The ★ album was released on David Bowie’s 69th birthday, January 8th 2016.
Signs and symbols were everywhere in the album, from the videos of ★ and Lazarus to the advertisements and the vinyl album artwork. It was the first David Bowie album that did not feature any depiction of Bowie himself on the cover art.
This artwork was the result of the collaboration between Bowie and Jonathan Barnbrook, who had also designed the album artwork for Heathen, Reality and The Next Day. Across the four albums there is a clear progression towards an increasingly minimal and symbolic design:
Barnbrook is a British designer and typographer who has published his own design ‘bible’:
Barnbrook has also worked extensively with Damien Hirst ‘…one of the people who has helped make art very accessible to the public in Britain in a way that had never happened before’ (David Bowie, quoted in Michael Kimmelman, Talking Art with David Bowie; A Musician’ Parallel Passion, The New York Times, 14th June 1998)
David Bowie himself collaborated with Hirst on a painting titled BEAUTIFUL, HALLO, SPACE-BOY PAINTING which was part of the Bowie collection sold at Sothebys, London in November 2016.
Hirst recalled the creation of the painting for Sothebys:
David was like a child, childish and childlike when he came to see me in the studio and we made a giant spin painting together, you have to live in the moment and give up all your preconceptions and let yourself go and just have fun and let the universe do its thing, he was brilliant fun to spin with. I remember telling him to come to the studio in old clothes but he turned up in brand new expensive clothes, he said he didn’t have any old clothes but didn’t mind getting paint on the new shit he was wearing, I loved that! He took his watch off at one point and stuck it on the painting but we spun it some more and it threw it across the studio and smashed it, he never even picked it up. Around the time we made the painting, we were hanging out a lot and having these long conversations about what it meant to be an artist. What does an artwork say about an artist’s personality? Is the person of the artist always present in a piece of art? It’s something I’ve thought of quite often with the spins because they’re an interesting meditation on the role of the artist – the results manage to say not a lot about the person who has spun them, because they’re governed by the forces of chance and movement, and in the end it’s harder to make a bad one than a good one and they all look similar in some way whoever makes them. David called them ‘art without the angst’. (Damien Hirst, July 2016, Sotheby’s Website)
It quickly became clear that the ★ symbol had been used to create a symbolic alphabet spelling out ‘BOWIE’.
Other elements of the album design were less obvious, and Barnbrook would later reveal that there were aspects of the design which even Bowie himself had not known about. Speaking to Mary Anne Hobbs on BBC 6 Music, Barnbrook said:
“There are a number of black stars on the album, it’s not just the five on the front – and they do symbolise different things in life,” said Barnbrook. “For instance, there’s the rosette that looks a little bit like a price ticket; this is still a commercial product, you still buy it. There’s the guiding star; that idea of person you follow in your life, the idea of something spiritual that music gives you. There are a lot of other things going on that aren’t completely at the surface, but I do hope people see them – not necessarily straight away. … There’s one big thing which people haven’t discovered yet. Let’s just say, if people find it, they find it. If they don’t, they don’t.”
Barnbrook released the font and a number of design element from the album artwork, including 5 ‘blackstars’:
“Barnbrook loved working with David Bowie, he was simply one of the most inspirational, kind people we have met. So in the spirit of openness and in remembrance of David we are releasing the artwork elements of his last album ★ (Blackstar) to download here free under a Creative Commons NonCommercial-ShareAlike licence. That means you can make t-shirts for yourself, use them for tattoos, put them up in your house to remember David by and adapt them too, but we would ask that you do not in any way create or sell commercial products with them or based on them. Any questions or commercial licence usage please contact us.”
One of the books on the David Bowie Top 100 book list is Hall’s Dictionary Of Subjects And Symbols In Art by James A. Hall, a book which explores the “lost language” of symbol and attribute: