"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."
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.