Michael Kimmelman – David Bowie on His Favorite Artists

This interview was published in The New York Times on June 14, 1998. It is reprinted here in full, with an updated introduction.

IN 1998, David Bowie sat down for a couple of hours to talk about the art he made and collected. Like other British rockers of his generation, Mr. Bowie had gone to art school, back when he was still called David Jones. At the time we met, he was helping run an art-book publishing company, 21, and moonlighting as an occasional interviewer for Modern Painters, the British magazine.

He welcomed the chance to discuss art. He was also exhibiting his own work, with some trepidation, as he acknowledged in the interview. His pictures suggested a fondness for Picabia, Schiele and the German-born British painter Frank Auerbach, among others. He was candid, friendly and at ease talking about art, which came across as a pleasure and genuine passion, as if the role of artist-connoisseur were not just another identity Mr. Bowie donned and shed but something truly near to the heart of David Jones.

MICHAEL KIMMELMAN You studied art in school. You even started collecting early.

DAVID BOWIE Yeah, I collected very early on. I have a couple of Tintorettos, which I’ve had for many, many years. I have a Rubens. 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. For instance, somebody I like very much indeed is Frank Auerbach. 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. It will give spiritual weight to my angst. Some mornings I’ll look at it and go: “Oh, God, yeah! I know!” But that same painting, on a different day, can produce in me an incredible feeling of the triumph of trying to express myself as an artist. I can look at it and say: “My God, yeah! I want to sound like that looks.”

M.K. I wouldn’t associate you with a painter like Auerbach.

D.B. I find his kind of bas-relief way of painting extraordinary. Sometimes I’m not really sure if I’m dealing with sculpture or painting. Plus, I’ve always been a huge David Bomberg fan. I love that particular school. There’s something very parochial English about it. But I don’t care. I like Kossoff for the same reason.

M.K. And Lucian Freud?

D.B. I admire the trickery of his work, the cankerous skin, which is nice and grungy. But I don’t buy into him being the greatest painter that we have.

M.K. What about Francis Bacon?

D.B. No. Two or three pieces I find extraordinary. I like his figures around the base of the cross, the very first piece that blew him to fame, and of course the Pope, which was an extraordinary thing that he came upon. But he weakened fast. His demise was swift.

Otherwise, my tastes are catholic. That’s what I mean about using art. There are times when I prefer a cerebral moment with an artist, and I’ll just enjoy the wit of a Picabia or a Duchamp. It amuses me that they thought that what they did would be a good way of making art. Sometimes I wish that I could put myself in Duchamp’s place to feel what he felt when he put those things on show and said: “I wonder if they’ll go for this. I wonder what’s going to happen tomorrow morning.”

There’s the other side of me that thinks he did it just because he couldn’t paint. Maybe in hostility to an art scene that he wasn’t making it very big in, he felt forced into a situation of producing a new kind of art — which would be a very human reaction, and it wouldn’t demean him at all in my eyes if he’d just said: “I’ll put a toilet on show. Let’s see how far I can push it.”

I would understand that attitude perfectly, because the most interesting thing for an artist is to pick through the debris of a culture, to look at what’s been forgotten or not really taken seriously. Once something is categorized and accepted, it becomes part of the tyranny of the mainstream, and it loses its potency. It’s always been that way for me: The most imprisoning thing is to feel myself being pigeonholed.

I’m trying to think if there’s anyone who truly has honed his craft to a point that you are really, really glad that he stayed with one thing all the way through his life. Of course there is. How stupid of me! Bob Dylan. He’s not actually changed his course very much, and now his music has such resonance that when I first put his new album on I thought I should just give up.

M.K. You mentioned Duchamp and Picabia. What about the current crop of London artists who owe a debt to them? I’m thinking of the Chapmans, Hirst.

D.B. I’m not a huge fan of the Chapmans. It’s this sniggering little schoolboy kind of thing, and I refuse to take it seriously. They seem to me to have achieved a certain fame by doing one thing — which is, in a way, an illustration of the problem. I think their art has the same kind of spin as Jerry Springer.

