'David Bowie Is' Incredible: Inside the Enigmatic Star's New Retrospective

Cocaine spoons, original lyrics to "Fame," extraordinary outfits and more: a deep dive into an amazing exhibition

The Ziggy Stardust jumpsuit designed by Freddie Burretti (1972) is reflected in mirrors of an installation at the David Bowie exhibition. Credit: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

Over his multi-dimensional, culture-encompassing five-decade career, David Bowie has proved himself many things: glamorous rock star, sultry singer, boundary-pushing performance artist, sexual icon. But upon experiencing David Bowie Is – the massive delight of a retrospective art exhibition on Bowie that opens in the U.S. today at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago – one walks away with a perhaps unexpected conclusion: Bowie was, well, a bit of a hoarder.

Yes, the Thin White Duke – thanks in large part to employing a full-time archivist – has held onto what seems like nearly every artifact accumulated over his career.

Making our way through the winding and visually stunning look into Bowie's life and cultural impact, accompanied to great effect by high-tech, location-detection-enabled sound, it's easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer mass quantity of information being thrust at you. Still, there were five central things David Bowie Is taught us.

David Bowie Is a Fantastic Painter and Illustrator
This isn't the first time Bowie has unveiled his artwork (see his iconic 1978 portrait of Iggy Pop, conceived while they were recording together in Berlin), but his love for visual design goes back to his childhood. The exhibition includes such artifacts as the futuristic drawings of aliens (inspiration for Ziggy, perhaps?) from Bowie's late-Fifties school sketchbook and the whimsical tour posters he drew for his early bands, the Delta Lemons and the Bowmen. Still, it's the elaborately detailed visual planning for his tours – including the staging sketches for the Ziggy Stardust tour and the 1980 The Floor Show TV special – that are most fascinating.

David Bowie Is an Avid Collector of Minutiae
The depth of Bowie's archive is mind-blowing. From the original acetate advance of The Velvet Underground and Nico, gifted to him by their then-manager Andy Warhol, to a government letter confirming his official name change from David Jones to David Bowie, the exhibit confirms just how much energy Bowie has put into maintaining his legacy. Some of the most incredible offerings on display: a circa-1974 tissue blotted with Bowie's lipstick, apartment keys for his West Berlin spread, a loin cloth worn by a cast member of 1980's The Elephant Man and the trusty cocaine spoon kept in his pocket during the Diamond Dogs recording sessions.

David Bowie Is a Style Icon
Perhaps it goes without saying. But when confronted with a myriad of Bowie's most famous stage outfits – pieces like the stiff, tubular, Dadaist get-up for his 1979 SNL rendition of "The Man Who Sold the World," many of which were conceived for one-off performances – Bowie's sartorial savvy is nothing short of remarkable. His entire style trajectory is on display here: From the green corduroy jacket he wore with an early band, the Kon-rads, to embroidered kimonos designed by Konsai Tamamoto for the Aladdin Sane tour and more modern fare like the Alexander McQueen gold brocade coat for 1997's Earthling tour.

David Bowie Is a Tech Geek at Heart
Some of his contemporaries have decried modern technology, but Bowie has always looked to the future. As the exhibit demonstrates, the rock star has long been fascinated by new innovations: see the Brian Eno-gifted SYNTHI synthesizer he used for the Low, Heroes and Lodger sessions; the complex lighting schemes – sketched out in intricate detail by Bowie – he developed for his 1976 Station to Station tour; the Verbasizer computer application he helped develop to spark his lyrical creativity; or the puppets with projections of his own face on them from his 1997 50th Birthday Concert.

David Bowie Is an Unflinching Self-Editor
As original lyric sheets on display prove, Bowie has been his own worst critic. In the now-ink blotted lyrics for "Life on Mars" and "Starman," Bowie was constantly changing his mind with his lyrics, crossing them out, replacing them with better ideas. "Rebel Rebel," which wound up with the line "We like dancing and we look divine" but was originally slated to read, "We like dancing and we like to ball." Most exciting though was the original lyric sheet for his "Fame" collaboration with John Lennon, on which Bowie changed the lyric "Fame, what you need is in the limo" to the perhaps less deriding "Fame, what you like is in the limo."