A Review of “David Bowie Is”

Jay Ruttenberg reviewed "David Bowie Is" for Fashion Projects in January, 2015, as the show was concluding its run at the MCA in Chicago. On the occasion of the exhibition's takeover of the Brooklyn Museum, here is the review once more….


by Jay Ruttenberg

Striped bodysuit for Aladdin Sane tour, 1973. Photo: Masayoshi Sukita. © Sukita / The David Bowie Archive 2012.

“David Bowie Is,” the museum retrospective of the singer that recently concluded its run at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, featured virtually every artistic medium imaginable. Included works extended to music, film, video, fashion, and, in Bowie’s portraits of his Berlin running buddy Iggy Pop, painting. One display case featured the star’s long-retired cocaine spoon—a redundancy, considering the exhibition’s inclusion of his “Life on Mars?” video.

The show originated at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and made its sole U.S. stop in Chicago, where it was greeted with the crowds and fanfare of a blockbuster. The outpouring of interest seems sensible: Absent from public performance for nearly a decade, Bowie is pop’s missing man. His mark remains everywhere; he is nowhere. “David Bowie Is,” which was produced with the subject’s cooperation, if not curatorship, made a resounding case for his significance. To view the exhibition’s many rooms detailing his work in the 1970s was to peak into the 1980s. The phlegmatic British vocals that would dominate a corner of ’80s pop and the nervous mutability of music and media that would define Madonna (to say nothing of Gaga) have roots here; arguably, so does Michael Jackson’s cheesy white Thriller suit. In one displayed video, 1979’s “Boys Keep Swinging,” Bowie appears as his own backup singers, garbed in the elaborate gowns and wigs of female drag. What seems shocking about the video, however, is the main image of Bowie ostensibly as himself, clad in the dark suit of a prototypical mid-80s yuppie. It’s this look—which, for the record, predates Bret Easton Ellis’s debut by six years—that appears to be the video’s true act of drag.

A museum show about a pop star inevitably runs into limitations. In an exhibition of a painter, visitors directly confront the subject’s primary source: the painting is the ultimate art. Even for a multidisciplinarian such as Bowie, the true art lies in his records and performances; the stuff inside display cases can seem secondary, if not trivial. But the aim of this exhibit, where headphone-clad visitors roamed as an army of enthralled zombies, was immersion. It was presented with high-minded care and, at least when covering the years that matter, the exhaustiveness of a box set. Over 400 items were on hand: photographs, handwritten lyrics, a monstrous set of keys from the musician’s Berlin apartment, even an old pocket map for the West Berlin subway. There were also more than 60 stage costumes, most fetchingly the pear-like black-and-white jumpsuit that Kansai Yamamoto designed for the Aladdin Sane tour. Even all these years on, we discover new sides to the pop star: Meet Ziggy Stardust, the world’s most glamorous hoarder.

But the exhibition’s showstopper was drawn from nobody’s closet. Rather, it was the famous video of Bowie performing “The Man Who Sold the World” on Saturday Night Live, in the waning days of the 1970s. The video deserved greater prominence at the MCA, if not an entire museum to call its own; it also would have benefited from the other two songs recorded for the episode. Nonetheless, the clip could move mountains. Bowie is accompanied by Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias, vanguard figures from the nocturnal club world, both clad in monochromatic Thierry Mugler dresses. The men carry Bowie to his microphone as if he is a children’s toy. Wearing a cardboard tuxedo that was designed by the singer and Mark Ravitz under the spell of 1920s Dada, Bowie sings with the bemused detachment of a Martian. Space alien analogies always fit Bowie—after all, we are talking about the Man Who Fell to Earth—but they seem particularly apt for the SNL appearance. At the taping, he was newly returned from self-imposed exile in West Berlin, introducing irrefutably avant-garde notions to a mainstream arena. (Not for nothing did Kurt Cobain cover this song in Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged set.) The ’80s—which thwarted the world’s rock stars where no drug or label chicanery ever could—were mere days away. Bowie seemed intent on ending his decade of dominance in spectacular style. The appearance is not an act of subversion so much as it is a sterling media performance—pop as art and back again.

