A QUARTER-CENTURY before David Bowie would play Andy Warhol on screen in “Basquiat,” Bowie would play something for Andy Warhol. In the summer of ’71, the pop-music star had recorded a tribute tune to the Pop Art star. But after Bowie let the visual artist listen to “Andy Warhol,” a song written from a place of profound and sincere fandom, the two men just stared, according to lore, until Warhol broke the silence by commenting on the musician’s fine shoes. And so they talked about shoes.
Perhaps that was fitting as David Bowie, who died Sunday at age 69, was an artist head to toe. Visual presentation was often as crucial to Bowie as his sound.
Bowie, who was born in 1947 in South London, used to joke that he came of age in postwar Britain when many of the top blues rockers sprung from the halls of art school. True to his era, he never relinquished being a visual artist himself. The look was part of the performance, from album cover to arena presentation, and through every musical iteration, Bowie drew from a deep well of graphic influences.
The ever-shifting musician was recently the subject of an exhibition, “David Bowie Is,” that originated in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum before traveling to America at the Museum of Contemporary Art (the 400-piece show was the MCA’s largest ever). It’s entirely apropos that this half-century-spanning retrospective was as much about the visual as the auditory, including a massive, three-walled video screen and the costumes of Alexander McQueen. Bowie believed that his music was one part of an artist’s larger synthesis, and with his every irony-laced reinvention, he knew — in the spirit of Warhol — how much his look was crucial to each new persona (be it Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke) having a thunderbolt-like impact.
We can witness this simply through the prism of Bowie’s album cover art, up through the musician’s 25th studio album, “Blackstar,” released last Friday upon the singer’s birthday. (Even the video for his new song, “Lazarus” — also the title of his new off-Broadway musical project — plays upon our familiarity with Bowie’s iconic face, bandaged as he sings: “Look up here / I’m in heaven.”)
Bowie — who would help launch an art-book publisher (21), and who eventually exhibited his own paintings — worked with other visual talents to conceive and select album art that revealed especially eclectic tastes ranging from Dada to anime; Japanese Kabuki to German Expressionism; and Brecht to Burroughs.
As early as his 1969 album “Space Oddity,” Bowie drew directly from the art world by putting his permed-out head against the backdrop of a Folklore Planetaire work by Victor Vasarely, the French-Hungarian godfather of the Op Art movement. Given Bowie’s fascination with the dynamics of illusion, it was a bellwether that he chose optical phenomena for the sleeve.
A year later, for “The Man Who Sold the World,” Bowie signals his ability to employ androgynous personas by donning a Michael Fish dress and reclining as if posing for a Rossetti painting.
Long before Harry Potter, a lightning-bolted face was the signature look of Bowie’s ’70s Aladdin Sane character; and a year later, he would get Belgian artist Guy Peellaert, freshly celebrated for his “Rock Dreams” book, to paint the controversial “Diamond Dogs” cover (right about the time Peellaert was also creating art for the Stones).
Bowie would soon also draw inspiration from German painter Erich Heckel (for 1977’s “Heroes” cover); 1980’s “Scary Monsters and Super Creeps” would feature an Edward Bell painting; 1984’s “Tonight” would tap the Gilbert & George aesthetic; and most tellingly, 1995’s “Outside” finds Bowie having grown visually confident enough to spotlight his own self-portrait, with the “Head of DB” art looking perhaps sacrificed.
Bowie also worked multiple times with Rex Ray, who borrowed from anime to create the 2003 “Reality” cover.
However, in his deeply felt relationship with visual art, perhaps no aspect is as crucial as how Bowie would turn to rendering to help unlock his musical muse.
“It really was about problem solving,” Bowie told the New York Times in 1998. “I’d find that if I had some creative obstacle in the music that I was working on, I would often revert to drawing it out or painting it out. Somehow the act of trying to recreate the structure of the music in paint or in drawing would produce a breakthrough.”
And that was perhaps the most defining characteristic of Bowie’s career. Ever progressing, propelling, moving like a shark who fed on reinvention and so dodged the pigeonholing “tyranny of the mainstream,” he was constantly on the hunt for the next creative breakthrough.
Time and again, visual art was the very face of that breakthrough.