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"David Bowie Is," A Feast For the Senses (and the Bowie Obsessive), Arrives at the Brooklyn Museum

Vogue logo Vogue 3/1/2018 Corey Seymour
David Bowie, 1992. Photograph by Peter Gabriel. Private Collection, Vienna, Austria. Courtesy of the photographer. © Peter Gabriel © Vogue David Bowie, 1992. Photograph by Peter Gabriel. Private Collection, Vienna, Austria. Courtesy of the photographer. © Peter Gabriel

Go. Just go. I mean, read this first, yes, but if you’re any kind of Bowie fan—from the supremely casual variety to the palpitating obsessive—and haven’t yet reserved your tickets (advance booking is required) for David Bowie Is at the Brooklyn Museum (March 1 through July 15), do it now. It’s so good—comprehensive without being suffocating, beautifully installed, a feast for the senses—that the serious fan will likely want to see it more than once.

After Bowie first gave permission to curators Victoria Broakes and Geoffrey Marsh of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to comb through his voluminous archive (which is stored at a secret location somewhere in New York City) for a major museum retrospective, he was remarkably (and uncharacteristically) hands-off—though he always intended for the exhibition to open in London (which it did, at the V&A, in 2013) and close in New York, the city he lived in longer than any other (and where, of course, he died a little more than two years ago). In-between, though, the show has traveled to 10 other cities across five continents, where it’s been seen by about 1.8 million people.

What’s in the show: About five hundred objects—with a hundred or so of them unique to this installation, courtesy of Matthew Yokobowsky, the Brooklyn Museum’s director of exhibition design. “I really wanted to bring America out,” Yokobowsky told me, “so I added a new section about Philadelphia, where he recorded "Young Americans" and where he had recorded his live album at the Tower Theater. I also added a lot more New York elements—we have his suit from the 1975 Grammy Awards, where he was hanging out with John Lennon and Yoko Ono and Roberta Flack, and the backdrop from The Elephant Man on Broadway, in which he performed in 1980, which couldn’t tour because it was so fragile.”

Like most of the pieces, the large flashing lightbulb-illuminated “BOWIE” installation that greets you at the start of the exhibition comes with a backstory. “The first time I met with Bowie’s archivist at the archive, I looked down one of the aisles and saw a photograph of the letter W resting on a case. I asked what it was, and the archivist told me that it corresponded to one of the letters from Bowie’s New York marathon tour in 2002, when he played five theaters in five boroughs of the city in five days—and every night they moved these brilliant letters which spelled out his name in light bulbs. Well, I saw that tour in the Beacon Theater, and I just blurted out, ‘I want the letters.’ They hadn’t been seen since that tour, and we spent two months trying to figure out how to get them to work again.”

Headphones at this exhibition don’t provide the usual curator’s interpretations or bonus material but are, thankfully, required issue—and intrinsic to what make this exhibition so great. Put them on, crank them up, and revel in an amazing mix of Bowie tunes put together and produced by Bowie’s legendary collaborator and producer Tony Visconti—with the specific tunes (along with various snippets of Bowie talking, from pre-fame Bowie as a spokesman for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men to latter-stage Bowie talking about putting together tours and albums) triggered by wherever you happen to be standing in the exhibition. (Nota bene: If you’re in a hurry, the music will change as fast as you can move, but ideally you’ll have at least an hour or two to take in something approaching the concept of “total experience.”)

Aside from the very early sections, which feature an assortment of cultural ephemera meant to evoke the world in which Bowie was born, the exhibition is organized thematically—in 26 sections ranging from Influences to Characters to Performance to Costumes, along with many, many other themes—rather than chronologically. This makes walking through the space both a surprise and a joy, as you take in the sixty or so costumes, designed by everybody from Alexander McQueen to Hedi Slimane to Issey Miyake to Vivienne Westwood to Deth Killers of Bushwick, with plenty of work from Bowie’s mainstay fashion collaborators Freddie Burretti and Kansai Yamamoto. There are 51 video pieces, ranging from Bowie’s legendary and forward-pushing music videos to television clips (including his legendary 1979 Saturday Night Live performances with Joey Arias and Klaus Nomi), film performances, and tour footage.

