confidant, a comrade with whom you could share the utmost private experiences.

A musician, artist and, of course, icon, David Bowie had his fingers in many pies. And while Mr. Bowie existed as a rather public figure for the majority of his time on this planet, his role as an art collector was something he kept largely private, a fact that speaks to his relationship with art in general. That being said, this weekend, London’s premiere auction house Sotheby’s will, for the first time, unveil Mr. Bowie’s expansive art collection to the public.

“Art was, seriously, the only thing I’d ever wanted to own,” said Bowie in 1998, in a rare art-based interview with the New York Times. “It has always been for me a stable nourishment. I use it. It can change the way that I feel in the mornings.”

When listening to him speak (there’s a great snippet of an MTV interview with him from 1995 where he walks through his personal gallery, smiling and gesticulating as he explains why he loves certain pieces), one gets the impression that Mr. Bowie was the type of person to gravitate to art solely for the feelings ignited by it, for the connection he felt with the piece. “David’s art collection was fueled by personal interest and compiled out of passion,” says a spokesperson for Mr. Bowie’s estate. “He always sought and encouraged loans from the collection and enjoyed sharing the works in his custody. Though his family are keeping certain pieces of particular personal significance, it is now time to give others the opportunity to appreciate – and acquire – the art and objects he so admired.”

Mr. Bowie’s relationship with the art world extended his entire career. He attended art school at Ravensbourne where he painted and drew, two disciplines he practiced throughout his life. In 1994, Bowie worked as an interviewer for Modern Painters magazine, where he spoke with artists like Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin.

In 1997, Bowie started selling his own prints on the aptly named website bowieart.com. He said in a statement “I want to reach a wider spectrum of people with certain multiples that I make. The gallery shows have been extremely good, but the Internet is the way to get attention of the people who may not have access to my gallery shows.”

In the late 90’s, he helped launch the art book publishing company, 21, and it was during his time here that he and novelist William Boyd pulled “perhaps the most infamous hoax in recent art history,” when Bowie hosted a party at Jeff Koons’ Manhattan studio for a completely fictional artist named Nate Tate, whom Boyd had created.

“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,” says Simon Hucker, Senior Specialist in Modern & Post-War British Art at Sotheby’s. The collection, which is comprised of about 400 pieces, features work from Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, Frank Auerbach and Damien Hirst. “Bowie’s famously inquisitive mind also led him to Outsider Art, Surrealism, Contemporary African art and, not least, the world of the eccentric Italian designer Ettore Sottsass and the Memphis group.”

We didn’t need another reason to worship David Bowie, but we certainly just got one. The exhibit is on preview now in London, and will travel to Los Angeles and New York in September. You can find details about the exhibition at Sotheby’s website.