In July, Sotheby’s announced that it would auction off 400 works from the collection of David Bowie, a sale that would take place over the course of three nights and feature works by British artists Frank Auerbach, David Bomberg and Harold Gilman, as well as Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose 1984 painting Air Power is expected to sell for £2.5 million to £3.5 million ($3.2 to $4.5 million). That price is listed in pounds because, despite the fact that Bowie lived in New York for decades, “Bowie/Collector” take place this November in Sotheby’s London headquarters, in Mayfair.
That location makes sense, since the bulk of the collection is work by British artists, some of whom seem to appeal specifically to Brits. And, of course, Bowie was born in Brixton.
But Sotheby’s has wisely decided to take the collection on the road beforehand, shipping it to a few of its global outposts and displaying just a small sample of the goods in each of its salesrooms. On Monday, it came to Sotheby’s New York headquarters, a four-day homecoming for some works that may have been hung in Bowie’s penthouse apartment, 75 blocks south, in SoHo.
While living here, Bowie was clearly enamored of New York’s art world. He befriended Manhattan-based artists such as Tony Oursler, who would host him at his studio, which Oursler described as “this kind of hovel, a studio directly across from Max Fish,” the artist-run bar, which was then on Ludlow Street. “Classic old New York, rats coming through the ceiling,” Oursler added.
Bowie would duck into the Whitney Biennial and shows at MoMA, always keeping a low profile. As a member of the editorial board at Modern Painters, he filed criticism and interviews, including one with Jeff Koons for the Spring 1998 issue that was fêted with a party at the artist’s studio, then in SoHo. Quoth a party report from the former Artnet columnist Charlie Finch: “The thinning cultural elite that has nervously held sway over New York since the Studio 54 days stopped by to kiss the rings of the man who fell to earth and his heavenly bride Iman, who lensed Koonsball’s studio for her hubby’s piece.” (The New York Post also reported a quite possibly apocryphal story about Finch and Bowie that involved them cruising down St. Marks Place, seeing a store selling T-shirts with Bowie’s face and the phrase “I Fucked Mick Jagger,” buying them all and handing them out to strangers.) And he started the art book publishing imprint 21 with Modern Painters editor Karen Wright.
And now, he’s back in town, in a way, until Friday, when the collection goes off to Hong Kong before coming to London to hit the block. I went to go see it late on Monday, and despite it being the opening day, crowds had thinned, with just a few people peering around. Though there has been a great deal of hoopla around the sale—Sotheby’s has titled it “Bowie/Collector” and staged this worldwide tour—the collection itself is mostly quiet, the product of erudite taste, a devotion to a few particular artists, and some left-field excursions.
At the start, there’s a small Henry Moore sculpture, Family Group (1944), in front of works by Auerbach and Gilman. Basquiat’s Air Power is here, and it commands much of your attention—it will probably sell for well beyond the $4.5 million high estimate. But there is also work by the somewhat forgotten British abstract artist Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, including Glacier (Bone) (1950), which is expected to sell for a relatively modest £50,000 to £80,000 ($65,000 to $104,000). For an actual deal, you can pick up a Colorado Teapot (1983) by Memphis co-founder Marco Zanini for just £300 ($390).
Sotheby’s does its best to ratchet up the spectacle—there is, inevitably, the gigantic tiresome spin painting that Damien Hirst made with Bowie, Beautiful, hello, space-boy painting (1995), which is set to go for £250,000 to £350,000 ($333,000 to $466,000). There are also two enormous black-and-white images of a goateed Bowie on the wall, one where he appears to be aggressively shushing gallerygoers. Not sure why those have to be there, but it lends the proceedings a Hard Rock Cafe kind of air. There is also Bowie’s personal record player, designed in the 1960s by Pier Giacomo and Achille Castiglioni. In case its purchaser doesn’t own any LPs, the list on the wall of Bowie’s favorite artists (John Lee Hooker, Toots & the Maytals, Strauss) should provide some suggestions.
This stop on the “Bowie/Collector” tour features just a few works from the massive 400-work trove, but it manages to offer some insight into what Bowie wanted on his walls, and the sensibility he had when collecting. It’s nice to have David Bowie back in New York for a few days.