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Frank Bowling OBE, RA

Born, 1935 - 1937 (probably 1936) in British Guiana (now Guyana) Caribbean/S. America

image of Frank Bowling OBE, RA

Frank Bowling OBE, RA  (Elected RA [Royal Academy]: 26 May 2005 and made an OBE [Officer of the Order of the British Empire] in the Queen’s Birthday Honours of 2008) is an artist who has been painting for over five decades. He was born in what was then British Guiana (now Guyana), a country at the top of South America, nestled between Venezuela, Brazil and Surinam. (His year of birth was 1936, though the catalogue for Bowling’s 1971 Whitney Museum of American Art notes his year of birth as 1935. Similarly, the catalogue for Commonwealth Art Today, a major exhibition of 1962 in which Bowling’s work was included, stated that his year of birth was 1935). He first came to London at the age of fourteen, to complete his schooling. He was first a poet, eventually turning to painting in his late teens. After periods of study at art colleges in London, his career as a painter began in earnest with solo exhibitions in London in the early 60s.

Frank Bowling has come to be universally known and respected for his abstract paintings, often large expansive affairs rich with colour and texture. He came to abstract art via figurative painting, at the beginning of the 1970s. Before that time, his art of the late 50s and 60s was figurative and resonated with distinct political narratives. Bowling himself cited the death of Patrice Lumumba (in 1961) as being one of his themes during this period.

By the mid 60s Bowling had taken the first of the innumerable transatlantic flights that enabled him to maintain studios in New York and London. As one critic has noted “…Bowling, both as a man and as an artist, has travelled enormous distances during his life…His art has continued to evolve, and is still evolving today …In another decade he will doubtless be painting in some quite new, unforeseeable idiom and dimension”.

Having decamped to the United States, it was in New York, around 1966, that Bowling met, engaged with, and was influenced by abstract artists, both African-American and European-American. Thus began Bowling’s enduring love affair with modernism, something to which he has remained steadfastly loyal, decade after decade. He has been quoted as citing Clement Greenberg as a major influence on this important and seismic development in Bowling’s painting: “Clem was able to make me see that modernism belonged to me also, that I had no good reason to pretend I wasn’t part of the whole thing”. The central and pivotal esteem in which Bowling places modernism is evidenced by his statement that “I believe that the Black soul, if there can be such a thing, belongs to modernism”.

It is perhaps this attachment to modernism that makes Bowling, particularly within a British context, such a unique and fascinating artist. He has consistently refused to aesthetically rule himself out of the main currents of contemporary, international art practice. Herein lies one of his most interesting aspects. As a Black artist, he confounds and frustrates stereotypes of what work a ‘Black artist’ should be producing or might be expected to produce. Through his painting, he relentlessly expresses the view that for him, art should not be burdened down by considerations of race, racism or racial/national identity.

His earliest abstract paintings ‘consisted of thin, luminous washes infused with metallic pigment, often dripped or poured’. Further to this, he experimented with acrylic gels that were used to create tactile, undulating surfaces in which Bowling embedded an assortment of objects and on which Bowling applied liberal quantities of paint. It was perhaps these paintings, texturally reminiscent of large wall maps detailing the altitude of the terrain, that prompted one observer to suggest that “Bowling’s paintings are not landscape, but land”.

Critics sometimes struggle to satisfactorily locate Bowling’s work. Some speak of ‘obvious’ or ‘strong’ Caribbean influences. Others mention tropical colours. But such labels do little or nothing to aid a fuller understanding of Bowling’s paintings. Of course, such influences occasionally have a place, but they are by no means the whole story. Bowling can cite an endless, almost bewildering range of influences. Some are obvious influences, others less so. And the titles of his paintings offer additional (occasionally cryptic) pointers. Regarding the titles of his paintings, Bowling has described them as “private jokes, evocative. You’d have to know the connection between the activity of the painting and the literary connections that stretch across the cultural divide. They are meant to be ironic and evocative. An awful lot is personal and in riddles”.

For much of the past several decades, Bowling has maintained studios in New York and London, enabling him to maintain a prolific output. His CV testifies to a career of extensive international exhibition activity. As one admirer has written, Bowling has already “produced a body of painting like nothing else in contemporary art. An achievement that deserves to be more widely known and appreciated”. Frank Bowling has earned an important place in the post-war history of Black artists in Britain. His work was included in the landmark exhibition The Other Story: Afro-Asian artists in post-war Britain, Hayward Gallery, London, 1989. Within The Other Story catalogue, Mel Gooding provided a text on Bowling, Frank Bowling: soundings towards the definition of an individual talent.

Simon R. Gillespie, Director of ROLLO Contemporary Art, writing his contribution to the Preface of the joint catalogue for the exhibitions, Frank Bowling, Latest Paintings: A Celebration of His Election to the Royal Academy of Arts, (Rollo Contemporary Art, London, 9 March - 13 April 2006) and The White Paintings, by Frank Bowling, RA, (ArtSway, Hampshire,13 May - 2 July 2006), wrote:

“…Belonging to the famous class of 1962 at the Royal College of Art, which included David Hockney, Derek Boshier, Peter Phillips and RB Kitaj, [Bowling] is a seminal figure in post-war British art. Bowling is the first black British artist to be elected to the Royal Academy in its 200 year history…” 

One of Bowling’s map paintings, Who’s Afraid of Barney Newman, 1968 was reproduced as part of Kobena Mercer’s Introduction to Discrepant Abstraction, Copublished by inIVA and MIT Press, 2006. Elsewhere in the same volume, Bowling was one of two Guyana-born artists discussed by Kobena Mercer in his essay, Black Atlantic Abstraction: Aubrey Williams and Frank Bowling. Bowling’s work is extensively discussed and illustrated in this text. Still further, Discrepant Abstraction discussed Bowling’s important 1971 exhibition at the Whitney, in a section of Kellie Jones, ‘It’s Not Enough to Say “Black is Beautiful” ‘: Abstraction at the Whitney, 1969-1974, in Discrepant Abstraction, inIVA and MIT Press, 2006. The section in question was Frank Bowling: 4 November - 6 December 1971.

Frank Bowling’s painting, Rule Britannia, 1995, acrylic on canvas, 66 x 51 cm, is reproduced in Gen Doy’s book, Black Visual Culture, I.B. Tauris, 2000.

His website is www.frankbowling.com

The above portrait was taken by Edward Woodman, circa 1996

Related items + view all 79

click to show details of Third Text: The Other Story

»  Third Text: The Other Story

Journal relating to an exhibition, 1989

click to show details of Two New Imagists at the Grabowski

»  Two New Imagists at the Grabowski

Review relating to an exhibition, 1962

click to show details of Welcome Return for Frank Bowling RA

»  Welcome Return for Frank Bowling RA

Letter relating to an individual, 2008

click to show details of Welcome Return for Frank Bowling RA

»  Welcome Return for Frank Bowling RA

Letter relating to an exhibition, 2008

click to show details of Who’s Afraid of Barney Newman

»  Who’s Afraid of Barney Newman

Postcard relating to an exhibition, 2012

Related exhibitions + view all 41

Related venues + view all 42

»  Cornerhouse

Manchester, United Kingdom

»  Hayward Gallery

London, United Kingdom

»  Manchester City Art Gallery

Manchester, United Kingdom

»  South Hill Park

Bracknell, United Kingdom

»  Wolverhampton Art Gallery

Wolverhampton, United Kingdom