“David Bowie Is” at the Brooklyn Museum

Sound and vision collide for a multi-sensory exhibition paying homage to the Spaceman's unrivaled artistry

After traveling to 12 cities across five continents, “David Bowie Is” will close in New York, the city Bowie called home longer than anywhere else—living in SoHo apparently 285 Bowie-sized steps from his recording studio The Magic Shop. First on display in 2013 at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the show opens its doors on 2 March at Brooklyn Museum. A deep dive into the artist’s career via 400+ pieces, it still feels undeniably personal. Bowie gave curators Victoria Broakes and Geoffrey Marsh permission to explore his immense archive (at a top secret NYC location) and the outcome spans his incredible creations and reinventions. From audio of him playing around in the studio to his iconic costumes and outfits, handwritten lyric sheets, scribbles, sketches, props from his film roles—the treasures are countless, priceless and timeless.

While educational and entertaining, the exhibition acts as further evidence that Bowie’s talent transcended music, visual art and fashion. Singer, songwriter, musician, actor, performer, misfit, outsider, provocateur, visionary, icon, alien, space oddity, sexually ambiguous starman—the sentence “David Bowie is…” can be finished in countless ways. He himself was apparently very aware that he wasn’t simply radio, but “a color television.” A sentiment reflected in every corner of the exhibition.

Visitors will be immersed almost immediately, as a giant orange wall displaying the show’s name is flanked by screened portraits of Bowie. Kansai Yamamoto’s iconic Tokyo Pop jumpsuit (designed for the 1973 Aladdin Sane tour) marks the official beginning of the multi-faceted exhibition. The sight of the black-and-white vinyl bodysuit, displayed under lights spelling out “BOWIE,” is quite remarkable. Not only does it look different than in photos, it’s disarming to see the real thing.

Matthew Yokobosky, the museum’s Director of Exhibition Design and the coordinating curator for the show found the “BOWIE” lights on his visit to the archive. He explains the archive is “like a conservation-approved library—everything is in solander boxes, with tissue, carefully preserved.” There are 100+ new items on show in Brooklyn, including, for the first time, “drawings and lyrics for the ‘Blackstar’ album, the original 1990 film backdrop for the ‘Sound + Vision’ tour, the fragile backdrop for the 1980 production of ‘The Elephant Man,’ an additional blue spacesuit from the ‘Aladdin Sane’ period featuring an embroidered lightning bolt on the back.” Charmingly, Bowie saved all his fan art, and select pieces are on show for the first-ever time.

Yokobosky tells us he spends a lot of time in certain parts of the show, “mesmerized by David Bowie and his 1975-era band performing a remake of “Foot Stompin’” by the Flares on the Dick Cavett Show, featuring back-up singer Eva Cherry doing an amazing dance.”

He continues, “I love the costumes from Bowie’s 1980 Floor Show. This was a special project produced for the American 1970s late-night television program, The Midnight Special. Bowie conceived of an elaborately costumed production at the height of glam rock. It features the cobweb catsuit with gold mannequin hands across his chest, a white silk suit that he wore to sing ‘Sorrow’ to Amanda Lear in a checkerboard painted set, and red PVC lederhosen, with a black feathered breastplate, that he wore to sing ‘I Got You Babe’ with Marianne Faithful dressed as a nun. An angel and a devil.”

This personal reaction continues—at different moments for each viewer—throughout the exhibition. And this is precisely what Victoria Broackes explained is so special about Bowie; he was, and remains, so many different things to everybody his artistry touched. Broackes says that’s also how the show’s name was chosen. “David Bowie is” can be a statement on its own, or is the beginning of a sentence with countless endings.

Purchasing tickets in advance is recommended. Standard tickets are timed every 15 minutes and include Sennheiser headphones for the complete audiovisual experience.

“BOWIE” lights image by Cool Hunting, all others courtesy of Brooklyn Museum