INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
GQ DECEMBER 2015 - by Paul Gorman
BOSHIER AND BOWIE: ART, ROCK AND THE BAD BOYS OF BERLIN
Derek Boshier was best known as British art's brooding pin-up until a visit from the Thin White Duke in 1979. Here, GQ reveals how his high-concept visuals came to adorn the '70s most enigmatic album.
One morning in the early spring of 1979, eminent British artist Derek Boshier received a telephone call at his studio in Ladbroke Grove, west London.
On the line was the photographer Brian Duffy, familiar to all by his surname alone. "I knew Duffy a little bit; he was in a group show called Lives I'd just curated at the Hayward Gallery," says the spry Boshier, blinking behind circular tortoiseshell spectacles, grey-quiffed, tanned and athletic at seventy-eight years old, at his home in LA's Mount Washington neighbourhood.
Overlooking the San Fernando Valley with the Downtown cityscape in the distance, Boshier's house is a warren of rooms and decks on several levels, jam-packed with books, from contemporary art monographs to Thirties children's annuals, as well as collections of graphic novels, vintage fashion magazines, postcards, clippings, sci-fi figures and mementoes. Together, these compose what his friend, the expat writer and artist Christopher Finch, has described as "a seemingly random assemblage, the database on which Derek draws for his work".
"Duffy was a bit mysterious that day in 1979," recalls Boshier of the impish presence who made his name as the third of the working-class triumvirate (with David Bailey and Terence Donovan) sweeping the decorum of their chosen profession aside in a blur of women, Vogue covers and high-paying commercials. "He told me that he wanted me to meet someone, a friend of his, and because he said, 'I think you two will really get on together' and 'You're gonna love meeting this person', I assumed he was fixing me up on a date."
This would not have been unusual for Boshier, who has been quite the ladies' man in his time, his reputation enhanced by close friendships with such epoch-defining beauties as the artist/activist/writer Caroline Coon, Ossie Clark's model muse Gala Mitchell and the celebrated painter Pauline Boty, the so-called "most beautiful blonde in the world" who died tragically young in the mid-'60s.
In fact, Duffy's call was to herald one of the most fascinating exchanges between fine art and rock music in pop-culture history.
The blind date was arranged as a late-morning cup of tea at Duffy's studio in Swiss Cottage, north London. In the meantime, Boshier paid a visit to one of his regular haunts, an art bookshop in Covent Garden. Here, he was informed in time-honoured fashion ("You'll never guess who was in here asking about you...") that no less than David Bowie had been browsing the shelves the previous day, hunting down catalogues and books featuring Boshier's work.
Had Boshier paused to connect Bowie to Duffy (who had photographed the unearthly Aladdin Sane sleeve in 1972) he would have received less of a surprise when the star turned up at his studio a few days later. "So there was David," says Boshier. "He had just finished recording an LP and wanted to collaborate with me and Duffy on the cover design. From that moment we got on like a house on fire."
Bowie explained that the album - the underrated third in the "Berlin" series produced by Brian Eno (though, in fact, it was recorded in Switzerland) - was to be called Lodger. Then, over tea and cigarettes, he and Boshier unravelled the various areas where their life and work intersected.
Boshier is cut from similarly modest cloth to Brixton-bom David Jones; brought up in Portsmouth, he was destined for a career as a butcher's boy when an art teacher intervened, recognised his talents, and propelled him onto the path to the Royal College Of Art. Here, alongside classmates Peter Blake, David Hockney, Peter Phillips and Pauline Boty, Boshier effectively minted British pop art with such paintings as 1962's England's Glory (the first artwork to incorporate an ironic representation of the Union Jack).
As a result, Boshier appeared with all of the above in Ken Russell's masterly BBC Brit-art documentary, Pop Goes The Easel, in which there is a section dedicated to him (and, with the gyrating Boty, he proves himself an exception among artists by pulling off a convincing turn of the twist in footage shot at a drunken RCA student party).
