Bowie songs that inspired contemporary art
Elizabeth Peyton, George Condo, John Pawson and Wilhelm Sasnal on their most inspirational David Bowie songs
There will be a lot of words expended over the coming days on David Bowie. A good few of them will likely reference the night in 1972 when a catsuit clad man with gold hair, swinging the brightest of blue guitars appeared on Top of the Pops. It's no exaggeration to say that from that instant, for a good portion of children watching at home, life would take a very different - and incalculably better course than the one their parents had set out for them. So thanks obviously for the music David Jones, but more than that, thank you for enabling everyone whose life you touched to be themselves and to keep on being themselves through the years. That's perhaps the greatest of the many great things you’ve left behind and, of course, will long be an inspiration to artists and creative people all over the world.
Here’s a small selection of the Phaidon-related artists we’ve interviewed over the last two or three years who’ve acknowleged an inspirational debt to David Bowie. We begin with our interview with Geoffrey Marsh, the curator of the travelling retrospective David Bowie Is, which broke box office records when it opened at the V&A in London. This is what he said when we asked him about walking into the Bowie archive, housed in a nondescript building in Boston, for the very first time.
"I can’t say where it is. I can say he’s had this archivist working on it for four years and it’s beautifully documented - to museum standards in fact. There are pictures of him as a baby - a photograph of Little Richard that he had on his bedroom wall as a little boy which is in the exhibition. The first thing we actually saw were the costumes. And the strange thing about costumes is that when they’re sitting in a box, folded up, they don’t look like much. But then you conjure this image of them on stage and weirdly, they’re like freeze frames of how he saw himself at that moment - even more so than album covers that could take more than a year to come out. The costumes were something that were probably designed only months, sometimes days, in advance.
"It’s like having a film of his career. Some of them have become so iconic – for instance the Pierrot costume from Ashes To Ashes. Looking at that you think, what’s all that about? Where did that come from? And I think the thing that got me - my Bowie moment, if you want to call it that - was when I realised that he had made all the drawings for the original designs himself. We have the felt tip pen sketches he made in the show.
"Also in the exhibition we have his original designs for Hunger City for the Diamond Dogs tour. He actually got as far as trying to turn it into a film. We have the storyboards he made for it so we’re animating them in the show. If you think that he was doing this when he was just 26 or 27-years-old it's incredible. There’s a big difference between going to see Judi Dench in Cabaret and a couple of years later thinking I’m actually going to put on a full scale musical myself. He never lacked ambition! But all we see (as fans) are the tips of the icebergs of the things he was working on that actually got through…”
And here are some favourite Bowie songs, chosen and playlsted by artists on Phaidon’s Muse Music
Elizabeth Peyton , artist Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise) This song has so many David Bowies in it. It’s like an opera where he is singing every part, his voice is everything. I think a lot about David Bowie. I listen to his music for hours at a time in the studio. Somehow it seems trite to try to say how inspiring he is, how beautiful his music is, because it’s just so much more.
Rui Grazina , architect Moss Garden - I love the Berlin trilogy of albums (Low, Heroes and Lodger) and could listen to them endlessly. All these records sounds timeless to me. This piece particularly, is eerie and beautiful. It interests me that those three works am connected to a city and that maybe it could only have been done there and not in any other place. Cities are so important in the sense that they can influence and can transform us in so many ways. To me there's nothing like the vibrancy of arriving in a foreign place and the way that changes your perception in subtle ways. And the way that makes such a huge influence on the way you work.
George Condo , artist Space Oddity I have always related to Major Tom, floating in his tin can. Especially when it’s full of turpentine and varnish.
John Pawson , architect and designer Helden When you see the Thin White Duke walk out on to the stage and hear that voice it’s always a real moment. For some reason, I’ve always preferred the German Helden to the English Heroes. Around this time he was apparently surviving on a diet of milk, German sausage and cocaine. Catherine, my wife, is obsessed by him. One time she was getting a small aeroplane out of Mustique and who was opposite her but David Bowie. Their knees were knocking but she couldn’t bring herself to talk to him. It’s one of the songs I might play in the office in the middle of the afternoon. At one point I have played songs for everybody.
Wilhelm Sasnal , artist Space Oddity I can’t actually comment on this song. How could anyone? There is a whole universe in this song!
Roger Hiorns , artist Station to Station Driving round Birmingham city centre, mostly, the ring-roads around the station. A great big ticket office.
United Visual Artists , designers Speed of Life (with Brian Eno) Both of these artists have been hugely influential. It would have been so interesting to be a fly on the wall when they created the Low album in Berlin.