Is Frank Bowling Britain’s greatest living abstractionist?

Jessica Lack takes a deep dive into the life and work of an artist who was sorely overlooked before his enormously popular 2019 retrospective at Tate Britain

Portrait of abstract artist Frank Bowling

Portrait of Frank Bowling, 2019 © Mathilde Agius

Frank Bowling (b. 1934) described his first year at the Royal College of Arts as feeling like a blind man learning to negotiate space: the perimeters of his chosen subject had become so wide as to be disorientating. So he focused his energies on learning how to draw: ‘And that came about from doing it as though I was blind, you know, I mean, tap-tapping…’

It was 1959, and the artist and his RCA contemporaries, who included David Hockney, R.B. Kitaj and Allen Jones, were teetering on the edge of arguably the most spirited and politically active decade of the 20th century. The desire to be an artist in this revolutionary era had, according to Bowling, ‘become urgent’ for these ambitious young men, and by the time they graduated in 1962, the art historian David Sylvester was already heralding them as the next big thing.

Sir Frank Bowling, R.A. (b. 1934), Untitled, 1978. Acrylic on canvas. 36 x 21⅞ in (91.5 x 55.5 cm). Estimate: £100,000–200,000. Offered in the Modern British and Irish Art Evening Sale on 22 March 2022 at Christie’s in London

As part of the Windrush generation, Bowling’s journey to the most prestigious art school in the UK had been challenging and unorthodox. Having left Guyana (then a British colony) at the age of 15, he spent his first years studying and doing a series of menial jobs. (On one building site his boss said he liked coloured people, just not the dark ones.) It was while on military service in the RAF that he fell in with a group of RCA graduates who took him to the National Gallery.

When the painter Carel Weight called him up for an interview at the RCA in 1958, it fortuitously coincided with a visit from the gas man, who gave him a rebate from the meter, which he used to buy his ticket to London.

It took another year to convince Weight to offer him a place — which he did after seeing a series of self-portraits, one of which was offered at Christie’s in June 2019 as part of the David Methuen Campbell collection. According to art critic Mel Gooding, even at this early stage in his career, the work revealed that ‘Bowling had (unconsciously?) grasped the essential truth that a painting is as much about the material properties of the medium as it is about its ostensible subject.’

Within a term he was being described as an exceptional talent, and went on to win the silver medal (Hockney won gold). By the time Bowling graduated from the RCA, he was married to the writer Paddy Kitchen who had worked as the assistant registrar at the RCA, and preparing his first show with Derek Boshier at the Grabowski Gallery.

It was then that things started to go wrong: he was omitted from key exhibitions, and suffered a crisis of artistic identity. Swinging London was enthralled by Pop art’s bold optimism, but Bowling found more in common with the congealed, smeary claustrophobia of Francis Bacon’s paintings than soup tins. One incident in particular — discovering a young woman giving birth alone in an empty and derelict flat in Notting Hill — had a profound effect on him. It inspired a number of paintings of swans, including the one below.

Swan, by British artist Frank Bowling

Frank Bowling (b. 1934), Swan, 1964. 20 x 16 in (50.8 x 40.6 cm). Sold for £118,750 on 18 June 2019 at Christie’s in London

By 1966 Bowling had become disillusioned by the British art establishment, and frustrated at the lack of progression of his career. Elena Crippa, curator of the artist’s 2019 retrospective at Tate Britain, explains that ‘in the mid-1960s there was a great wave of change towards artistic practices and the conceptual use of new media. Ongoing discussions were being had about the death of painting.’

The theorist Clement Greenberg suggested he move to the United States, and the painting Mirror reflects Bowling’s conflicted emotions at this time. It depicts the artist on the RCA’s staircase, caught between representation and Abstraction, transnationalism and its consequences. He took the initiative and moved to New York, saying, ‘I had to realise that staircase.’

Angus Granlund, Head of the Modern British and Irish Art Evening Sale, believes Bowling’s move was born out of frustration and ambition. ‘His marriage had just broken down and he had been overlooked for major exhibitions like The New Generation, 1965  at the Whitechapel Gallery. He had already established a good network of artist friends in the US, and I think the move gave him a fresh start, a blank canvas if you like, both metaphorically and literally, as it marked a huge stylistic change.’ 