Jay Ruttenberg is editor of The Lowbrow Readerand of its book, The Lowbrow Reader Reader. He has written for The New York Times,The Boston Globe, and other publications.


Album cover shoot for Aladdin Sane, 1973. Photo: Brian Duffy. © Duffy Archive & The David Bowie Archive.

Experimental Fashion Lecture at the Somerset House, London, April 6th

Fig. 12 Merce Cunningham, Scenario, BAM, Brooklyn, 1997, photograph by Dan rest. Courtesy of Louie Fleck at the BAM Hamm Archives

Fig. 12 Merce Cunningham, Scenario, BAM, Brooklyn, 1997, photograph by Dan rest. Courtesy of Louie Fleck at the BAM Hamm Archives

by Francesca Granata

I will be giving a lecture on my book "Experimental Fashion: Performance Art, Carnival and the Grotesque Body" April 6th at the Somerset House in London organized in partnership with the Fashion Research Network.

I am particularly excited to discuss the work of Rei Kawakubo, whose exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is forthcoming. Most of my research on Kawakubo's work was, in fact, conducted at the Met's Costume Institute while I was there as a Polaire Weissman Research Fellow. Equally exciting was to research Kawakubo's collaboration with Merce Cunningham for Scenario at the Cunningham Archives, then located at Bank Street, and at the New York Public Library for Performing Arts.

For anyone interested in coming to the lecture and chatting afterwards about experimental fashion while sipping wine, please visit the Somerset House website, as advanced reservations are required.


Experimental Fashion's Book Launch on March 16th at Parsons School of Design, New York.



Please join us for the launch of Experimental Fashion: Performance Art, Carnival and the Grotesque Body by Francesca Granata, Director of the MA Fashion Studies in the School of Art and Design History and Theory at Parsons, the New School for Design.

The author will be in conversation with German fashion designer Bernhard Willhelm and Charlene K. Lau, Parsons Postdoctoral Fellow in Visual and Material Culture.

The event details!

Thursday, March 16th, 6:30-9:00pm
Parsons School of Design
Wollman Hall, Eugene Lang Building
65 West 11th Street
New York, NY

This event is free to the public and a reception will follow.
RSVP by clicking here.

Experimental Fashion (published by I.B. Tauris) is a study of designers and performance artists, including Leigh Bowery, Rei Kawakubo, Martin Margiela, and Bernhard Willhelm.

The book argues that the proliferation of bodies-out-of-bounds in fashion at the turn of the 21st century was influenced by feminism's desire to open up and question gender and bodily norms and particularly the normative bodies of fashion. This proliferation was also tied to the AIDS epidemic and mediated the fears of contagion and the obsessive policing of bodily borders that characterized the period.

Book Release—Experimental Fashion: Performance Art, Carnival, and the Grotesque Body  

by Francesca Granata

Leigh Bowery, July 1989, Look 9, Photo Fergus Greer, courtesy of the Artist 

Leigh Bowery, July 1989, Look 9, Photo Fergus Greer, courtesy of the Artist 

I am thrilled to announce the publication of my book, Experimental Fashion: Performance Art, Carnival, and the Grotesque Body  (I.B. Tauris)Experimental Fashion is a study of designers and performance artists at the turn of the twenty-first century whose work challenges established codes of what represents the fashionable body through strategies of parody, humor, and inversion. The book argues that the proliferation of bodies-out-of-bounds in fashion during this period was influenced by feminism’s desire to open up and question gender and bodily norms and particularly the normative bodies of fashion. It was also tied to the AIDS epidemic and mediated the fears of contagion and the obsessive policing of bodily borders that characterized the period. 

