When David Bowie wasn't being a pop star or actor or glorious alien, he was a painter and art writer. As David Jones, he studied at a technical high school and went on to attend the Croydon School of Art. Though he continued producing paintings, drawings, and prints throughout his life, he didn't take his visual work public until the mid-'90s. "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," Bowie told the New York Times in 1998. "Somehow the act of trying to recreate the structure of the music in paint or in drawing would produce a breakthrough." Reflecting on the dissatisfaction he felt towards his musical output in the '80s, he added "I probably started working on the visual side of things really quite desperately to find some salvation as an artist. And then during the very early 90's, I found my way slowly back into music again."
In 1995, Bowie had his first solo show at The Gallery in Cork Street in London. His work strongly evoked German Expressionist cinema, Egon Schiele, and Frank Auerbach—some of his favorites (the cover for the "Lodger" LP was modelled after Schiele).
Bowie also started collecting art early on. "Art was, seriously, the only thing I'd ever wanted to own," he said. "It has always been for me a stable nourishment. I use it. It can change the way that I feel in the mornings." His collection included Renaissance and Baroque painters like Rubens and Tintoretto, as well as major contemporary brands like Damien Hirst, but Bowie claimed that most of his pieces were mostly "British 20th century and not terribly big names."
Bowie co-founded 21, an art book publishing company, in 1997, and served as a board member and frequent contributor to Modern Painters magazine. In 1996, the year he played Andy Warhol in Julian Schnabel's biopic "Basquiat." He wrote an op-ed on the film's subject:
"This NOT Black Art, I maintain, and this is not ART, well no, this is STUFF and I like it, yeah, yeah, yeah. This STUFF rocks. A two-headed Janus of an approach, vomiting and questioning at the same time. A squash of Schwitters sound and nonsense, leering tabulations of pre-Socratic philosophers' jostle, or rubber 'gainst Penk. Like a baad reading of Lautrémont's 'Beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table'. But nothing surreal here. The dreaming is force-fed into the dawn of our consciousness. Confuse me, sir? Well bless you, yes please. Chance juxtaposition. Your chance is not the same as my chance."
As a contributor to Modern Painters, Bowie also interviewed Hirst, Jeff Koons, and the rarely-interviewed Balthus. His most notorious work for the magazine was his first interview with Tracey Emin, a British artist best known for autobiographical artworks like 'My Bed' (literally the artist's bed and stained sheets, surrounded by cigarette butts, empty liquor bottles, used condoms, and other ephemera) and 'Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995' (a camping tent with the appliqued names of each individual the artist had shared a bed with filling the interior). The two artists debated originality and tradition in art: Emin rejected tradition and coveted art that was unlike anything seen before, whereas Bowie defended riffing and reference. In another email conversation for The Guardian published in 2001, Bowie (who at the time was working on a virtual gallery for art students) asked Emin for advice on how to break into the art world.
"I would say get a good part-time job," Emin responded. "If you can't afford a studio, always carry a camera and a notebook. If your brain feels a bit dead, enrol in a part-time course - maybe philosophy, a language or art history - but whatever you do don't think the world owes you a living."
They continue to discuss having children, the internet, the effect of drugs on artwork, their respective experiences of vomiting at the end of listening to 'Rock 'n' Roll Suicide,' and the underwhelming results of fame. When Emin notes her general disinterest in repetition and art history (though, as a 14-year-old, she became interested in German Expressionism as a result of the Schiele-inspired "Lodger" cover art), the conversation returns to the subject of originality that the pair had debated years earlier.
"I think so much well-known work over the last 10 years or so has been a restatement of earlier stuff," writes Bowie. "Everyone from Nauman and Beuys to Koons and Richter has been raided and pillaged. On the shoulders of giants, etc. Although what's been just as fascinating is the reluctance of many observers to credit the original pieces where it might have been appropriate or illuminating.