Some of those artists included Larry Rivers (1923-2002), Franz Kline (1910-1962) and Kenneth Noland (1924-2010), while Greenberg (1909-1994) — with whom Bowling had a life-long correspondence — helped encourage the young artist to embrace abstraction.

Great Thames IV, 1988-9, by British artist Frank Bowling

Frank Bowling (b. 1934), Great Thames IV, 1988-9. Acrylic paint on canvas. 71¼ x 126 in (181 x 321 cm). Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London. © Frank Bowling. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

The Tate retrospective showcased 59 of the artist’s paintings over a seven-decade career, beginning with his early works at the RCA. It mapped what Crippa describes as ‘the extraordinary journey between London and New York and back again, and the many references to Guyana where he was born’. 

In New York, Bowling had the freedom to experiment. From about 1967 he started collaging, using spray paint, stencils and fluorescent paint, stitching silk prints and other canvases into his work.

Cover Girl, 1966, by Frank Bowling

Frank Bowling (b. 1934), Cover Girl, 1966. Acrylic, oil paint, and silkscreened ink on canvas. 57 x 40 in (144.8 x 101.6 cm). Private Collection. © Frank Bowling. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

Crippa predicted visitors to the Tate show would be stunned at how little they know about Britain’s foremost abstractionist. ‘Even the works from the 1960s, like Cover Girl  [above], are extraordinarily fresh,’ she says.

Bowling returned to London in the late 1970s, by which time he was working on a series of poured paintings and embedding detritus from his studio into his canvases. ‘Frank once said, “You are born, and you start to accumulate and erase”. In a way these works reflect that,’ sys Crippa, although she is quick to point out these objects should not be seen as autobiographical. 

Grunland agrees: ‘He [Bowling] always tried to avoid a one-to-one reading of his work, and I think his move to abstraction was part of that — a way to express himself without having to present a narrative.’

The return to London also marked a period of making but not showing for Bowling. He was, quite simply, ignored by the British establishment. The next 40 years were spent criss-crossing the Atlantic to New York where he was better represented. Like all abstract artists, Bowling was interested in technique and materiality, not identity, yet it seemed the UK was unable to accept him as that. 

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‘To be a black artist in Britain in the 1960s was, Crippa says, very unusual: ‘There were issues around bias and prejudice.’ In 1996, at the height of London’s love affair with the YBAs, artist Eddie Chambers was unable to find a London venue for Bowling’s touring exhibition, and no one reviewed the show.

That Bowling’s work is finally getting the recognition it deserves is gratifying, yet reveals inconvenient truths about how the British art establishment has treated artists from minority backgrounds throughout the history of 20th-century art.

Swing, 2003, by British artist Frank Bowling

Frank Bowling (b. 1934), Swing, 2003. Acrylic paint, acrylic gel and staples on fabric collage on canvas, 27⅛ x 39½ in (68.8 x 100.2 cm). Sold for £37,500 on 5 October 2019 at Christie’s in London

Things started to change in 2003 when he was featured in the Venice Biennale. He began to be represented by Hales Gallery and museums in America started acquiring his works. Granlund believes it was thanks in part to younger curators and dealers: ‘They looked back and saw his significance in the history of Abstract painting.’

Iona Miriam's Christmas Visit to & from Brighton, 2017, by British artist Frank Bowling

Frank Bowling (b. 1934), Iona Miriam's Christmas Visit to & from Brighton, 2017. Acrylic paint and plastic objects on collaged canvas. 74 x 48 in (189 x 122.5 cm). Courtesy Frank Bowling and Hales Gallery, Alexander Gray Associates and Marc Selwyn Fine Art. © Frank Bowling. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2018

The works Bowling has produced in his later years are some of the most beautiful. One of the pictures in the final room of the exhibition at Tate was Iona Miriam’s Christmas Visit to & from Brighton (above) from 2017, which, the curator said, miraculously encompasses all those techniques he’s adopted over so many years. ‘The pools of diluted paint, the sediment, the subtle layers of colour and objects embedded — it really is a miracle how he has managed to combine all those materials and techniques he’s developed over the last decades into something quite so extraordinary.’

This feature was originally published in 2019.

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