Frank Bowling Contemporary Abstract Artist
Frank Bowling is an abstract artist, belonging to the famous class of 1962 of the Royal College of Art in London. This class included those artists who laid the foundation of the Pop Art movement in Britain – David Hockney, Derek Boshier and Peter Phillips. Although Bowling is considered to be one of the most distinguished black artists in the Post-war British art schools, his work has been underappreciated on both sides of the Atlantic when compared to his peers.
Frank Bowling is an artist of major talent whose work reflects his love and fascination with colour, composition and scale. Bowling’s work ranges from dark figurative paintings reflecting themes of a biblical and folkloric nature, through to stunning canvases of poured lyrical colour abstracts and then to canvases that feature pieces of gel augmented foam and irregular scraps of coloured canvas attached to the paintings. His more modern works hark back to his early figurative paintings by carrying submerged photo silk-screen figures within Rothko-like Colour Field paintings.
Many of Frank Bowling’s paintings are continually exhibited in the UK, Europe, US, and in many important public and private collections worldwide. Permanent works of art on display in the UK include: the Tate Gallery; V&A Museum; and Lloyds of London in London. There are also permanent collections of his work in New York, which include: the Metropolitan Museum; the Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum. Other collections in the US include the De Menil Foundation in Houston; New Jersey Museum of Art and also the National Gallery of Jamaica in the West Indies.
Still painting after more than four decades, Frank Bowling has since the mid 1960s travelled and maintained his exhibition career between his New York and London studios.
The Early Life of Frank Bowling
Born on 29th February 1936 in Guyana, South America, Frank Bowling had moved to England in 1950 to complete his high school education. He had had ambitions to become a writer and poet following his National Service obligations in the Royal Air Force, but he soon turned to art, receiving his art education in different art institutions in England. In 1959, he won a scholarship to the London Royal College of Art, studying alongside artists such as David Hockney, Derek Boshier and RB Kitaj. Although his contemporaries were more influenced by their everyday surroundings - referencing popular and mainstream culture and becoming the forefront of the Pop Art movement, Bowling was more inspired by the British tradition. Therefore although he looked to paintings by Joseph Turner and Thomas Gainsborough, he also looked to Rembrandt van Rijn, Francisco Goya and Titian for the inspiration of the old masters of the western tradition. Several self-portraits of Bowling that he painted in the 1950s show the thick layering of paint that can be seen in Rembrandt’s late self portraits.
Frank Bowling’s early work, painted while he was still attending the Royal College of Art at this time, is directly painted from life. Examples of these works include “Sheep’s Head”, and still life of fruit and dead birds on tables in his studio or at home in his kitchen. These subjects were painted in a very bold and even a rough style with thick layerings of paint which Bowling seemed to favour. Bowling also painted the urban environment around him.
On graduation, Frank Bowling was awarded the Silver Medal in Painting and a travelling scholarship to South America and the Caribbean. His contemporary, David Hockney won the Gold Medal.
Frank Bowling’s Early Work in the 1960s
Although occasionally he would turn to sculpture, Frank Bowling actually began his art career as a figurative painter. Using mainly earthy colours and working in oils with additions of extra extraneous materials, his work through the late 1950s to the early 60s displayed political and social narratives.
Frank Bowling had his first one-man exhibition in 1962 in London at the Grabowski Galleries, sharing the galleries with the English painter Derek Boshier who was a fellow RCA graduate. His early work at this stage was often described as figurative and expressionist, evoking past trans-cultural traditions and images. His works were also quite geometrical in its use of space.
By about 1964, Frank Bowling’s paintings became more geometrically complex, the result “Big Bird” 1965, won him the Grand Prize for Contemporary Arts at the First Festival of Negro Arts in Senegal.
Bowling then moved to New York in 1966 as he was dissatisfied with his career in London and had his first one-person exhibition there at the Terry Dintenfass Gallery in January of the same year. His work by this time showed elements of his irrevocable commitment to abstraction – a method by which he felt he could free his paintings from overt political concerns to investigations into purely pictorial, colour and composition issues. This move from figurative to abstract art was accompanied by Bowling’s new working methods, the increased size of his works meant that he had to abandon his easel and he started to alternatively pin his canvases on the wall or spread them out on the floor while working on them. Water based acrylic paints were his preferred medium (due to their quick drying characteristic and therefore more malleable) and oils were only used occasionally for subtle accentuation. Using thin washes of colours throughout his canvasses to convey his feelings, Bowling would also incorporate a variety of images of close members of his family and friends as barely visible stencilled silk screen images.
Frank Bowling became a contributing editor of the Arts Magazine from 1969 to 1972, reviewing exhibitions in New York and London. He also wrote a series of important essays asking and explaining “Why have black artists, given their historical role in art, contributed so little to the mainstream of contemporary styles or better still, why have they contributed so little to the great body of Modernist works?" Thirty years on, his essays are often quoted and still remain questions that have no easy answers.