M.K. You admire Damien Hirst, though.

D.B. He’s different. 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.

M.K. I find him amusing sometimes, his “retro” spin paintings, for instance.

D.B. I did one of those with him. He encouraged me to dress up like a Martian, stand on a ladder and throw paint at a spinning canvas. I had a ball. I felt like I was 3 years old again. It reminded me of Picasso’s attitude. You know, he set parameters in the studio that produced a kind of playfulness out of which came a very pure thing. With Damien the work is not earnestly striven for. I mean, he certainly applies his intellect, but there’s not a desperation about it.

He’s also one of the people who has helped to make art very accessible to the public in Britain in a way that has never really happened before, even at the height of the ’60s. You still had to go out of your way then to see work by Allen Jones or Hockney or whatever. Now it’s very easy to pop out on the weekend and see some good art nearly anywhere in Britain. And I notice that the crowds that go to museums and galleries these days seem a lot younger than they ever were.

I think they’re a generation that doesn’t see a separation between the visual and the audio. You know, 25 years ago there were a whole crop of us that tried to drag all the arts together and create this potpourri, a kind of new essence for English music. It started even before us, in the mid-60s, when so many of our blues players and rhythm-and-blues bands came out of art school. In Britain, there was always this joke that you went to art school to learn to play blues guitar.

M.K. You played sax.

Frank Auerbach’s “Head of J.Y.M. III,” from 1980. Credit Frank Auerbach, Marlborough Fine Art, British Council Collection
D.B. I wanted to be Gerry Mulligan, only, see, I didn’t have any kind of technique. So I thought, well, baritone sax is kind of easier, I can manage that, except I couldn’t afford a baritone, so I bought an alto, which was the same fingering [laughs].

What happened at the beginning of the ’70s with guys like myself and maybe Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno, maybe some of the guys in Floyd before us, King Crimson, that nature of band: We were all pretty excited about letting people know what went into our work, that we weren’t all trying to be Chuck Berry. I know Ferry was a huge Dada fan, for instance. He even did an album called “The Bride Stripped Bare.” Eno and I went, “He shouldn’t do that,” thinking we should have done it first [laughs]. We were excited by set design, by the way we dressed, by trying to create a whole landscape for the music we were making.

The Beatles had done it to a certain extent because they had John. I always had such pleasure talking and being with John because there was nothing that didn’t interest him, you know? He had a real appetite. “What’s that, I love that! It’s red and it’s big and I want it!” A lot of us wanted to be that way. We would talk about the books we were reading, you know, by the Beats and people like that. We would talk about Kabuki theater. We would talk about artists. I was interested in the Expressionists. And there was an awful lot of Dada in what we were doing. I remember being impressed by, you know, the collages… .

M.K. Hannah Höch?

D.B. Yes, but also, what was his name…?

M.K. Schwitters? Heartfield?

D.B. Heartfield, who I think must have influenced some of the English punk bands in the ’70s: the way they did posters, cutting up letters and breaking up sentences. The destruction of the clothes.

M.K. People have pointed out that the Situationists in the ’60s directly influenced punk. You mean that Heartfield’s ’30s montages influenced them, too? Ripping, cutting up things, rearranging them? Or do you mean his irony?

D.B. I think in the ’70s that there was a general feeling of chaos, a feeling that the idea of the ’60s as “ideal” was a misnomer. Nothing seemed ideal anymore. Everything seemed in-between. We thought, “Are we entering a great flux from which we’ll never come out again?” The reaction in Brian’s work was a kind of poignancy. With my work, it was just horror: “Well, it’s all over! So just dress up! Put your best clothes on because it’s finished!”

M.K. You mentioned German Expressionism. You mean artists like George Grosz?

D.B. No. I had a thing for Murnau and Fritz Lang. Grosz was too direct for me. I always want a certain abstraction. Art should be open enough for me to develop my own dialogue with it.

M.K. So what about the political art of the early ’90s? It was pretty direct.

