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

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.

Frank Bowling, 'South America Squared', 1967.

Frank Bowling, South America Squared, 1967.

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History plays a key role in Bowling’s art.

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.

The late art historian Okwui Enwezor, who organized a Bowling retrospective at the Haus der Kunst in Germany in 2017, once wrote, “Though nominally abstract, Bowling’s paintings were nevertheless about paintings and things, objects and their representation, memory and absence.” Key among those references were themes of displacement and dislocation affecting Black communities living in the United Kingdom, which were also being explored by other members of the Windrush Generation, such as the cultural theorist Stuart Hall. That Bowling was considering such ideas alongside those pioneering writers as an artist makes him “the first to ask a set of questions that were post-colonial avant la lettre,” as art historian Kobena Mercer has written.

Frank Bowling, 'Alluviumwold', 1985.

Frank Bowling, Alluviumwold, 1985.

Style for Bowling is just as important as substance.

Bowling has been upfront about the fact that he considers himself a formalist, and his work has made use of a variety of unusual techniques to alter the look of canvases. For some of his most iconic works, he used turpentine to eat away at paint, creating ghostly planes of color that appear to be only half present. Other works have involved pouring large quantities of paint down printed canvases. And still other works involve the inclusion of urban detritus and foam, lending the paint a sculptural quality.

Although Bowling’s methods are predetermined, what happens when he creates a painting is not—chance always plays a role. “I see my direction as trying to move into something more spontaneous—to make painting happen as if I didn’t do anything about it,” Bowling once said.

Frank Bowling, 'Mirror', 1964–66.

Frank Bowling, Mirror, 1964–66.

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.

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.

Frank Bowling, Cover Girl, 1966.

Bowling’s writings contributed to attendant debates about Black art during the 1970s.

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Early in his career, Bowling wrote a good deal of criticism, having contributed regularly to Arts magazine and occasionally to ARTnews. His writings touched on a good deal of topics, from the paintings of Hans Hofmann to the sculptures of Anthony Caro, and dovetailed sometimes with the criticism that was being produced by Lawrence Alloway, a friend of Bowling’s. But Bowling’s writings on Black art are the ones remembered best.

Often, Bowling called into question what was meant when people used the term. In his view, white critics’ view of the term was delimiting, but so too was that of many artists, who failed to recognize that it could refer to something beyond the output of Black Americans. (In 1969, at the invitation of Alloway and Sam Hunter, Bowling curated a show of work by Black artists at SUNY Stony Brook called “5+1”—the “+1” being himself because, unlike the others included in the show, he was not from the U.S.) “Black art is done by black people,” Bowling wrote in a 1969 Arts essay. “It is too simplistic to say that it is solely pigment oriented.” More than 20 years later, for a show of African-American abstraction at Kenkeleba Gallery in New York, Bowling returned to that theme, writing of a “constellation” of Black artists that included Howardena Pindell, William T. Williams, Mary Lovelace O’Neal, Vivian Browne, Joe Overstreet, Benny Andrews, and others, all of whom he praised for taking a diverse array of approaches in their art.

Frank Bowling, Witness, 2018.

Bowling became a worldwide sensation in the later stages of his career.

Throughout his career, Bowling was recognized as a significant artist within the British art world. In 1986, his recent work was shown at the Serpentine Galleries in London; two years later, a traveling survey went to venues in Liverpool, Manchester, and Limerick, Ireland. Also in 1987, Tate acquired his painting Spread Out Ron Kitaj (1984–86), marking the first time the museum network acquired a painting by a Black British artist.

Although he showed frequently with the esteemed Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York during the 1960s and ’70s, and also at the city’s Kenkeleba Gallery, a key center for Black art, it has only been in recent years that Bowling’s work has risen in prominence outside the U.K. In 2003, his work appeared in the Venice Biennale, in a section devoted to African art and geographies, and in 2015, his “Map Paintings” were the subject of a show at the Dallas Museum of Art in Texas. Enwezor’s Haus der Kunst survey opened in 2017, later traveled to two international venues, and was followed by a Tate Britain show in 2019.

Bowling’s international notoriety reached higher in 2020. He made headlines for suing his former gallery, Hales in London, over allegations that $18.5 million worth of his work was being withheld. Hales later countersued him, accusing his family of leading a “concerted campaign” to sour the artist’s relationship with the gallery. Meanwhile, he joined Hauser & Wirth, departing his New York gallery Alexander Gray Associates but remaining with his Beverly Hills one, Marc Selwyn Fine Art.

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.”


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