“I have now changed Davie’s name to David Bowie.”
So wrote David Bowie’s manager, Ralph Norton, in a typewritten letter on display at the fantastic “David Bowie is” exhibit, opening today at the Brooklyn Museum.
The name change, made in 1965 so that young Davie Jones wouldn’t be confused with the same-named member of the Monkees, kicked off a 60-year career of shape-shifting that’s vividly documented in this exhibit, which premiered at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2013 and is now making its final tour stop in Brooklyn.
To compliment over 300 objects from Bowie’s vast archive—some 100 of which are debuting exclusively at this installment of the show— there will also be screenings of some of his films and music videos, performances of his music, and a Night of a 1,000 Bowies dance party.
As you walk through all five rooms of “David Bowie is,” you might start to believe there truly are 1,000 Bowies. Even if the gift shop is overrun with every manner of lightening-bolt merch, the exhibit itself does much to prove that Bowie’s various personas extended well beyond the three—Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke—that we tend to see in abundance on Halloween, or at celebrity cover-song nights.
For starters, there’s Bowie the trained mime, as shown in a looping clip from Love You Till Tuesday, the 1969 film by Malcolm Thomson in which Bowie plays a mime who achieves fame only to find that his mask has become a permanent part of his face (prescient, much?).
There’s Bowie the visual artist, as represented by his relatively elaborate stage set designs for his teenage band The Kon-Rads; his ‘70s sketches for an unmade musical, Hunger City, and an unmade film version of Young Americans; and, most strikingly, the portraits of flatmate Iggy Pop that he painted while living in Berlin in the late ’70s.
(Hanging nearby is the key chain Bowie kept in Berlin; it’s encased in glass, presumably so the keys don’t give viewers a second-hand coke high.)
Among the material displayed here for the first time is an impromptu collaboration, from 1998, wherein Bowie and his friend Laurie Anderson sketched surreal drawings and faxed them to each other while silently on the phone together.
There’s Bowie the film actor, as evidenced by the crystal ball and riding crop from Labyrinth (which screens June 14 at Brooklyn Museum), plus a handwritten letter from Jim Henson telling him “You would be wonderful in this film.”
Nearby is one of Bowie’s outfits from The Man Who Fell to Earth, a scene from which is projected onto an adjacent wall, and the dreadlock helmet he wore when he played Warhol in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat, which will screen March 8. (After taking in the Bowie show, you may want to check out Basquiat’s Untitled, on display at the museum until March 11.)
There’s Bowie the theater impresario, as evidenced by the dirty cloth diaper he wore when The Elephant Man played on Broadway in 1980, and a copy of the script of Lazarus, the play he put on in the East Village shortly before his death in January of 2016.
There’s Bowie the intellectual and fanboy, as evidenced by a touring case full of his favorite books (Orwell’s 1984, John Cage’s Silence), posters for A Clockwork Orange and Cabaret, and other totems of the things that influenced him over the years. One of them is the test pressing of The Velvet Underground and Nico, passed on to him by his manager, that Bowie described as “shattering” in a New York interview: “Everything I both felt and didn’t know about rock music was opened to me on one unreleased disc.”
Then, of course, there’s Bowie the fashionista who collaborated with designers like Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen, Issey Miyake, and Hedi Slimane.
In the early ’70s, he worked with Freddie Burretti to create costumes inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange. The quilted two-piece suit that Bowie (aka Ziggy Stardust) wore on Top of the Pops in 1972 is displayed in front of immersive, kaleidoscopic footage of the TV appearance that, in the words of Rolling Stone, transformed Bowie from “plodding folkie to England’s most scandalous rock sensation.”
The Japanese-meets-Martian creations of Kansai Yamamoto are also well represented. A cloak Yamamoto designed for the Aladdin Sane tour is outstretched and elevated above one room like an angel; written on it in Kanji are the words “one who spits out words in a fiery manner.”
Closer to home, there are the scrappy Deth Killers of Bushwick designs that Bowie wore on A Reality Tour in 2003.
There’s also the golden frock Bowie himself designed for his performance with Billy Corgan during his 50th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden (second from right, below).
Perhaps the most delightful of the dozens of outfits on display is the fat suit that Bowie wore during his Dadaist Saturday Night Live appearance, in 1979, with Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias.
The puppet used during his performance of “Boys Keep Swinging,” on the same show, is also featured, though its prosthetic penis is nowhere to be seen.
Finally, of course, there’s Bowie the songwriter—as evidenced by handwritten lyrics testifying to Ziggy Stardust’s “god-given arse”—and Bowie the performer. Throughout the exhibit, Bowie’s songs and interviews play on Bluetooth headphones that pair with whatever video or display one is standing near. But at yesterday’s press preview, everyone gravitated toward the “David Bowie Is Putting On a Show” room, where no headphones were required. There, live performances play on a big screen, in glorious surround sound: “Jean Genie” on Top of the Pops in 1973; footage from the Philadelphia stop of the Diamond Dogs tour, on public display for the first time; “Heroes,” from The Concert for New York City in 2001.
If you’re the type that gets misty-eyed at “Heroes,” ducking into the next room won’t help. There, encased in glass, are Bowie’s lyric sheets for his final album,★, and the black book he carried in the video for its haunting titular track. Also on display are Bowie’s sketches for the “Lazarus” video, released three days after his death. As with any sketchbook encased in a vitrine, you wonder what’s on the other pages. It’s hard not to get choked up as you realize that the final pages are probably blank, and will remain so.
“David Bowie is” at Brooklyn Museum through July 15; standard tickets are free to $6 for children, $12 to $16 for seniors and students, and $20 to $25 for adults.