Frank Bowling a practising artist for time now in excess of four decades was born in Guyana South America on February 29, 1936. He moved to England in 1950 and there completed his high school education. Bowling’s career ambitions upon demobilization from the Royal Air Force in satisfaction of his National Service obligations were as a poet and writer. But these were subsumed in a call to art and he subsequently received his entire art education and training in various English art institutions. Bowling won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art; London in 1959 and on graduation in 1962 was awarded the Silver Medal in Painting and a traveling scholarship to South America and the Caribbean.
An occasional sculptor, Bowling began his career as a figurative painter. His paintings of the late1950s through the early 1960s, executed in oils mainly in earthy pigments infused with miscellaneous extraneous materials, evidenced distinctly social and political narratives. Described by critics as expressionist figuration these works evoked the permanent image making reality of past trans-cultural traditions, fused with the fluid present reality of Bowling’s evolving mark of hand. He had his first one-person exhibition in London in 1962 at Grabowski Galleries in a show titled “Image in Revolt” in which the galleries were shared between himself and fellow RCA graduate, the English painter, Derek Boshier.
By 1964 Bowling’s pictures, which had always inclined towards a frontal geometric structure of space, became more geometrically complex. To decolonize space in order to construct new commentaries around the narratives in the tradition of Western painting, he improvised on Fibonacci postulations, principles applied from J. Hambidge’s “Elements of Dynamic Symmetry”, and axioms established by Mondrian on whom he had written his thesis at the Royal College of Art. Subsequently one of these pictures, “BIG BIRD” 1965. 6′x12′, won the Grand Prize for Contemporary Arts at the First World Festival of Negro Arts, held at Dakar, Senegal 1965.
Bowling first visited New York in1961 and by mid-1966 when, dissatisfied with the progress of his career in London he established residence in New York, he had already had his first one-person exhibition there at the Terry Dintenfass Gallery January 1966. Autobiographical figurative oil paintings from the early sixties were exhibited: However, by that time his pictures had already begun to evidence elements of what was to become an irrevocable commitment to abstraction. Abstraction became paramount in his search at that juncture as a mechanism to liberate his paintings from overt political concerns and facilitate their transition to investigations of pure pictorial problems such as coincided with color field painting.
Because of the increased size of his pictures Bowling abandoned easel painting and started the practice, continued to the present of working on his pictures, alternately pinned to the wall and/or spread out on the floor of his studio. Additionally he now used oils only for subtle punctuation, since water based acrylic paints had a few years previously become his preferred medium. Their quick drying characteristic became a more malleable component as his pictures transitioned to staining the canvas ground with thin washes of color as a prime means of expression. Into and onto this were incorporated a variety of almost imperceptible stenciled silk-screened images of his parents, sons, other relatives and friends.
As his search segued into the 70s color became the most important variable in Bowling’s pictures. His palette shifted shape, the earthy hues of earlier works were replaced by vast expanses of monochromatic high key color, and the surfaces became fluid structures on which map shapes floated. These rule based pictures each driven by its own internal logic represented in the opinion of Robert Doty, “a culmination of his search with ‘maps’” Six of them, some as large as 9 feet by 22 feet, were presented in Bowling’s seminal 1971 one-person exhibition at The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
Clement Greenberg became, shortly after he met Bowling in the winter of 1971, not only a regular visitor to the latter’s studio, but also an important influence whose advice and encouragement helped to dispel from Bowling’s mind any lingering doubts he might have had about his commitment to modernism. At this point in time, the very personal palette of Bowling’s paintings, large, light-filled, lyrical color abstractions distinguished his work from that of earlier Color Field painters like Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski or Larry Poons. To such an extent that when in 1973/74 they were exhibited in his one-person show at the then Center for Inter-American Relations in New York, New York Times art critic, Hilton Kramer pointed out, “Mr. Bowling has managed to do something quite individual in a pictorial idiom that many — perhaps too many — painters have claimed as their own.”
Bowling in 1975, reinitiated his examination of scale with the creation of works significantly smaller than those created previously. To these compositions were imparted a more spontaneous appearance by an intensified reliance on hints resultant from accident and happenstance when paint was poured paint on the canvas and patterns guided to support a predetermined structure. How the colors wove organically in and out of each other on the surfaces of these ‘poured paintings’ as they have come to be known, imparted such an impression of spontaneity that a fleeting glance would suggest that the pictures created themselves. A dynamic much in evidence in works created between 1976 through 1981 and indeed has continued to the present. Beginning 1982 and on through to 1987 the surfaces of Bowling’s canvases became progressively harder worked. Chunks of Styrofoam with serrated edges infused with paint were arranged in loose geometric formations and when attached with glue and gel to the canvas, melded with the colors of the ground and shifted on the space in a quasi-sculptural relief. New York Times art critic Vivien Raynor commented in May 1986,”Bowling’s is strange, impressive painting that — no mean feat strikes a balance between the African fetish and the dribbled images of Jackson Pollock.”
By the late 80s overt use of pieces of foam had all but receded from the surfaces yielding the early 1990s to a more organic dimensionality realized by ridges scalloped in the gel augmented paint. Bowling alternated his palette between dark brooding colors and bright airy hues. Later in the decade solid sections of unfinished pictures from earlier periods were reworked then bordered with slim fresh thinly colored strips of canvas stapled together. Gradually the geometry of the grid became more radical, with color and forms reconstituted from cut up pieces of canvas and pronounced by deft use of natural creases in the folds of the canvas and occasional lumps and bumps of paint bodied up with gel.
During his tenure at Arts Magazine as a contributing editor from 1969 to 1972 Bowling reviewed exhibitions in London and New York. He also penned a series of important, [subsequently oft quoted] insightful essays in which he lay himself open to criticism attempting to weave a broadly based explanation as to, “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?” A question which although fundamental, then as now, some thirty odd years later continues to elude any easy answers.
Bowling’s involvement with art institutions on both sides of the Atlantic includes in the U.K: Lecturer at University of Reading; Tutor at Camberwell School of Arts & Crafts, London; Maidstone College of Art, Kent; Kingston School of Art, Surrey, and The Byam Shaw, London. In the U.S.A. Part-time teaching Cooper Union School of Art and Architecture, New York; drawing lecturer Columbia University, New York. Assistant Professor, Douglass College, Rutgers University, New Jersey; and lecturer School of Visual Arts, New York and Mass Art, Boston.
Since the mid-sixties he has maintained studios and exhibition careers in both New York and London, and on occasion exhibited in other European cities. At the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003, three of his ‘map’ paintings from the late 1960s early 1970s were featured in “FAULTLINES: Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscapes”.
When in 1987 The Tate Gallery in London purchased Bowling’s “SPREAD OUT RON KITAJ”, [1984-86], 90″X112″, it was the first work they had acquired by a living Black British artist. Bowling’s paintings are represented in other major permanent and public collections in England and around the world. These include, Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Walker Art gallery, Liverpool, England; Lloyds of London. In the United States; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Whitney Museum, New York. The De Menil Foundation, Houston, Texas; New Jersey Museum of Art, Trenton, New Jersey. And, in the West Indies, the National Gallery of Jamaica.
Frank Bowling considers his output as that of a British artist and is insistent that his paintings characterized by distinctive individualism elusive of the confines of generic expectations of a black artist with Caribbean origins, be judged as such. He continues to orchestrate the emotive potential of colors, to communicate a visual experience of uniquely sensuous immediacy.”
… 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.”
Spencer A. Richards. [c].