The David Bowie Is Exhibition Presents an Engrossing Portrait of Rock’s Greatest Innovator and Imitator

“Heroes” contact sheet, 1977. Photograph by Masayoshi Sukita. © Sukita/The David Bowie Archive

Art exhibits focusing on the oeuvre of celebrities and musicians are not infrequently looked down upon by art aficionados and critics as unconvincing cash grabs. However, it seems fair to say that there are few subjects—certainly as far pop stars go—as worthy of the seriously-minded multimedia exhibition treatment as David Bowie. The elliptical 500-object David Bowie Is, which originated at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 2013, has proven itself to be both popular and substantial during its tour of the world during the last several years. It is now beginning its 11th and final run at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, and as the exhibit’s curators point out, New York City is a fitting place for the show to end.

Bowie lived in Manhattan longer than he did anywhere else in his adult life. His final works were largely produced in the city, and he died there. As the first section of the exhibit outlines, the art world of NYC in the mid-60s also exerted a strong pull on the teenage, Brixton-born Davie Jones, who was then only contemplating becoming David Bowie (and therefore not sharing a moniker with a Monkee). Bowie’s early manager brought the young singer-songwriter an early copy of the prototypical New York avant-rock LP The Velvet Underground and Nico. Bowie, fully enamored, began covering songs from the album before it was even released in the UK.

It’s hard to pick selected artifacts from Bowie’s collected works that serve as good summaries or microcosms of his full career. No one of even his greatest albums, or a documentary or biography, can both reasonably articulate the breadth of his achievement and put across his art’s visceral, multidisciplinary power. David Bowie Is comes close to giving a rich and convincing impression of these things together. It is a fully unified visual, physical, and auditory experience which both shows and explains how visual art, fashion, theater, androgyny, sexuality, and changing social trends were reflected in Bowie’s music, as well as being essential to his extroverted public self-presentation. Though the show is bewilderingly laid-out–by design, it seems–the exhibit tells a palpable, sometimes even relatable story about an artist that was as much the consummate student as a peerless innovator. Bowie inevitably saved himself from any possible accusations of imitation by his natural, supreme magnetism and perpetual ability to synthesize his influences into strange new amalgams. In most cases, his creations found greater mainstream audiences than the work that inspired them, and ultimately ceased to resemble their points of inspiration.

The exhibit begins systematically, creating an image of the teenage Davie Jones as an appealingly curious and confused young hipster. It highlights all of the outré art, musical theater, dance, rock’n’roll, and films that he stumbled onto–anything interesting to which he was able to gain access. In one interview woven into the exhibit’s incidental audio track, Bowie recalls listening to avant-garde jazz (Eric Dolphy, specifically) long before he knew he liked it, because he had decided that it was important and cool. He remembers reading books that were way over his head for the sake of doing so; later, there is a curated stack of Bowie’s espoused top 100 books—obviously a deathly cool selection. Anecdotes like the Dolphy one crop up throughout the exhibit, providing charming detail. One of the central throughlines in Bowie’s career, the exhibit reminds us, is made up of breakthrough moments with others’ art which would help inspire his newest character, costume, and process change.

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