Monday, January 11th, 2016

The Thin White Duke: David Bowie, 1947-2016

As a tribute to the rock legend, whose death was announced today, artcritical editor DAVID COHEN fished out this interview from his archives, published in The Daily Telegraph newspaper in London on October 1st 1994 under the title ‘Bowie Redraws His Life: A Pop Icon on His Maturing Tastes’

Balthus and David Bowie, 1994. Photo: Jean-Francois Schlemmer
Balthus and David Bowie, 1994. Photo: Jean-Francois Schlemmer

“He’ll think about paint and he’ll think about glue/ what a jolly boring thing to do.” So sings David Bowie in his 1971 song “Andy Warhol” on his seminal Hunky Dory album. Recently the rock musician himself has been thinking a great deal about art, but with no signs that he or his fans are getting bored. He is prominent among over forty pop celebrities exhibiting artworks in aid of the charity Warchild, to help set up a music and art therapy centre in Sarajevo. And while his formidable collection of modern art keeps growing, he has even turned his hand to art criticism.

The prestigious journal Modern Painters, whose founder, the late Peter Fuller, was critic of the Sunday Telegraph, usually carries essays by the likes of Richard Wollheim, David Sylvester and Robert Hughes, doyens of high brow art appreciation. When editor Karen Wright invited Bowie to an editorial meeting even the most sceptical members were charmed, especially when he claimed he might be able to set up an interview with the highly elusive Balthus, at 86 the last survivor of the pre-war Ecole de Paris. Balthus and Bowie both live in Switzerland, and made friends at an opening for the painter’s young Japanese wife, Setsuko.

“My original intention was just to be the liaison in all this”, Bowie tells me. “I gave him a call and proposed a meeting, suggesting I would bring a ‘qualified’ journalist with me, to which he replied, “Good Heavens, no, I can’t stand art journalists. They are always so intellectual. I’d prefer you to do it, dear boy'”.

“I haven’t been referred to as ‘my dear boy’ in decades”, says Bowie. Asked if he feels a creative affinity with the painter, he says “The common ground we seem to share is the will to work obsessively, and a strong resistance to judgements of our work. Put it out and be damned – quite often, as it happens! Other than that, we are time and worlds apart, which has made for a rather lovely friendship.” The exchange, which took place at Balthus’s gargantuan eighteenth-century chalet at Rossinière in the Vaud, proceeded at a leisurely and anecdotal pace. In fact it runs to twenty pages, by far the longest article ever run by Modern Painters. Their chatter is charmingly under-edited, leaving Balthus’s continental English intact. “Are you still the King of the Cats?”, Bowie asks Balthus, alluding to the erotic overtones of the sphinx-like felines that often attend the prepubescent girls in his paintings. “When you get over 86 things change”, comes the stoical reply. Setsuko interrupts to offer Swiss chocolates. As a photographer sets up equipment around them, testing his flash, Balthus reveals his remoteness from the world of his young interviewer. “Are you used to photographers?” he asks of the supreme manipulator of self-image and pioneer of rock video, the man who has been Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, and the Man Who Fell to Earth.

There is little actual talk of art, but plenty of reminiscence about personalities such as Marlon Brando, with whom Balthus used to lunch in the 1950s, and Rilke (his mother’s lover) who championed him when he was still a prodigy. Bowie introduces the subject of English painters, as that is the school he collects. Balthus laments the loss of his friend Bacon, whose paintings he never liked, adding “I have a horror for dear little Freud who I was shocked to hear that he was seventy now. He was a charming young man which I knew when he came to Paris about 30 years ago. I was really shocked by the last thing I saw. So Berlin painting!” And when Bowie enthuses about the romantic landscape strain in British painting, tracing a tradition from Samuel Palmer through Ivon Hitchens and David Bomberg to contemporaries such as Maurice Cockrill, who figures prominently in his collection, Balthus says “Yes, Palmer. I know of him”. It is as if Balthus is not so much from a different generation as a different epoch.

David Bowie,Iggy Pop: Portrait of J.O., 1976
David Bowie,Iggy Pop: Portrait of J.O., 1976

Like many of the artists featured in the Warchild exhibition, which opens at Flowers East Gallery on September 28th, Bowie was at an artschool. Brian Eno and Brian Ferry, for instance, studied with Tom Phillips and Richard Hamilton respectively, and have both collaborated with Bowie musically. But he is sanguine on how much art-training influenced his early development: “My own background in so-called art training was limited to four years from the age of 14 on an art course at Tech. This was the innovation of Owen Frampton, to steer ‘talented’ students through to art school status. But I only had eyes for the saxaphone and life on the motorway. I briefly worked as a junior artist at an advertising agency in London , but was completely hopeless, skiving off to lunchtime R&B gigs or to pour through American imports at HMV.”

“Since the beginning of this year”, he says, “I have been working almost constantly with Brian Eno on what seems to be a thousand and one different projects.” When he was asked to contribute to the charity show, he thought he would just let them have a couple of charcoal sketches from his studio. “I have taken to drawing rather a lot while recording recently, as it seems to stimulate some new ideas in both mediums. But then I thought I’d use this situation as an excuse to experiment with computer collage.” While other celebrities have made small works in keeping with the title of the show, “Little pieces by big stars”, Bowie has produced a portfolio of 14 prints (in an edition of 14) entitled “We saw the Minotaur” and an additional poster. The strange, menacing figure in “Joni Ve Sadd”, a self-portrait perhaps, is made up of tiny computer squares with a tiara of haloes that looks like it has been collaged from one of the occultist publications he collected during his Hollywood years in the mid-1970s. The poster “Minotaur” has a similar 70s look – album cover cum science fiction illustration – with a heavily drawn charcoal figure set against collaged backdrop of what look like mountains from a renaissance painting set within an exotic Moorish arch.

“I would describe them as flashy, faintly topical and vulgar”, Bowie admits, and it would indeed be hard to make too great a claim for them. But is Bowie falling prey to the Swan factor? There is an epidemic among celebrities – pace Naomi Campbell’s ghost-written novel “Swan” – of thinking that being famous for one thing permits one to do anything. Sylvester Stallone is launching a career as painter, model Elle McPherson as actress, Naomi Campbell not only as novelist but as pop star too. John Lyttle, in the Spectator, debunks the wanna-be renaissance men and women of the mass-media age. “Children, of course, think they can do everything without practice, without preparation, without due thought. Stars, like children, are easily deluded.” But Bowie’s interest in the visual arts is of a different order, for they have always stimulated his main career, which has as much to do with image and performance as music and lyrics. Justifying the eclecticism of his music he once said “When you are an artist, you can turn your hand to anything, in any style. Once you have the tools then all the art forms are the same in the end.” But in acquiring those skills he has never lacked modesty and determination. He studied mime with the great Lindsay Kemp, for instance.

His collecting has often related to his creative interests. In the mid-70s he went to Berlin, partly to escape an unhappy time in America but also because of an obsessive interest in Germany of the 1930s. Left-wing friends disavowed him of his infatuation with Nazi regalia and symbolism. Meanwhile he discovered artistic soulmates in the Brücke Museum. “I waded quite heavily into Expressionism”, he admits, collecting Heckel (who influenced the title track of his “Heroes” album) and Schmidt-Rottluff. “Not the paintings but the woodblock prints at which I think they excelled.” His own drawing style is heavily indebted to expressionism, but as much to the British painter David Bomberg as to the Germans. “I constantly return to his and Lanyon’s work. Both in their own ways lift the taut skin of the British character and reveal the stunningly romantic nature underneath. I learn something new from every piece I have.”

Bowie has always kept up with music fashion, often, of course, anticipating it. His most recent album, “Black Tie, White Noise” incorporates elements of acid house, for instance. Critic David Buckley has compared him to the Beatles as a brilliant popularizer of avant garde ideas. But in relation to the latest neo-conceptual art he is robustly sceptical. “Recently, I was looking at some work with a well-known European dealer. Part of this display was a video of a young artist chastising himself with a whip. I mentioned to the dealer that the artist didn’t seem to be swishing very enthusiastically, to which he anxiously replied ‘Oh, I can assure you that in about 20 minutes he really brings up quite a blush on his buttocks’. I forgot to ask the price.”

He finds time for at least one avantgarde maverick however. “I had that Damien Hirst in the back of my taxi the other week. Actually it was at dinner. So much bullshit is talked about his work. For me the act of killing a sheep or shark and putting it in a smart box is entirely evocative of the senselessness of most of our actions in this the latter part of the millennium. I don’t care if it’s art or not, I appreciate it as an expression.”

David Bowie in the role of Andy Warhol in Basquiat (1996: dir. Julian Schnabel)
David Bowie in the role of Andy Warhol in Basquiat (1996: dir. Julian Schnabel)