The true genius of the exhibition, though, is the context in which essentially everything can be considered: David Mallet’s landmark 1979 performance video of “Boys Keep Swinging,” with Bowie playing both man and woman, is spliced right next to a clip from a 1973 British documentary referring to Bowie as “a bizarre self-constructed freak” while mocking his gender-bending. Along with the final iterations of everything from costumes to music videos, we see notebooks and loose-leaf pages with Bowie’s original sketches and designs. There’s Bowie’s one-page handwritten film treatment for what was intended as a Diamond Dogs film; there’s the miniscule tarot cards hand-drawn by Bowie; there’s a trunk filled with Bowie’s favorite books; there’s a bizarre film strip of images Bowie took using the early-20th-century Kirlian technique, an esoteric processing technique which used high voltage (Bowie used Kirlian photography to shoot his fingerprints both before and after taking cocaine and compared the “before” and “after” shots). There’s the typewritten letter from Bowie’s early manager, Ralph Horton, stating on September 17, 1965 that he’s changing David’s name from David Jones to David Bowie (though Bowie never actually legally changed it; Geoffrey Marsh, the V&A curator, told me that when he first traveled to Bowie’s office to discuss the exhibition, he saw piles of letters on a desk addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. Jones”). There’s a working version of the Verbasizer computer program, which Bowie used to generate and organize randomly selected lyrical snippets; there’s Freddie Burretti’s notebook page with Bowie’s measurements (the Thin White Duke was truth in advertising: Bowie’s waist was 26 and ½ inches); there’s the wallpaper Bowie designed for Laura Ashley, and an early black-and-white video of his mime work.

There are also smartly annotated collections of novels that influenced Bowie, photographs of artists (musical and visual) that Bowie worshipped and imitated, from Elvis Presley to Sonia Delaunay and from D.H. Lawrence to the Velvet Underground and Tristan Tzara. (On the opposite end of the spectrum from the sheer knockout visual splendor of Bowie’s stage costumes are the 35 or so generally small-scale drawings by Bowie himself, from random doodles on the back of cigarette packs to detailed renderings of staging plans and costumes.)

One criticism: The headphones essentially isolate visitors from one another; there’s little or no chatting or discussion among friends. The upside of this, of course: Everyone has their own experience, at their own pace. And there’s this: Almost at the exhibition’s end is a cavernous room with a giant video screen displaying various Bowie live performances throughout the years and featuring incredible surround sound. Suddenly, everyone’s headphones are off and it’s a communal Bowie concert experience, replete with (a little) dancing. At a party last night to celebrate the exhibition, I ran into Mick Rock, the legendary rock photographer whose images—both stills and video—are featured throughout David Bowie Is, and we sat down on a bench in front of the massive screen. He seemed in awe of the experience. “I can’t think of anybody whose work and life lends itself to something like this like David’s does,” Rock said. “I mean, compared to the scope of his work, a band like the Rolling Stones seems like kind of a one-trick pony. He was just an extraordinary man—and an extraordinarily kind man, a good man.” And then, just after Rock told me about how Bowie gave him $100,000 to pay for his quadruple bypass operation in 1996, he pointed at the enormous screen, which was now showing Bowie’s infamous July 3, 1973 concert at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, at which Bowie—styled then as Ziggy Stardust and at the height of his fame—shocked the audience and, soon, the world, by announcing that this performance would not only be “the last show of the tour. . . but the last show we’ll ever do.” (Bowie meant the last show as Ziggy and with the Spiders From Mars, not his last show ever—though this took some time to parse.) Even Bowie’s band didn’t know. But Rock, who shot the show, did—Bowie had told him the previous night. Rock smiled broadly. “Ah yes,” he said. “I remember it like yesterday.”

David Bowie, David Bowie, David Bowie, David Bowie, David Bowie, David Bowie, David Bowie, David Bowie are posing for a picture: Aladdin Sane contact sheet, 1973. © Photo Duffy © Duffy Archive & The David Bowie Archive Aladdin Sane contact sheet, 1973.

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David Bowie with the mouth open: David Bowie, 1971.

David Bowie, 1971.
© Photograph by Brian Ward. Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive
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