In this period, Boshier's work backed up his brooding, handsome persona, fizzing with energetic application of colour, dark humour and, even by pop-art standards, a use of consumer-age iconography: toothpaste tubes, cereal-packet logos, Pepsi-Cola roundels and rockets.
Often - and significantly for Bowie - Boshier's paintings contained the recurring image of a plummeting naked "everyman" figure, either solo or as a collective cascade, as in the 1962 space-race peroration Re-Think/Re-Entry.
The impact Boshier had on the baby boom generation should not be underestimated; he was the art world's Terence Stamp, a working-class pin-up featured in girl's weekly magazine Petticoat and represented by London's hippest gallery the Duke Street establishment run by Robert "Groovy Bob" Fraser (where Mick Jagger bought an illuminated Plexiglas artwork of Boshier's). He was photographed in the national press painting the fascia for gal-pal Pauline Fordham's wacky off-Carnaby Street boutique Palisades and figured in John Lennon's mythology for having sold to The Beatle one of his first cars (inevitably a Mini).
In the '60s, Boshier's pop-art canvases had formed the backdrop for fashion shoots by the cool British photographer Robert Freeman. He also undertook a riotous road trip across the States in a classic car with Hockney and Ossie Clark but split from them in New Orleans to explore the funky south, while they high-tailed it to Los Angeles to hook up with Brian Epstein and the Fab Four. In fact the title of Re-Think/Re-Entry was used a decade later by Bryan Ferry as the springboard for Re-Make/Re-Model, the first song on the debut album by Roxy Music, which set out the group's art-directed futurism.
More than anyone who had tumbled through the heady pop-cultural wash of London in the '60s, Bowie homed in on the potency the pathos and humour inherent in Boshier's work, and in particular the falling man motif. The artist had appropriated this figure from William Blake to express humanity's vulnerability a move that resonated with the thoughtful rock star then attempting to come to terms with the mind-spinning trajectory of his career in the Seventies. After all, hadn't he starred in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth just a couple of years before meeting Boshier?
Meanwhile, a mutual respect had been manifested by Boshier's inclusion of Bowie as Ziggy Stardust in an untitled collage and also in the cut-up film installation Change, which pondered life's mutability in parallel fashion to the musician's Hunky Dory song Changes.
And there was another link: mime. Though much derided, Bowie's use of physical adaptation in performance had been honed under the tutelage of the avant-garde dance maestro Lindsay Kemp in the '60s; and in his first year at the Royal College, Boshier was offered a free place for a term at mime master Marcel Marceau's school in Paris.
At ten years older than Bowie, Boshier was himself no pop-music ingenue. He'd hung out with the likes of scuzzy R&B band The Pretty Things and, while teaching fine art, notably at the Central School Of Art in Holborn, had encountered a foundation-course student with whom he quickly became chummy: the scruffy, wild-haired Herbert christened John Mellor but insistent on going by the nickname "Woody" in tribute to his hero, the great American folk- singer Woody Guthrie.
Of course, Woody mutated by degrees into The Clash frontman and rabble-rouser Joe Strummer, but never lost regard for the teacher who had once taken him under his wing. When The Clash assumed the position of the world's greatest rock'n'roll band, the self-appointed "punk-rock warlord" Strummer drafted Boshier in to produce one of the era's most incendiary visual works, Clash 2nd Songbook. Here, Boshier manipulated Pennie Smith's photography with explosive lettering, Day-Glo colours and surprising juxtaposition into a composite described by critic and curator Guy Brett as "a masterpiece of graphic art".
At the time of Duffy's call at the end of the '70s, Boshier's practice could not have been more different from the pop-art moment; he'd forsworn the limitations of paint and dedicated himself to radical politics and all manner of alternative disciplines: 3-D sci-fi works in Perspex, film and photographic installations, collage, assemblages and protest posters. But it was his use of photographic augmentation which spurred Bowie and Duffy's interest in working with Boshier. That day in Swiss Cottage, the artist, the musician and the photographer contemplated the themes of body posture, transformation and descent, and arrived at - even by Bowie's standards - one of the most challenging record-sleeve packages of all time.
