An archaeological dig through David Bowie’s astonishingly varied career as a musician and cultural provocateur eventually reveals three sharply distinguished phases: the 1970s Glam Androgyny Era, the 1980s Mainstream-Chasing Era, and the Return to Respectability begun in the ’90s and continued intermittently today. But within these periods lies an infinite substrata of poses and personae. Bowie has been so many different things to so many different people—worn so many masks, slipped into and out of such an astounding variety of guises—that the opportunity to see it all at once, in chronological order, feels oddly like peeking into the man’s diary.
Assisting cultural archaeologists of all stripes, Bowie donated his entire music-video collection to the Museum of Modern Art earlier this year, and now MOMA curator Barbara London, with the assistance of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, has selected 15 of the 40 videos for inclusion in a special December 1 screening, which Moore will host. “Thurston and I together went through all 40, and we thought we wanted to be representative of the different periods,” London says. The event serves as an addendum to current MOMA exhibit Looking at Music, which delves into the relationship between music and art in the ’60s. “That exhibition has people who push boundaries and question form, like John Cage,” notes London. “I end it with five videos, and Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity.’ So the end of the show is a precursor.”
Bowie, himself a onetime art student, splits the difference between museum and concert hall, with videos that mingle Yoko Ono–esque performance art with rock ‘n’ roll persuasion. MTV fans with long memories may remember Bowie’s Let’s Dance–era clips—gleefully incoherent exotica travelogues, with Bowie co-opting Mao (“China Girl”) and Arabian whirling dervishes (“Blue Jean”) to mixed results. By the early ’80s, Bowie had undergone what is universally recognized as his least successful transformation, into a slick pop star, acting in miniature epics in which his own glamour gives way to a more general visual sophistication. “They’re the connection to the advertising and fashion worlds,” says London.
“Blue Jean” and “China Girl” are more tolerable today than they were to Bowie’s diehard fans back in the ’80s, but he did his best work in the previous decade, with a string of clips that are low-budget, no-frills, and entirely self-absorbed. In “Life on Mars?”, extreme close-ups of Bowie’s Kabuki-white and electric-blue face burrow down to the microscopic level; “Heroes” unsubtly features a blinding light shooting out from Bowie’s crotch like a ray gun. Here, he’s the ambisexual loverman, his affections simultaneously shared with the world (men on the street grab and kiss him in “DJ”) and reserved for a single other (his veiled, mournful off-screen gaze in “Heroes,” directing the song at someone just beyond our line of sight).
“Ashes to Ashes” is his farewell to all that, with Bowie, a medieval jester cut adrift from his moorings, doomed to eternal wandering—without a home and without a face. The ’90s saw Bowie recovering some of his greatness, starting with Gus Van Sant’s backward-looking clip for “Fame 90” and extending through Samuel Bayer’s grimy, Nine Inch Nails–esque “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson.” Working with innovative directors surely helped—Mark Romanek’s “Jump They Say” is a playful, inventive riff on Chris Marker’s La Jetée. Like all savvy manipulators of the pop image, Bowie remembered that the trick of staying relevant was turning over the reins to talented collaborators. Bring your picks and shovels to MOMA, and prepare to be bowled over.
Thurston Moore will introduce a series of David Bowie videos at MOMA December 1