Esquire has an interesting—but not terribly persuasive—theory that David Bowie used his interest in collecting modern British art as ‘one of the avenues with which he explored his creativity.”
Interestingly, the bulk of the pieces on auction were purchased in the early 1990s, at a time when Bowie’s stock was at a relatively low ebb. He’d hit commercial gold in the early 1980s with his album Let’s Dance, and had made a killing on several tours that decade, but his albums Tonight and Never Let Me Down, as well as his foray into alt-rock with the group Tin Machine, were met with jeers from critics as well as many of the fans he’d made at the height of his fame. The works he collected during the period, like Lanyon’s Witness and Auerbach’s Head of Gerde Boehm, are striking and intellectually demanding, and must have given Bowie the artistic boost he needed. In 1995 he released a remarkable collaboration with his old pal Brian Eno, 1.Outside, and a string of excellent albums and tours followed, before heart problems caused him to withdraw in 2004.
This idea that being a collector is homologous to being an artist doesn’t give either side much credit. More than that, it sells Bowie’s personality and intellect short to reduce all of his endeavors to some form of artistry.
The truth of the matter is that making art and collecting art are two different things. Collectors tend to have a compulsion to gather and connect, to make a case that others must either validate or reject.
Bowie, in his drive to participate in the critical and scholarly mission of Modern Painters, as well as the snippets of conversation that have been recorded in public, clearly wanted to participate in the analytical side of collecting.
If anything, collecting was an alternative for Bowie, a realm where he was not an artist or musician. A chameleon of an artist, Bowie was a consistent and conservative collector. One can imagine that when talking about painting and painters—as you can see him do with Julian Schnabel here (or above)—Bowie was liberated from being a rock star and able to inhabit an altogether different personality.
Even within the structure of Esquire’s argument, Bowie is more likely to have lost some of his artistic puissance as he spent more time fixated on the hunt of collecting. So it would be just as easy to reverse the cause and effect to say that collecting pulled Bowie away from his creative self as he was preoccupied with assembling a meaningful and satisifying collection.