A little back story: while recording Lodger, Bowie's collaborator Brian Eno had proposed the record be titled Planned Accidents as a reference to their experimental working methods. The decision to change the album title has been interpreted by some Bowiephiles as a reference to Roman Polanski's supremely creepy 1976 film The Tenant, in which the paranoid lead character, played by Polanski, hurls himself out of his apartment window. The similarity between Bowie's pose on the cover of Lodger and the figure outline in the poster for The Tenant has been seen to lend credence to this theory. But Boshier's work has never been concerned with providing pat solutions, relying instead on the creative definition that design provides answers while art poses questions. "To this day, I receive mail asking for the meaning of the cover," says Boshier. "While The Tenant may have been in David's mind, he never mentioned it. We wanted to create a scenario that would intrigue and at the same time draw on the areas of crossover between us."
And so the trio used the outer Lodger gate-fold to actualise a planned accident. Bowie, with bandaged hand, dishevelled suit and the illusion of a broken nose created by stage make-up, was photographed by Duffy on a specially built trestle that lent discreet support in the depiction of him falling, or having fallen, calamitously backward against a tiled bathroom wall.
Bowie's face was contorted by fishing lines stuck to his brow, chin, lips and nose. These were tugged gently out of shot by his companion and manager Corinne "Coco" Schwab and make-up artist Antony Clavet. To enhance the immediacy of the image, Duffy used a Polaroid camera (the classic SX-70 favoured by other giants of photography, such as Ansel Adams, and artists, including Andy Warhol).
"I was blown away by David's commitment to the project and his ability to transform himself," says Boshier. "It was incredible to see the artwork we had conceived take life."
The photoshoot completed, Boshier set to preparing the design and realised a series of ink sketches as guides. These have only recently seen the light of day and are extraordinarily potent artworks in their own right.
The placement of Bowie's apparently broken body across the gatefold afforded another set of Boshier self-references; the title and credits were conveyed in a spiky hand-lettered font by a postcard-like panel, harking back to the artist's use of Post Office symbols in such '60s works as Postcard and SOS (Sunset On Stability).
"Just before I started the final artwork, I mentioned that we hadn't talked about the design for the inner gatefold," said Boshier.
"David replied, 'Do what you like', so I chose the eternal themes: time, life and death." Here, Boshier interpolated such images as Freddy Alborta's 1967 macabre photograph of Che Guevara's corpse, a framed card of fifteenth-century painter Andrea Mantegna's Lamentation Over The Dead Christ and an image of Bowie being made up for the cover shot lying on the specially designed trestle table.
But the deadline was tight and Bowie invited Boshier to deliver the finished artwork over lunch at his hideaway in Kreuzberg, Berlin's Turkish quarter. "David picked me up at the airport and drove me back to his amazing place," says Boshier. With Schwab, the pair of Brits reviewed the paste-ups in a small kitchen- dining area with a distinctly surreal atmosphere. "It had an inside/outside feel, like being in the open air but in an enclosed environment," says Boshier. "The walls were decorated with giant photo-murals of Alpine scenes, as if we were high up in a ski lodge."
The rest of the residence consisted of high- ceilinged rooms with art deco-framed windows. Bowie's eight-year-old son, Zowie - now film director Duncan Jones - was living with his father and occupied a typical child's bedroom, with toys, a bicycle and walls decorated with crayon. In another room, Bowie had set up a painting studio replete with easels, canvases and drying paintbrushes, along with books representing his abiding interest in such German expressionists as Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, whose tortured faces likely influenced the performer's appearance on the sleeve of Lodger.
As one would expect from a rock star, one room served as a fully equipped recording studio. Like the others, it was decorated plainly, in white with simple blinds, but the last room Bowie showed Boshier offered a deep contrast: here were luxurious draped curtains, giant rugs on a wooden floor, leather couches, Tiffany lamps and a roaring log fire, above which hung two small, traditional oil portraits, of a Teutonic matriarch and her pipe-smoking husband.