Moving to New York meant that Bowling’s work was exposed to his American contemporaries; this resulted in winning him a place in the 1971 Whitney Biennial. As Bowling’s work moved into the 1970s, colour became the most important variable, dominating his work at this time. He became a leading Colour Field painter, replacing the earthy hues of his earlier work with large monochromatic spaces of high key, light filled and lyrical colour.
From around the mid to late 70s, Bowling changed his working methods again, letting spontaneity and chance dictate his compositions. He also decided to reinitiate his examination of scale and his works became much smaller than those he had created before. His works began to take on a more spontaneous appearance where colours wove organically in and out of each other, seemingly to have “created” themselves. Bowling referred to these as “poured paintings” where he literally poured the paints onto the canvas in a pre-determined pattern and relying on chance and happenstance to shape the appearance of the painting.
Works Produced in the 1980s
The surface of the Frank Bowling’s canvases appeared to became harder worked and more textured from the 1982 to 1987. Flecked with metallic hues of greens and yellows, his canvases also started to contain serrated edged chunks of foam infused with paint in loose geometric patterns. These pieces were attached with gel and glue to the canvas, fusing with the colours of the part of the canvas that they were placed on and pushed and pulled, along with the acrylic paint, on the canvas to create a quasi-sculptural relief. These paintings, which featured vertical vertebrae-like forms, were composed on a human scale, adding to their totemic effect. These works were described by the New York Times art critic Vivien Raynor in May 1986 as “Bowling's is strange, impressive painting that --- no mean feat strikes a balance between the African fetish and the dribbled images of Jackson Pollock.”
The London Tate Gallery purchased one of Bowling’s paintings “Spread Out Ron Kitaj” in 1987. It was the first piece of work that the gallery acquired by a living British Black artist.
Further Experiments with Surface Textures
By the end of the 80s, the large pieces of foam began to retreat from Bowling’s canvases, being replaced by a more organic dimensionality made by ridges that were scalloped in paint that was augmented by gel. His works would alternate from bright airy colours to more dark and brooding hues.
The more recent paintings of Frank Bowling’s would see his love of layering take on a more concrete form. He took to using whole sections of his unfinished paintings from earlier periods and reworking them, adding the finishing touches by bordering the pieces with thin coloured strips of roughly cut and pinked canvases attached together with metal staples and safety pins. Several of his paintings at this time suggested images of a general store, owned by his mother in Guyana when he was young. Bowling would also add other radical methods such as lumps of paint and gel and natural creases in the canvas to make the colours and forms of the canvas more pronounced. Even his more recent works show’s Bowling’s love of utilising the full range of his colour palette and intense experimentation of surface texture. Good examples of his works include:
- Ashton’s Fish, Spencer’s Catch 1997, evokes the image of a fish split into boned and gutted fillets as two nearly identical pieces of yellow canvas are placed horizontally on a red ground.
- Hangingonthelyme 2000, a 6ft tall piece that suggests the meeting of sea and sand shows a blue field capping a bright orange and yellow canvas composition. The colours and textures may have been recalled from Frank Bowling’s own travels in the Carribean and South America.
- King Crab 2000, is made up of small pieces of fabric, suggesting the pattern of a flag.
Bowling’s Art Institution Career
Bowling has been involved with art institutions both in New York and the UK as lecturer and teacher. Posts he has held in the UK include:
- Lecturer at University of Reading
- Tutor at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, Kingston School of Art in Surrey, Maidstone College of Art in Kent and The Byam Shaw in London.
Posts he has held in the USA include:
- Part Time Teacher at the Cooper Union School of Art and Architecture in New York
- Lecturer at the School of Visual Arts in New York and Mass Art in Boston
- Assistant Professor at Douglas College and Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Frank Bowling’s Recent Career
Frank Bowling is still producing paintings and his recent pieces are often named after friends and his own personal experiences, often made up from cut up pieces of his earlier paintings. The reason for this is because Bowling feels that his art is the collation and shaping of his memories into a coherent form. His recent canvases still show his trademark experimentation with texture and the emotive potential of colours to communicate “a visual experience of uniquely sensuous immediacy”. Bowling says in his own words:
... Evoked in the process and the materials,... something happens with the material through the process, and these amazing and beautiful things appear and one tries to, well sort of sustain them. Often enough they are just so elusive, often enough they just go away again. I've noticed that. And then you try to hold it by whatever means available to you and they are usually the means that you've learned in the trade, in the alchemy from putting paint on canvas."
Frank Bowling has been awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships and, on 26th May 2005, been elected a member of England’s Royal Academy of Art at Burlington House, Piccadilly London. This makes him the first Black British Artist elected a Royal Academician in over two hundred years in the institute’s existence.
For more: please take the time to visit Frank Bowling's online anthology