Art, David Bowie once told the New York Times, “has always been for me a stable nourishment”. You don’t think of stability with the Thin White Duke, locked in a room in Los Angeles or Berlin, the blinds pulled down, living off cocaine and frightening himself half to death with forays into black magic. All the same, art permeated everything he ever did, a source of succour and reliable inspiration, one of the few constants in his restless, roving life.
The only O-level he got was art, and like many glam rockers and proto-punks he did the obligatory stint at art school, too. Bowie didn’t stick around, though, abandoning Croydon College in the early 1960s in favour of making dogged stabs at rock stardom. When this didn’t seem to work he backed away from music, spending a couple of years studying and performing with the visionary mime artist Lindsay Kemp. It was Kemp who introduced him to some of his most lasting influences, including kabuki theatre, and who helped him develop a captivatingly visual, physical dimension to his songs, bringing high art to bear on the disposable medium of pop.
In September 1971, just before the release of Hunky Dory, he went to New York to visit another hero: Andy Warhol, the consummate magician of the 20th century. Among the things Bowie got from Warhol were his permissive, prodigal mixing of high and low culture and his thrifty willingness to snatch inspiration from anywhere.
Bowie turned up at the Factory wearing white Oxford bags and yellow Mary Janes, a slouchy bibbety-bobbity hat pulled low over his long blond hair. He sang his homage “Andy Warhol” to the master (“Tie him up when he’s fast asleep/Send him on a pleasant cruise”), who was reportedly not wholly flattered. Then he performed an earnest mime for the nonplussed Warhol in which he opened up his heart and let his guts spill on the floor.
It spoke, perhaps, of what was to come: the annihilating effects of serious, cult-level fame; the sense of being haunted by his own creations, of careering with them into places inimical to physical and mental health. Bowie was always willing to take a risk, to expose himself, to go further out than anyone else might have thought possible. Album after album wore its influences on its sleeve: the avant-garde German expressionism of Heroes and Low, the Chatterton-meets-Beau Brummell lushness of The Man Who Sold the World.
Like many other rock stars, he started collecting art, including a pair of Tintorettos, a Rubens and a Frank Auerbach. But at some point in the 1980s he began making it, too. He’d got himself stuck creatively, and as a way of edging out of the doldrums he switched media, using painting as a way of swimming back to himself. At first it was a private business, a respite and release from music, and then a fertile way of solving problems and nudging around blocks.
Always exceptionally courageous in his reinventions, he made this aspect of his life public in 1994 when he first exhibited his expressionistic, interestingly static and melancholy paintings at the Flowers East gallery in London for War Child, the charity backed by his friend and collaborator Brian Eno. By this time he was already part of the art establishment. He was on the editorial board of the magazine Modern Painters, where at an early meeting he had shyly suggested that he might interview the painter Balthus, then a neighbour in Switzerland. This was followed by serious, knowledgeable interviews with other contemporary artists, among them Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Roy Lichtenstein and Julian Schnabel.
Bowie was an inveterate collaborator; among the many works he created with other artists is a painting made with Hirst. (“He encouraged me to dress up like a Martian, stand on a ladder and throw paint at a spinning canvas. I had a ball. I felt like I was three years old again.”) In 1997 he co-founded 21, a publisher of art books. Among its first ventures was Nat Tate by William Boyd, a hoax biography of an imaginary painter that suckered much of the art world in a typically playful piece of Bowie subterfuge.
In 1996 he played Warhol in Schnabel’s film Basquiat. Much is made of Bowie’s inability to act, but there is something almost eerie about how well he embodies Andy, with his spacy intonation and awkward grace. It’s a loving homage, circling back to his own youthful ambitions.
Bowie never stopped collaborating, never stopped travelling between media, walking through walls with a light-footedness that few have ever matched. One of his last great songs was “Where Are We Now?”, a plaintive, heartbreakingly spare hymn to ageing, to abiding loss and abiding love. The video, directed by Tony Oursler, is set in an artist’s studio, that site of rigorous and messy transformation, Bowie’s psychic home throughout the years. “As long as there’s me,” he sings, his face lined and sorrowful. “As long as there’s you.”
Well, there is no him now; only the record of those impossible, breathtaking, seemingly endless transformations. Ch-ch-ch-changes, as he once sang: the absolute essence of art.
Olivia Laing’s new book, “The Lonely City”, will be published in March by Canongate
This article appears in the 13 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie