David Bowie's Top of the Pops performance and his "Starman" suit at "David Bowie Is" Credit: Andrea Bauer

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I was never a huge David Bowie fan. He was part of the musical background of my life, particularly the year I worked at a Barnes & Noble and the staff unanimously decided that Best of Bowie was the only one of the CDs chosen by corporate that we would work to; “The Jean Genie” had a particularly good rhythm for shelving. But I never really paid close attention to him until last fall when “David Bowie Is” opened at the MCA. Brianna Wellen and I went to cover it for the Reader—the idea was that we would jointly review the exhibit from the perspective of a Bowie fanatic and a Bowie novice.

“David Bowie Is” knocked us both out. Brianna was thrilled to see all the relics of his life and learn more about how his songs were made; she felt more connected to him than she already was. For me, it was almost the opposite. There was some debate at the time about whether the MCA should have wasted valuable space on a rock star’s costumes and his cocaine spoon when there were plenty of up-and-coming contemporary artists whose work deserved to be shown in a major museum. But the costumes and the cocaine spoon weren’t the point of the exhibit. The point was Bowie himself. David Bowie was the work of art. There is probably nothing more contemporary than a work of art where the medium is the persona.

There’s this idea that your “self” is an organic thing, the product of your life experiences and how you react to the various influences around you. You naturally express it through the image you project to the world—your appearance and your tastes and your behavior. Most of us get sick of ourselves sometimes; we act out or we suffer until it passes. The beautiful thing about Bowie was that whenever he got sick of himself he simply killed his old self and invented a new one in a way that went beyond designing new clothes and changing his hair color and makeup. If he mined his Brixton childhood for new insights, he didn’t go on about it. Instead, Bowie looked outward for new inspiration—the way artists do when they’ve reached an impasse in their work—and then incorporated it not only in his music, but in his appearance, his voice, and his way of interacting with the world.

Before we went into “David Bowie Is,” the MCA had a presentation about how it was made, including a short talk by Geoffrey Marsh, who originally curated it for the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Marsh said that he and his team were allowed complete freedom to rummage through Bowie’s archives and choose the pieces they wanted to use. But he never spoke to Bowie himself, or, rather, David Jones, who had created it all. David Jones was an Englishman who lived quietly in New York with his wife, Iman. That was all Marsh knew.

After I went through the exhibit, I decided I loved that nobody knew David Jones. He could be anybody. I could have passed him on the street in New York and never known it. My favorite artifact was the “Blue Jean” video, which features someone I imagine might be a bit like David Jones, a blond yuppie in a suit who tries awkwardly to hit on a woman in a club; he fails miserably because she’s too distracted by David Bowie, performing in full Lord Byronesque rock-star glory.

This morning the website Electric Literature published Bowie’s list of his 100 favorite books. Quite a few of them are about characters who try to pretend to be someone else—The Great Gatsby, Passing, Fingersmith—or who get lost in worlds they’ve created for themselves—Madame Bovary, Lolita. Most of these stories are tragic—we’re taught that trying to be someone else is a form of lying and a trap that will either make you insane or get you killed.

The beauty of Bowie is that he completely defied that notion. He was the artist; he was always in control; he never let himself get trapped in any of the incarnations he created. Instead, he would kill them—sometimes, as in the case of Ziggy Stardust, onstage—and reemerge as someone else. (Or maybe that’s what an alien newly arrived on planet earth would do.) He showed that there’s nothing wrong with defying conventional wisdom by creating a new self. It can be beautiful. It can be a work of art.