This November, Sotheby’s will stage Bowie/Collector, a three-part sale encompassing over 350 works from the private collection of legendary musician David Bowie. At the heart of of the sale is a remarkable group of more than 200 works by many of the most important British artists of the 20th Century, including Frank Auerbach, Damien Hirst, Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland.
David Bowie’s art collection was tasteful. Disappointingly tasteful. As Sotheby’s announces the full list of art owned by the late great pop star, to be auctioned in November, it is hard to stifle a yawn.
Where are the vulgar pop art provocations? Where is the camp outrage, the punk iconoclasm? And where’s Andy Warhol?
You won’t find much in Bowie’s collection that connects in any striking or interesting way with his music, videos, performances or personae. One exception is his small but impressive collection of paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Bowie played Warhol in Julian Schnabel’s film of Basquiat’s life, so there’s a connection there; he owned a Schnabel, too. But otherwise the art of avant-garde New York is notable by its absence.
Bowie payed homage to Warhol in his 1971 song Andy Warhol. He also produced Lou Reed’s music, which is steeped in Warhol’s world. Yet Warhol and other pop artists are in very, very short supply in the Sotheby’s auction. Instead, it seems Bowie was obsessed with British 20th-century art by some very unglamorous artists.
If his paintings by Ivon Hitchens, Winifred Nicholson, Peter Lanyon, Graham Sutherland and their ilk (with their vaguely modernist reinterpretations of the British landscape tradition) remind me of anything in Bowie’s oeuvre, it is surely his appearance in the film of The Snowman. Like the snowy dream version of Britain in that Christmas classic, a lot of the art in Bowie’s collection wallows in melancholy nostalgic idylls of Englishness, albeit with the lightest dusting of abstraction.
Visionary and apocalyptic this art is not. If you took Bowie’s collection on the whole and put it in a museum, you’d have the kind of gallery that gets three visitors on a rainy weekday afternoon to look sadly at the Henry Moore and the Bernard Leach pots.
One of the most expensive lots in the auction is his Moore sculpture, with a high price also anticipated for his Stanley Spencer painting. Who will buy them? Most likely enthusiasts for 20th-century British art, which is for some reason fashionable at the moment, even though so much of it is a dull 10th-rate imitation of Picasso.
There are only a few ceramics by Picasso himself. There are more substantial works by Marcel Duchamp, and here at least you can see an artistic ancestor of Bowie’s own art of self-invention, for Duchamp was perhaps the first modern artist to play with identity when he adopted the female persona Rrose Selavy – pronouced “eros, c’est la vie”. So if you want something to help understand Bowie, bid for Duchamp.
Yet alongside cool furniture it’s serious, sombre British art that dominates. Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff meant much more to him than younger British artists. He had some Hirsts, but they seem perfunctory, and the rest of the YBA generation are represented sparsely, even though they were all keen Bowie fans.
A lot of people would say that shows good taste. And no doubt it does. But surely Bowie knew that good taste is a killer? I prefer to think of him needing an axe to break the ice, a junkie hitting an all time low, than pacing around in slippers admiring his tedious art by Victor Pasmore. Bowie the collector is his most perplexing persona of all – a repressed art snob.
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