Early Bowling by Mel Gooding
This is a fascinating group of paintings, made over a period that coincides with Frank Bowling’s extraordinary progress from his first self-conscious attempts to become an artist, (Self-portrait, 1959), to a 1964 work (Swan) that perfectly epitomises the crisis, artistic and existential, that would climax in his early masterpiece, the mid-decade Mirror (1964-66), which now hangs, where it belongs, in the Tate collection. After which, Bowling, disillusioned with the British art scene, left London to make his way in New York, the crucible of contemporary painting.
It was a move encouraged, after several earlier visits, by American poets and artists as distinguished as Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch and Larry Rivers. Recalling this comradeship should remind us that Bowling had first set out thinking to be a poet himself, and by the end of that decade had become, briefly, a notable writer on the problematic relation of race to modernism. For some years Bowling was to work at the centre of New York’s dynamic artistic scene.
Bowling’s brilliant Royal College career (1959-1962) is represented by Beggar No. 3 (1963), a painting in the agonistic figurative style that made him something of a star among a scintillating student cohort, noticed and praised by significant metropolitan critics, among them David Sylvester, Andrew Forge and Norbert Lynton. His success secured his first commercial exhibition, in an unlikely pairing with Derek Boshier, at the Grabowski Gallery in the autumn of 1962, soon after he left the Royal College. It was a style that prompted frequent reference to the work of his erstwhile friend, Francis Bacon, who was at that time, as Sylvester wrote in 1962, ‘the modern British artist most talked about over the last ten years.’
But if Bacon had an influence on Bowling, it was neither stylistic nor thematic: it was, rather, a matter of attitude, of painterly insouciance, a determination to do what he pleased regardless of what others expected. It is an attitude that has persisted to this day. Bowling’s figuration, unlike that of Bacon, was unabashedly narrative and humanistic: ‘what I painted was human concern’ he said many years later. His subject in these paintings was pain, violence and suffering; its presiding spirit is late Goya: its essential feeling is shaped by the pity of things. It is always coloured by the memory of specific circumstances, particularly aspects of his childhood and youth in Guiana. This pervading presence of recollection and commemoration has persisted to this day, even in Bowling’s most radically abstract painting.
Beggar No. 3 is explicit in this respect: it features, for the first time, and the only time to my knowledge, a painted image of his mother’s house, rather than the haunting silkscreened images in later paintings like Cover Girl (1966). One of Bowling’s most significant recurrent motifs, an emblematic acknowledgment of T.S. Eliot’s psychologically fraught line: ‘Home is where one starts from.’ It was the house to which Bowling brought the beggar children on the streets of New Amsterdam to be fed by his imperious and charitable mother. The expressionist figurative realism of the works of this period was compromised already by what was to be Bowling’s abiding concern to use colour in a schematic structural way, to work from some idea of an underlying pictorial geometry.
The stark image Self-portrait was painted in Dublin in 1959, when Bowling was visiting and doing odd jobs for the actor-writer Tony White, and furiously preparing to present work for entry to the Royal College. Artist friends frequently (to his irritation) remarked on Bowling’s ‘fine head’ (he had made pocket money by posing at Chelsea College of Art): Bowling decided therefore to paint it himself - it was one of a series - as the nearest subject to hand. Such are the circumstantial contingencies by which art gets made. It shows that even at this early stage, 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: what makes a painting is the paint itself. In this self-portrait a flattering likeness is not at issue; neither is any kind of typology, character analysis or occasional setting: the head, which fills the planar space available, is a pure pretext for the exercise of surface painterly effect and dynamic gestural play: it is perceived as a mere object, dispassionately abstract.
Snow Painting (1962) is one of a number of studies made by Bowling of the back garden of a small house in Cedars Road, Clapham, which Bowling moved into with his first wife, the novelist-to-be Paddy Kitchen in late 1961. From his brief period of training at the City and Guilds Art School in Kennington, Bowling had been fascinated by the reductive formal problem of depicting white on white, which is essentially the painterly problem of registering light, an unfixed phenomenon, with infinite thematic implications, realised, in our perception and in art, only in relation to objects in relation. He had first experimented with some shimmering paintings of milk bottles, and now when snow fell on to the garden and its skeletal trees, he made a series of works exploring the diversity of whiteness, and the mystifying white translucence of the winter atmosphere. Bowling has returned at various times since to white as if it were a subject in itself: sometimes in an elegiac mood, more often in an ecstatic embrace of sunlight reality.
Swan (1964) is a study for the central figure in a series of important works made at a time of personal and artistic crisis: his marriage was breaking up; he was unsure of his direction as an artist, but not of his calling: ‘I was sure… that I was an artist… that I had something to say or give... I was striving to sharpen my art’; he was caught up in a complexity of contradictory formal impulses. There is a 1964 photograph of the artist, wryly contemplating swans on the foreshore at Putney: the white swan became in these paintings a symbolic disguise of the artist’s power and freedom, magnificently strong in the ribbed wing, but having to strain every sinew to rise from the water, to break into full flight. Paradoxically, it might also be the emblematic image of psychic misery, the Yeatsian ‘complexity and mire of human veins’, set in these paintings against the cool and simple untroubled geometrics – stripe, rectangle and chevron - and artificial colour of the American post-painterly abstraction that represented a tempting but false solution to Bowling’s artistic dilemmas. There was little in British painting at the time to match the complex psychic power of these symbolic images.