David Bowie's Art Collection
From Basquiat to Hirst

A black-and-white photograph of the musician David Bowie, standing on stage in front of a large crowd. He is wearing black and leaning against the microphone stand.Image © Creative Commons / David Bowie 2003
Rebecca Marsham

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David Bowie, celebrated worldwide for his groundbreaking contributions to music, was also a profound art enthusiast and a discerning collector. His collection was a reflection of his eclectic tastes, deep intellectual curiosity and multi-faceted personality. Bowie did not collect art for art's sake – as a painter himself, he immersed himself deeply in the works he collected, often stating that art was his idea of true solace. Bowie was also an art critic, having written for Modern Painters magazine and interviewing many contemporary artists.

After his death in 2016, a large portion of Bowie's collection was auctioned at Sotheby's, where it fetched more than double the pre-sale estimates, totalling almost £33 million. This auction not only underscored Bowie's discerning taste but also gave the public a glimpse into his world, highlighting his intellectual pursuits that extended far beyond his musical career.

“Art was, seriously, the only thing I’d ever wanted to own. 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.”
David Bowie

David Jones and the Art World

Born David Robert Jones in 1947, Bowie developed an interest in the arts at an early age. His half-brother Terry, who introduced him to the world of music and literature, also introduced him to visual arts. These early exposures played a crucial role in Bowie's artistic development and, in the mid-1960s, Bowie began visiting art galleries and museums in London, immersing himself in the city's vibrant and diverse art scene. These experiences helped him develop a deep and enduring passion for art that went beyond mere appreciation to include a desire to understand the motivations and techniques of the artists he admired.

Bowie was especially influenced by the avant-garde art movements of the time, including Surrealism and German Expressionism, which can be seen in his music, fashion and performances throughout his career. He was known to incorporate elements of these movements into his work, blurring the lines between music, performance, and visual art in innovative ways. In the 1970s, as Bowie's music career took off, so did his art collecting. As he travelled the world on tour, he spent much of his downtime visiting local art galleries and museums, slowly amassing an art collection that reflected his broad and eclectic tastes.

Bowie’s Eye for Art: The Iconic Rock Star as a Collector

Bowie's art collection included over 400 items and was a significant aspect of his life outside music – it extended across disciplines and eras, encompassing design, contemporary art, surrealism, modernism, outsider art and African art. He had a profound appreciation for the work of both well-established and lesser-known artists, reflecting his unerring ability to recognise raw talent and originality. While he owned notable pieces from Old Masters such as Tintoretto and Rubens, most of his collection was made of artwork by 20th-century British artists, like Damien Hirst, Harold Gilman and Patrick Caulfield. His collection also boasted pieces by prominent international artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp, famous names in their respective art movements – although he was quick to remark that he’d usually choose art that “seemed to be an important or interesting departure at a certain time, or something that typified a certain decade, rather than go for Hockneys or Freuds or whatever.”

Some critics have expressed that Bowie’s collection was perhaps not as avant-garde as expected, and have also expressed surprise at the fact that Bowie seemingly owned no works by Andy Warhol despite his long-expressed fascination with the artist.

Bowie and Basquiat: A Symbiotic Artistic Relationship

Basquiat in particular was one of Bowie’s favourite artists and he had a profound and personal interest in him, something that grew after Bowie played Warhol in Julian Schnabel's 1996 biopic of the late painter. Bowie owned several of Basquiat's works, including Air Power and Untitled (1984); but far from only appreciating the artist's unique style and creative approach, he also felt an affinity due to their shared experience as influential figures in the New York art scene of the 1980s. This was when Bowie first became interested in Basquiat’s work, and remained an enthusiast for the rest of his life. Basquiat was also said to have painted to Bowie’s music, revealing a symbiotic relationship.

He was particularly taken with Basquiat's raw talent, his vibrant, chaotic canvases and the social commentary inherent in these works. Bowie gravitated towards disruptive artists, echoing his own ethos: both artists were known for challenging conventions and blending different art forms and cultural influences into their work. They were also deeply influenced by their environments, encapsulating the cultural zeitgeist of their times and were constantly reinventing themselves, pushing boundaries and creating work that provoked thought and discussion.

