Sound & Vision: Conversation with Bowie Confidant Derek Boshier
June 9, 2017 by
British pop artist, Derek Boshier, knew David Bowie and as if that isn’t cool enough, he is also a newly appointed Guggenheim Fellow and designed some of the most iconic visual artifacts in music, including The Clash 2nd Songbook, and the album covers for David Bowie’s Lodger and the “Let’s Dance” LP.
Boshier’s oil portraits of cultural icons have hung in the National Gallery, but he permanently relocated to Los Angeles in the 1990s due to his love of the culture and iconography of Hollywood. His gallery pals in LA honored Boshier by opening an ambitious career retrospective highlighting his forty-year-long career launched from the trenches of the insular 1960s art scene. On the Road opened on Saturday, May 13th at Night Gallery, featuring three paintings dedicated to the late Bowie, alongside recent paintings and sculptures from the last decade. A selection of early works on paper will draw a clear line between Boshier’s varied styles of painting.
If you’re in LA, do not miss out on this special exhibition which is open until June 17th.
Art Zealous sat down with Bowie’s confidant, now age 80, to discuss his extremely impressive career.
Art Zealous: Art background?
Derek Boshier: I’ve heard artists say “I was drawing when I was four”—that wasn’t me. I was a track athlete, but when I left school I never ran again.
I had a very up and down high school education where I would come in near the top one semester and near bottom the next. The only person that said anything to me was the art master, and he said, “Have you ever thought of doing art?” I asked what art was and he said, “What you do on Thursday afternoons.” I was 16 and a dropout so this completely changed my life. I went to art school and it was mostly academic training; this was the early 1950s. In my first year at Art College, we had to pass an examination before we were allowed to paint; the exam was to correctly answer all of the bones and muscles in the body.
At the time it was common for any guy eighteen and older to go into the army for two years, so I had to go to the army before I went to the college. After, I applied for the Royal College of Art. During my interviews, I was staying at a hotel and one of the guys my age came up to me and said, “Didn’t I see you at the college?” He wanted to know if I thought we’d get in. It ended up being David Hockney.
AZ: Favorite Bowie song?
DB: Space Oddity.
AZ: Drink order?
DB: I don’t drink. I only drink beer.
AZ: Social media handles?
DB: Instagram @derekboshier
AZ: Most coveted piece in your personal art collection?
DB: I have a Jim Dine gouache on paper of female genitalia. And an Allen Jones print that I love.
AZ: Tell us about On the Road.
DB: Not long before he died, David Bowie sent me a letter that said, “Derek I just had to write you and tell you how much I love your book. Your work really cascades over the decay, you really are a master.” I heard he wrote a lot of people and that was definitely the kind of person he was. The reason I did the series is because I didn’t reply to him—I thought I’d do a drawing for him instead, but he died.
Around this time, I came across an interview with David where he talked about his unhappy times in school. His father had a drinking problem and he said what changed his life was reading Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road.” He went out and bought saxophone and started painting. So that’s where this show came from, purely inspired by David, and mourning his patronage, really, and friendship over the years.
AZ: What is your fondest memory of David Bowie?
DB: David was a very generous person, he liked and respected other artists—and as a friend, he’d help out.
Once, the day before an opening in Paris, David came and I walked him around the show. A half hour later he said, “I see you’ve sold 2 paintings already.” I said I had, and he said, “Well you’ve just sold 2 more.” He was my best collector, it was really an honor.
AZ: What is your creative process while making visual artifacts in music?
DB: My normal artwork is more like a commission for album covers. You mull it over and you don’t jump right in. With David, we would discuss what we’d do and what we wouldn’t do. There was a time he wanted to discuss work so he invited me to Berlin for lunch (I was in London at the time). We did it but I was so worried because we never talked about the inside cover, but David just said, “Do whatever you please.”
Everything was very in-the-moment. For the photoshoot for Lodger LP, I arrived before the makeup artist came and David’s hand was all in bandages. The makeup artist arrived and saw his hand and said, you know, “Jesus that will be an extra hour.” But David was very funny about it. “This will be an extra intrigue for the viewer.” And he was right. His fans were always looking for clues.
AZ: Please elaborate on the evolution of your thematic preoccupations with alt-wing politics, rock-n-roll and its icons of consumerism, and the popular culture of Los Angeles.
DB: My work has always been about pop culture. I did my first pop art painting in 1961. It was very small and called Situation in Cuba (it’s now in a museum in Havana). It’s the Cuban flag with the American flag eating into it and it was a response to JFK’s Bay of Pigs.
My work from the 70s became overtly political because I gave up painting for thirteen years; I didn’t think it could describe what I was feeling at the time, as I was so involved with left-wing politics.
AZ: What is your most vivid memory from the 1960s art scene?
DB: I was still in college, but we were watching everything, of course. Commercial galleries got big—Andy Warhol became Andy Warhol. That was important.
AZ: What is your biggest accomplishment in your 40-year career?
DB: I think the biggest is that I’m a survivor. I’m still doing what I was doing at 16. That’s success.
AZ: Currently working on?
DB: Since the exhibition, I’ve done one more David Bowie piece on paper. It’s an image of David’s costume for his Japanese concept. It’s pastel and charcoal and it’s very simple.