The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2018

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MAY 2018 Issue

David Bowie Is

John Robert Rowlands, The Archer, Station to Station tour, 1976. Photo © John Robert Rowlands.

On View
Brooklyn Museum
March 2 – July 15, 2018
New York

David Bowie Is opens with the late musician’s most recognizable silhouette, Tokyo Pop (1973). Created by legendary designer, Kansai Yamamoto, the billowing, vertically-lined vinyl bodysuit was born of the fantastic excesses of East and West—Kabuki plays, Bauhaus ballets, and the Space Race alike. A concise, if “unbelievably hot,” synthesis of Bowie’s career, the costume is only one of the hundreds of artifacts that comprise the world-touring, twelve-city retrospective of Bowie’s life and work, now at the Brooklyn Museum. Having opened in London five years ago, this final presentation of David Bowie Is is the most comprehensive, and by far one of the Museum’s largest shows to date. From Brixton to Berlin to Blackstar, the ambitious exhibition—now an immersive eulogy—meticulously navigates the wild diversity of influences that shaped David Bowie, including David Robert Jones himself.

He has an unusual face ... neither man nor woman ...

        –Kansai Yamamoto

Roy Ainsworth, Publicity photograph for The Kon-rads, 1963. Courtesy The David Bowie Archive. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum.

David Bowie’s first instrument was a plastic saxophone. The slick, cream-colored Grafton Alto Sax was a gift to the young Bowie, then David Jones, that dreamt of playing in Little Richard’s horn section. By sixteen, Bowie had moved from saxophonist to lead singer of his first band, The Kon-rads, which he promptly restyled in sharp suits, thin ties and a hyphen. In an early band photo, Bowie is perched atop a bass drum, leaning coyly on his sax. An unearthly magnetism was already well apparent in this slight, well-coifed boy, his funny blue eyes fixed with intention.

Resolute from the start, Bowie’s set design, flyer, and even business card sketches for his first bands fill the introductory gallery of David Bowie Is. Following a rash of failed pop groups, however, he promptly left the bandstand for bohemia—a period framed through his mentor and lover, Lindsay Kemp. An influential performance artist, Kemp introduced Bowie to mime, avant-garde theater, and the Kabuki tradition of onnagata actors (men playing female roles)—art forms that deeply saturate the entirety of his career. A flutter of gig posters demonstrate the cacophonic time: writing songs for Kemp’s productions and putting on disastrous mime routines for T. Rex, Bowie straddled sexual and artistic identities throughout the late sixties.

I thought it was a desperate cash-in because Bowie was a kid, who, like everyone else I worked with, needed a hit ... I was completely and utterly wrong.

        –Tony Visconti

In 1969, stirred by the Apollo missions and 2001: Space Odyssey, Bowie released what would become his first hit single, “Space Oddity”—an event to which an entire gallery of David Bowie Is is dedicated. The first color photographs of Earth, the initial gravity of which are still difficult to fathom, are shown alongside a Japanese poster for 2001 and a Stylophone synthesizer—the defining instrument of “Space Oddity.” Nearby, Bowie’s boyish sketches for the album artwork, complete with spacemen and a Buddha, remind us of how truly young he was. His palette glittering with blue planets and Glam, Kabuki and space samurai, Bowie soon adopted a stage persona as androgynous and alien as his natural physique—Ziggy Stardust.

Ziggy brought Bowie sudden international fame, world tours, and what he truly sought—artistic significance. Nevertheless, ever the showman, Bowie abruptly killed Ziggy at the end of a 1973 show—a spectacle as fitting to Bushido as Little Richard, another artist famous for “dying onstage.” Ziggy’s fate was sealed with “Rock n’ Roll Suicide,” and Bowie moved on to new manifestations in America. The flamboyant remains, such as Yamamoto’s “impossibly silly bunny” suit and the Elvish cloak embellished with Bowie’s name in kanji, are exhibited alongside dozens of others throughout David Bowie Is. Arranged within a complexity of mirrored installations and stage lighting, the curators have made an incredible effort to reanimate some of these costumes. Of course, to see outfits worn by the Thin White Duke or the iridescently eighties Pierrot (of Ashes to Ashes) is dazzling, though I was more attracted to the anecdotal relics that frame them: a cocaine spoon, a marked-up contact sheet, a tissue salvaged from a coat pocket—smeared with rouge. These fat margins, culled from the 75,000 items in Bowie’s personal archive, seduce the insatiable fan. Particularly engrossing is Bowie’s indecisive handwriting across the decades; from session notes to diary entries, it’s endearing to find that the lefty once bubbled his i’s.