Bowie's connection with Basquiat underscores his deep engagement with the art world and his lifelong fascination with artists who, like himself, were not afraid to push boundaries and challenge the status quo.

“[Basquiat’s] work relates to rock in ways that very few other visual artists get near. He seemed to digest the frenetic flow of passing image and experience, put them through some kind of internal reorganisation and dress the canvas with this resultant network of chance.”
David Bowie

The Intersection of Music and Art in David Bowie’s Life and Collection

The intersection of music and art in Bowie's life was a profound reflection of his multidimensional creativity: his career as a musician and his passion as an art collector were intrinsically linked, with each informing and enriching the other.

In 1995, Bowie collaborated with Hirst on a painting named Beautiful, Hallo, Space-boy Painting, which eventually became part of his own collection and sold at Sotheby’s in 2018. Hirst said of their meeting: “David was like a child, childish and childlike when he came to see me in the studio and we made a giant spin painting together, you have to live in the moment and give up all your preconceptions and let yourself go and just have fun and let the universe do its thing, he was brilliant fun to spin with. (...) [Bowie] understood art and loved it and understood the tension and the colour and playfulness in the spin paintings, and I guess that’s why he was moved to come and find me.” The painting shares a title with one of Bowie’s own songs.

This intersection of visual arts and music is clearly evident in Bowie's preoccupation with his albums' cover art, as eclectic and iconic as his artistic persona. Each involved collaboration with unique artists who played a crucial role in his visual presentation, and some notable examples include the album cover for The Man Who Sold The World, designed by Michael J. Weller and the one for Diamond Dogs -- a controversial depiction of Bowie as half-man half-dog by Guy Peellaert.

An image of Bowie on the cover of Aladdin Sane in his characteristic makeup, featuring a lightning bolt across his face.Image © Creative Commons / Aladdin Sane (album cover) © David Bowie 1973

Bowie’s Passion For the Arts

Beyond his personal art collection, Bowie also played a role in the broader art world. He took up a position on the editorial board of the art journal Modern Painters in the 1990s, where he conducted interviews with artists and wrote art reviews. He was an avid reader who was known to have strong opinions, and was often very detailed in discussing artwork.

Bowie was also a painter himself, reflecting the same eclectic influences, innovation and stylistic evolution that marked his musical career. His early work was strongly influenced by the work of British artist David Bomberg. Many of his paintings feature distorted or exaggerated figures and bold, vibrant colours, echoing the emotional intensity and avant-garde style of these movements. Bowie's paintings often incorporate text, symbols, and abstract elements, suggesting layers of meaning and inviting interpretation -- and reflecting his admiration for Basquiat. One of Bowie's most famous paintings is Self-Portrait, a work that reflects his interest in the distortion of the human form and his use of vibrant colour to convey emotional states. The self-portrait, with its mask-like face and intense, mismatched eyes, is reminiscent of his alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, hinting at the blurred boundaries between Bowie's art and his music.

Throughout his life, Bowie was relatively private about his paintings. While he did exhibit his work in a few galleries and museums, he often seemed more comfortable letting his music, rather than his visual art, take centre stage. Nevertheless, his paintings provide a fascinating insight into his creative process and the breadth of his artistic vision.

The Artistic Legacy of David Bowie

Bowie's diverse and eclectic art collection, much like his music, showcases his ceaseless curiosity, boundless creativity and lifelong commitment to the arts. Bowie's collection was not just an assembly of works that pleased him aesthetically, but a reflection of his personal journey as an artist, a mirror to his musical innovation and a testament to his profound respect for other artists. His love for the works of artists such as Basquiat and Hirst, among others, is indicative of his deep appreciation for a broad range of artistic expression and his ability to discern visionary talent. Similarly, his own artistic output in the form of his album covers, paintings and the intersection of his music and visual art reveals a complex, multi-faceted artist who consistently challenged boundaries and norms. In this sense, Bowie's legacy as a passionate patron of the arts is as influential as his music.

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