Ziggy Stardust, Major Tom, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke – David Bowie was one of the 20th century's greatest creative spirits, existing and exuding a kaleidoscope of personas and talents for his audiences to feast on. For nearly 5 decades, his influence transcended music to shape the wider culture of our time. His life as an art collector, however, was a less familiar eccentricity he kept to himself.
Now for the first time, this little-known side of Bowie is encapsulated and revealed. Vibrant, eclectic, multifaceted, at times unscripted: David Bowie's private collection gives his adoring fans, avid art collectors and buyers a rare chance to explore and delve into a new realm of his artistic influences – sitting along side beloved Basquiat paintings and Marcel Duchamps are artworks that directly inspired him.
Guiding and joining Bowie alongside his journey to build and create this collection were his personal curators Kate Chertavian (1993-2000) and Beth Greenacre (2000-present). The Fifth Sense caught up with them at Sotheby’s as the auction house swung the doors open on their major 10 day exhibition, all before the entirety of the collection goes under the hammer.
How did you first come to meet and work with David?
Kate: I met Iman. She came into a gallery on Cork Street where I was working in back in ‘93. I was standing by the front desk and she came up to me with a small drawing by Lynn Chadwick ‘Teddy Boy and Teddy Girl’. This was my field. I’d been working at Christies for many years in the modern picture department and then I ’d been out building my own business so I recognised the piece. She was such a beautiful woman and here’s this amazing object. I asked who it was for, and of course it was for David which made perfect sense. It’s this great musical piece, from 1956, from his childhood. So we made the acquisition for him to have it. I ran home and got all my catalogues to give to him and by the end of the weekend BANG! Him and I are engaged in a conversation and he’s already asking me to find things.
Can you give us a feel for who David was as a collector?
Beth: David didn’t differentiate between mediums or periods. There’s Basquiat, the Memphis pieces, Hirst, “the lesser known artists”. They’re all creative gestures and acts who have equal weight to him. There were no hierarchies, it was not about hierarchy in terms of his collecting and his interests. He wasn’t a trophy collector. He wasn't about the financial aspect at all. It was about a bond with the work. An intellectual relationship with the work, an aesthetic or an emotional bond, and I think personally that is something that’s really evident as you explore the collection.
Kate: He takes this idea that art is for him a nourishment. It’s not the idea of value. It’s the idea of subject matter, intellectual pursuit, of a journey of curiosity. It was never about a journey of acquiring things for a resale market, or financial gain. That was never really what he was interested in.
"It’s not the idea of value. It’s the idea of subject matter, intellectual pursuit, of a journey of curiosity"
Curating so closely with David for so many years how did you both see his tastes evolve or change?
Kate: You would imagine that he would have changed quite often, because when you describe someone who was as hugely energetic and dynamic as David you would think they would have ADD! but he was deeply intellectual and deeply knowledgeable. He researched everything. He would look at a wide range of artists within my field, but it was never a peculiar range of artists. It always had a link to where it all made sense. When I met him he was already there, he was already involved in the material. It was just a question of jumping on the surfboard so to speak and trying to ride the wave with him. This sort of exhausting yet incredibly exciting wave of surfacing material and pointing him in all these vastly different directions.
Beth: At a first glance the collection looks very diverse I know, but there is lots of threads, lots of kind of conceptual threads that you can link throughout it. It was very clever and thought out. He was really academic David. He was a historian really, an amazing historian. So he would always look backwards, he did that a lot with his collection.He was so diverse in his interests. You know it never surprised me what was sparking his interest, or what he was really delving into next. So to answer your question his tastes didn't really change ever per se...his interests just kept on growing and growing and growing.
Seeing all the pieces and years of work together in one room, do you think there’s a particular piece that’s more touching or that yourselves or David would have trouble letting go of?
Beth: David was incredibly generous. He was really keen to loan work, so despite being quite private his collection was a loaning collection. And he would always put his name to that. He was always very happy to use his name and his fame to support artists and to raise awareness about artists that he felt were not household names that should’ve been household names. I worked with David for 17 years, so I have relationships with all these works and I’m sure Kate has similar relationships. But our time is done, David’s time with them is done. He was only ever custodian, it wasn’t about ownership. Ownership of the concepts that the artists were dealing with and the language that the artist’s were dealing with, that’s what David got out of it. But now it’s up to somebody else to own the physical object and appreciate it. It’s somebody else’s turn to share David’s love for these incredible works and let them live on they way he wanted them too.
Bowie/Collector shows at Sotheby's London until Thursday 10 November