D.B. It left me cold. I thought, what condition has forced these people to be so finger-waggy? Fortunately, it dissipated fast. Now you’ve got Matthew Barney, who has latched onto this idea of the mythological, which seems very much in the air: the whole paganization of our culture. With Barney and a number of other artists I think that their work, a number of years ago, would have fallen into the area of outsider art. But the art world always widens its parameters to elevate something from low art to high art.

M.K. That’s an obvious difference between the art world and the rock-music world.

D.B. The difference is that one has a brain [laughs].

“Spinal Tap” really wasn’t off the mark. There’s a high degree of fame-seeking in rock, and I think that gets in the way of some great potential.

M.K. Art’s not altogether different in that sense, is it?

D.B. Yeah, it’s true. I guess the same can also be said about some visual artists. But success in art seems to be a lot more about knowing and buttering up a few people. If a visual artist is articulate about his work, he can tell collectors what to think about what they’re buying. People won’t sit still to hear a rock musician say why someone should spend 15 bucks on his album. You can’t get away with much in rock without somebody saying “You got to be kidding me.” You’re not talking about 20 people; you are talking in hundreds of thousands, if you’re lucky, and so a consensus forms about the music. As a rock musician you can live with your audience, no matter what the critics say. Let me tell you, many times I’ve had to. The ups and downs can be pretty terrifying [laughs].

M.K. You’re in the curious position now of having started a kind of second career as a painter.

D.B. Was it a dreadful mistake?

M.K. You’re asking me? I’m asking you.

D.B. It’s a rhetorical question, actually. I kind of went public in about ’94 with the visual stuff that I do. I’m not sure why I made that choice, and I’m still to this day not sure if it wasn’t a mistake, but there’s no turning back. Up to that point, painting for me was private, and it really was about problem solving. I’d find that if I had some creative obstacle in the music that I was working on, I would often revert to drawing it out or painting it out. Somehow the act of trying to recreate the structure of the music in paint or in drawing would produce a breakthrough.

M.K. How so?

D.B. It’s very hard for me to put this into words. I’m not quite sure what the process is. It’s a real “Eureka!” thing. I’ll put together a peculiar set of instrumentation, or I’ll combine sounds that are kind of unusual, and then I’m not quite sure where the text should fall in the music, or I’m not sure what the sound conjures up for me. So then I’ll go and try and draw or paint the sound of the music. And often a landscape will produce itself, then I’ll identify locations within the landscape. Suddenly I’ll realize where things go in the music.

M.K. Literally landscapes?

D.B. Well, it’s all figurative art. I call it landscape, but location, I think, is a better word.

M.K. I’m still not sure I understand.

D.B. That’s the trouble talking about art, isn’t it?

M.K. Well, maybe you can explain more clearly why you began to exhibit.

D.B. Vanity [laughs]. No, really, Eno asked me to do some stuff for a charity thing. So I produced a set of prints for him. And I enjoyed the process. I enjoyed standing in the gallery, kind of in the back a bit, watching people go past the stuff and come up with their own explanations for what it was. I thought, this is fun. Then I was asked to do a show because of that first one. Another reasoning went into it as well. This starts to become quite a complex issue, but I felt very dissatisfied with myself as a musician during a lot of the ’80s, the last part of the ’80s. I was going through my middle-age crisis smack on cue. Soon as I hit 40, it all went wrong. When I hit 1987, it just seemed that nothing worked for me musically. I’d lost the plot. It really felt bad. I felt awful with myself as an artist. And I probably started working on the visual side of things really quite desperately to find some salvation as an artist. And then during the very early ’90s, I found my way slowly back into music again. Now in music I feel fulfilled, hopefully not self-satisfied, by what I’m doing.

On the other side, I find I’m bearing in mind how people respond to the art, which has produced a separation between the visual and the musical. I’m not sure that that’s a good thing. But I went into it with my eyes wide open. I expected ridicule — and I got it [laughs].

A version of this article appears in print on January 15, 2016, on page C34 of the New York edition with the headline: At Heart, an Artist With Many Muses .