"David told me that when his German friends visited, they felt immediately comfortable in that room," recalls Boshier. Later that day, Boshier asked Schwab if it had been preserved from the time of the previous occupants: "No, no," she laughed. "That's David's room. He invented that from scratch."
Lodger's release was greeted with a degree of critical puzzlement, not least at the cover. For Bowie, the fact that Lodger contained only a minor hit, Boys Keep Swinging, persuaded him to investigate other areas of creativity as his friendship with Boshier blossomed.
In 1980, when he took the lead role in Bernard Pomerance's dramatic American production of The Elephant Man, Bowie uncharacteristically agreed to a request that he had otherwise routinely turned down: posing for the painting of a portrait. By this time Boshier was living in New York, in a loft on The Bowery, then a no-go zone of burnt-out buildings and hair-raising - if not life-threatening - street life. On a hot September afternoon, Bowie arrived at Boshier's address by limo. Once inside, having caught the key thrown down by the artist and gently toed the body of a sleeping bum aside from the stoop, Bowie accepted the offer of a beer and, because Boshier's air-con was on the blink, stripped to the waist.
In The Elephant Man, Bowie eschewed prosthetics and instead relied on his mime training to achieve physical distortion to represent the Victorian unfortunate of the play's title. Frozen in such a pose, Bowie stood for hours, his face in a rictus, while Boshier painted and the pair discussed art over Manhattan's hubbub. The result is one of Boshier's most affecting works and surely the oddest of a famous performer.
Subsequently, Boshier and Bowie maintained their friendship. In 1983, when the musician's career achieved world superstar status with the release of Let's Dance, he tipped his hat to Boshier by posing on the cover as a boxer in front of a projection of the skyline from the artist's painting The Darker Side Of Houston. At Bowie's invitation, Boshier was on hand in photographer Greg Gorman's studio to ensure his work was represented to best effect.
For the Serious Moonlight tour to promote the album's release, Bowie commissioned from Boshier bold, gestural stage sets in the form of five scale models. "When I asked David for a brief he gave it to me in five words: 'Think big band; think punk,'" says Boshier, who was advised to disregard considerations of portability and ease of installation and instead stay focused on the concept.
In the event, Bowie chose to work with Mark Ravitz, who had realised his set ideas on a previous tour, though he approved of Boshier's maquettes to such an extent that he kept one for his personal archive. Another is included in the giant travelling exhibition David Bowie Is..., launched at London's V&A in 2013.
When Boshier was based in Texas for a protracted period, he and his wife were invited backstage whenever Bowie played in Houston.
"I was really touched when, in an interval between songs, David kidded everyone from the stage about how I was at the forefront of a new British invasion," says Boshier. "He told the audience: 'If you don't know about my friend Derek Boshier, I recommend you go along next time he has an exhibition.'"
And when Boshier returned to the UK for a spell in the Nineties, Bowie visited him in the countryside and posed for family snaps, mucking around in the garden with the artist and his kids.
Bowie remains the world's leading Boshier collector, with around a dozen works, including the full-length portrait David Bowie As The Elephant Man. The two Englishmen haven't seen each other since Bowie withdrew from live performance and public life to concentrate on his family and the projects that have come to light over the past couple of years. Occasionally, though, he signals his awareness of Boshier's activities with mentions of exhibitions on the official Bowie website.
Boshier, meanwhile, treasures his friendship with the man he considers an artistic giant, often returning to the surprise and awe he felt when entering the traditional Germanic environment Bowie had created in the Kreuzberg industrial unit thirty-odd years ago.
"There's something about that room and the way it was realised which sums up David for me," smiles Boshier. "We know he's a chameleon, but he's also an alchemist, one who can conjure magic - whether it be words, music, postures or spaces - from thin air."