All art is unstable.

        –David Bowie

Masayoshi Sukita, David Bowie, 1977. Courtesy The David Bowie Archive.

During the filming of The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Bowie insisted on dragging a flight case full of books around the New Mexico desert—the replica of which is on display. Not unlike his nearest alter-ego, TJ Newton, he had a rapacious appetite for culture, and the exhibition offers a thorough presentation—and even a concise list—of his eclectic tastes, such as the severe Dadaist costume worn on Saturday Night Live (1979) or the banjo played in an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal (1982). Bowie’s curious mind splintered into many such distinct personalities and careers, as well as assumed a plethora of musical styles—from cabaret to French chanson to the plastic soul of Young Americans (1975). In the mid-seventies, he also picked up on the motorik rhythm of German bands like Can and Kraftwerk—a major element of 1976’s Station to Station. That summer, at his wits end with fame and occultism, cocaine and LA (“hell on earth”), Bowie left the West Coast for West Berlin.

Far from the glitz of Ziggy’s London and the vampiric vacuum of Bel-Air, Bowie finally began to settle into himself in Berlin. Though still suffering through his addiction, these brief years by the Wall, namely Hansa Studios, are among his most daring and significant. Collaborating with Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, and long-time producer, Tony Visconti, his early thirties begot the remarkable Berlin Triptych: Low and Heroes (1977), the nervy, art rock ambient masterpieces as divided as the city, and Lodger (1979)the wanderer that would signal Bowie’s final exit from Europe. Enshrined within the Berlin gallery is Eno’s fabled EMS Synthi AKS “suitcase” synthesizer, as well as the Japanese koto (Bowie’s “banjo half asleep”) played on the ethereal “Moss Garden.” Across the gallery, more mundane objects—his Berlin flat keys, a graffitied pack of Gitanes—suggest how dearly Bowie treasured these years.

Brian Duffy, Aladdin Sane contact sheet, 1973. © Duffy Archive & The David Bowie Archive

Berlin was the beginning of Bowie’s fascination with German Expressionism, most especially Erich Heckel—the Die Brücke artist that inspired the cover of Heroes and Iggy Pop’s The Idiot (1977). An enthused if reserved artist, Bowie unabashedly imitated the style in his own paintings, a few of which are on display. With lines at once hard, insecure, and earnest, these paintings have an intimacy not easily obtained from the chameleonic musician. Portrait of JO (1976), featuring an asphyxiated and doll-eyed Iggy Pop, is exhibited next to a portrait of Yukio Mishima—author of one of Bowie’s favorite books, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1963). The handsome, prolific, and sexually ambiguous Japanese author—also known for reincarnating his characters—enjoyed worldwide fame before committing a meticulously planned, then horrifically botched ritual suicide in 1970. Head of Mishima (1977), almond-eyed and thickly rendered in pinks and blues, exposes something of Bowie’s inner dialogue on art and life. Nearby, the music video for Look Back in Anger (1979) loops—a baritone Bowie is painting himself as an angel, only to be disfigured by the end.

The morning of his death, Mishima left behind his final book, The Decay of the Angel, with a note: “Human life is limited, but I want to live forever.” Similarly, this exhibition closes on an open page from Bowie’s last notebook, seen for the first time at the Brooklyn Museum. Eight neat, impressively detailed thumbnail sketches—a storyboard for his final music videofall in sequence under the date, October 10th, 2015. Resolute to the end, Bowie was arranging his final stage death through the only character that could defeat it—Lazarus. In the words of his lifelong friend, Tony Visconti, “His death was no different from his life—a work of art.”

David Bowie died in New York City on January 10, 2016, two days after the release of his final album, ★ (Blackstar). That night, TJ Newton walked barefoot across the stage of Lazarus, and David Bowie Is remained in present tense. This exhibition left me a complicated mess of exhaustion, heartache and awe, though quite confident of this—David Bowie is too big for museums and mortality alike.


Sadie Rebecca Starnes

Sadie Rebecca Starnes is an artist, writer, and editor from North Carolina. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, LA Review of Books and Artforum, among others, and she’s held many solo exhibitions in both Tokyo and NYC. She lives and works in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2018

All Issues