How Frank Bowling’s Lush Abstractions Made Him One of Today’s Top British Artists

Alex Greenberger explores the work of Guyana-born British artist Sir Richard Sheridan Franklin Bowling, better known as Frank Bowling. For full article and a stunning array of Bowling’s work, see ARTnews.

Over the past few years, few late-career artists have enjoyed as steep a rise as Frank Bowling, whose abstractions pay homage to Western modernism, histories of colonialism and diasporas, and elements of his own biography. Bowling’s achievements have landed him major surveys in top institutions around Europe, and last month, he both signed with Hauser & Wirth, one of the world’s biggest galleries, and was knighted by the queen of the United Kingdom. But Bowling’s ascent was a long time coming. Below, a look at his striking oeuvre.

In the catalogue for Bowling’s 2019 Tate Britain survey, artist Sonia Boyce writes that, in his later work, Bowling is dealing with the point at which “the weight of materiality meets the weight of history.” By that, she meant that Bowling’s art finds a way of communicating the often painful legacies—both forced and not—around the world through elaborate experiments with the possibilities of paint. In his innovative canvases, Bowling, himself a person who has bounced between British Guyana, the United Kingdom, and the United States, engineers a form of abstraction that refers to real-world events.

When Western modernists talked about abstraction, they thought of it as being a universal language that was pure and spoke to themes and ideas affecting everyone. At first glance, Bowling’s work appears to contain the expansive color fields of Mark Rothko, the elegant “zips” of Barnett Newman, and the all-over quality of abstractions by various Europeans. Bowling’s work differs, however, in that it is references are highly specific, even when those allusions to friends, family, art history, colonialism, racism, and other subjects are not obvious based solely on the canvases themselves. [. . .]

Bowling tried his hand at figuration before moving into abstraction.

Born in Bartica in 1934, Bowling came to London in 1953 from New Amsterdam, Guyana, and later enrolled at the Royal College of Art in 1956. That put him on a path to later study in the school’s rigorous painting department, where his cohort at the time included R. B. Kitaj, David Hockney, and other giants of the era. Francis Bacon reigned supreme in the British art scene of the late 1950s and early ’60s, and some of Bowling’s earliest mature works suggest Bacon’s influence with dark, expressively rendered men and women who appear to be in tortured mental states, their flesh looking somewhat flayed because of the brushwork.

Although Bowling’s figurative works of this era look quite unlike his later abstractions, they share thematic concerns with the rest of his oeuvre. Writing to the critic John Berger, Bowling once declared, “All I know is I want to paint my people: that is black people as opposed to white people.” His focus was sometimes the marginalized: in one series, he focused on the homeless. But often, there were allusions to his own past. A photographic image of Bowling’s New Amsterdam home, screen-printed in a Pop-like manner, looms in the background of many paintings as a reminder of what was lost. [. . .]

Frank Bowling, Texas Louise, 1971

The “Map Paintings” rank among Bowling’s most prized works.

When Bowling relocated to New York in 1966, his style shifted dramatically. He fell in with a group of cutting-edge artists that included Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns, Jack Whitten, William T. Williams, and others, and he began working in a non-figurative mode. Many consider his breakthrough to be the “Map Paintings,” a series begun in 1966 that features images of continents that are just barely visible. The outlines of these forms were made possible via an epidiascope, a stencil-like tool that Rivers had given to Bowling.

The haunting quality of these works can be attributed to what Bowling once proclaimed was their “otherness,” which could refer both to the off-putting quality of the paint itself and to the artist, who was an émigré living in the U.S. “Sometimes the images were fully embodied and at other times they were suggestions,” art historian Courtney J. Martin has written of the continent-like forms that melt into the background of these works, which were shown at the Whitney Museum as part of an unofficial series of shows by Black artists during the 1970s. [. . .]

Then, in October, he was knighted by the Queen of the United Kingdom, earning him an honor that has rarely been bestowed upon Black artists. Bowling said at the time, “trained in the English art school tradition, my identity as a British artist has always been crucial to me and I have viewed London as my home since arriving in 1953 from what was then British Guiana. To be recognized for my contribution to British painting and art history with a knighthood makes me extremely proud.”

[Photo above by Sasha Bowling.]

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