Rei Kawakubo, "Body Meets Dress", Spring/Summer 1997. Courtesy of Firstview

Rei Kawakubo, "Body Meets Dress", Spring/Summer 1997. Courtesy of Firstview

Starting in the 1980s, the book investigates the ways designers such as Georgina Godley challenged the masculinized silhouette of the power suit and its neoliberal exhortations, while Comme des Garçonss Rei Kawakubo questioned the sealed classical body of fashion, in part thanks to her collaboration with choreographer Merce Cunningham and artist Cindy Sherman. Fashion designer, performance artist, and club figure Leigh Bowery upended gender codes and challenged fears surrounding the bodies of gay men through the decade. The book also examines Martin Margiela’s “deconstruction fashion” of the 1990s and the way his work challenges norms of garment construction and sizing. It enters the new millennium through the work of Bernhard Willhelm, which shows the increased cross-pollination of fashion and performance art and the renewed interest in upending codes of masculinity. The book concludes by examining how experimental fashion—particularly in its grotesque and carnivalesque variety—moved from the margins to the mainstream through the pop phenomenon of Lady Gaga.

Naturally, there are countless people to thank for helping me with the book. These include Caroline Evans, Alistair O'Neil, and Elizabeth Wilson (my dissertation advisors at Central Saint Martins); Philippa Brewster at I.B. Tauris; Kaat Debo, who allowed me to do research in the ModeMuseum Collection in Antwerp; and  Andrew Bolton and Harold Koda, who granted me a one-year fellowship to do research in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume. I could not be happier with the book! It can be ordered here.

For those in New York, save the date for the book launch on March 16th at Parsons School of Design at 6pm in Wollman Hall, Eugene Lang Building  65 West 11th Street, where I will be in conversation with fashion designer Bernhard Wilhelm.

Martin Margiela, Enlarged Collection, Autumn/Winter 2000, courtesy of Firstview

Martin Margiela, Enlarged Collection, Autumn/Winter 2000, courtesy of Firstview

Interview with Bridget Donahue of Bridget Donahue Gallery



by Mae Colburn

Gallery view, Susan Cianciolo's ‘if God COMes to visit You, HOW will you know?...,' Bridget Donahue Gallery, New York City

Bridget Donahue Gallery, which opened in Chinatown in February 2015, can definitely claim a two-for-two. The New York Times described the Gallery’s inaugural show, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s ‘Origins of the Species’ (February-April 2015) as ‘prophetic’ and the New Yorker named its current show, Susan Cianciolo’s ‘if God COMes to visit You, HOW will you know? (the great tetrahedral kite)’ (May-July 2015), ‘enchanting’ and the gallery ‘terrific.' Congratulations are in order, both to the artists and to the owner, Donahue herself.

Meanwhile, the show goes on. Donahue describes opening and closing the gallery five days a week, flipping on the lights and clipping the little flower. During this interview, which took place over Jessi Reaves’ ‘No Reason Work Table’ (2015), a delivery arrived, a pair of shoes to be placed among the costumes, quilts, and kits (which Donahue describes below) that comprise Cianciolo’s show. The shoe’s bag, an actual shoe bag, was noted. Only Cianciolo, Donahue smiled, would have one on hand. In the kits, most of which are boxes, are slippers, sketches, sneakers, and much more. A film, played on a laptop peeking out of a cardboard box, presents conversations about fashion, some with Cianciolo’s former students. Fashion is here, but it is bundled and wrapped, stitched, transformed. Cianciolo is a constellation artist and fashion is one of her many stars.

Mae Colburn: Let’s start with the gallery. What prompted you to open this space?

Bridget Donahue: I told people I never wanted to have my own gallery. I thought you had to be a rich person to do it. I really respect galleries, the tradition of it, and I learned from people who take it seriously. That was the hardest thing about the transition – I actually loved where I worked. It was my dream job in many senses.

My three jobs were Gladstone Gallery, D’Amelio Terras, and Gavin Brown's enterprise. And Cleopatra’s, but that wasn’t a paycheck. That was me tithing my own wages with a group of people.

There are different models, but if you stand to make money from an artist, in my opinion you should be working for that 50% and constantly promoting them. That’s the biggest contribution I can make, is the fact that I do run my mouth pretty energetically when I’m into something. With a gallery, you invest in things, you help produce artworks, you help move them around, you photograph them, et cetera.

MC: You really support your artists. It sounds like you’re moving into the market with a lot of integrity.

BD: That’s the hilarious reality is that the first couple shows here are not particularly easy sells, the joke being that my commercial gallery starts off being wildly anti-commercial. But I believe in them so much that it doesn’t matter. And things are paying for themselves. There’s a great tradition at Gavin Brown’s enterprise of doing seemingly non-commercial shows, but he’s just this incredible person who can actually turn that around.

This [space] is a little more of a humble comparison, but it’s funny too. Sometimes people come to this show [‘If God COMes to visit you...’] and are like ‘Ok, is anything here for sale?’ They can’t believe that Susan would be willing to part with some of this stuff. It’s so meaningful and impossible to make again or get back. She’s cared for these things for sometimes up to twenty years and part of the whole exhibition is about that letting go, which blows my mind.

When Alex Fleming, who curated the archival work in the back and the costumes [in front], introduced me to Susan, he thought I would be interested in the photo archives. And I think this is absolutely part of the story, but I never for once saw an exhibition of framed photos, framed watercolors, and framed paintings. And at the same time I never saw an exhibition with clothing.

It was the second I saw those boxes that I was blown away. And then when I found out that the kits were actually part of her fashion line and that she actually continues to organize and think about and collect things in these tailored boxes, I was like, ‘we have to show these, they’re unbelievable.’ It was that idea that the paintings and pictures and archival clothes and all these other precious things are just taped together.



Susan Cianciolo, Large Doll Box, 1995-2015, Photo by Katya Reily

MC: That’s the thing. Both of the artists you’ve shown work across media: paintings, photographs, cardboard, tape. How do you approach the labels that often accompany these different ways of working?

BD: I’m thankful that I don’t see such categories existing - that could be in part because craft education was one of the first art-education experiences I had - via the social sciences, I studied Anthropology, within that category, craft is art. A more euro-centric, academic appreciation of Art helps me to understand a socialized history of forms and predecessors but it does not aid me in understanding when I feel work is important.

Nothing about this project is about trying to import craft or fashion or design into an art context. I’m not thinking, ‘this is where craft meets art.’ I’m not interested in that position. It’s like if you label anything, like when somebody says they’re vegan and then somebody busts them for wearing a leather belt. I don’t want to say, ‘I’m just going to show good things that I care about,’ because that sounds almost self-righteous or even naive, but that is more genuinely what I want to do. It will be interesting to see what I’m interested in, but it will take a while to define that.

For now, with Lynn and Susan, as much as people want to assume the program has a strategy, it was also an easier reality. I got the space and moved in in October 2014 and opened in February 2015 and it’s really hard to ask an artist to make a show in that amount of time. It’s easier to show people that have existing work and are a little more confident in what that work is, and also that are eager and willing to participate. That’s a huge thing. It’s about collaborating with a really exciting, relevant person in my mind and learning from them.

MC: Is there anything you would like to add about this show, maybe in the context of Fashion Projects?

BD: One thing in the context of this publication was how much I thought Susan’s show would attract an audience that I hadn’t met in past experiences, and it did. It’s kind of like living vicariously.

Also, the opening was really young. That’s my first and favorite person to impress - an art student or a young working artist. If those people are into a show, that makes me most happy. Then of course everybody else will be psyched because those are the people who are leading the discourse, or where all the energy kind of bubbles from. So it’s that audience, I’m eager to impress. After that I was really interested in meeting different people from fashion, because Susan embraces that world. And yet I also feel really strongly that the works in Susan’s show stand-up to any kind of hard line capital ’F’ fine art.

For people who consider themselves designers, maybe their project is made better by tons of funding and bigger production lines, but I think that in many ways for Susan that never felt like the right move. It wouldn’t better her project. That to me feels like an artist’s decision, not a designer’s decision. It’s really courageous. You couldn’t have created a better ascendency within the context of fashion, but she didn’t take that sort of golden road laid out for her. It’s incredible to me that someone can keep up that devotion to making something.

MC: That’s true, but I have to hand it to you. You’ve made something great here, too.

BD: And that’s still totally mind-boggling to me. To come into the gallery, flip on the lights and, clip the little flowers for the day. I show up every day like it’s my job. It’s refreshing to slowly realize I know how to do it.



Gallery view, Susan Cianciolo's ‘if God COMes to visit You, HOW will you know?...,' Bridget Donahue Gallery, New York City