In a review of the Young Commonwealth Artists’ exhibition, held in 1962 at the Federation of British Artists Galleries in London, David Sylvester described Frank Bowling and other “young painters” as “Baconians,” a nod to the influence of Francis Bacon’s distorted figurative painting on a generation of British painters.[i] Lauded among this group, Bowling employed a style that shifted dramatically from his early figurative work to the career-defining abstraction he developed shortly after visiting New York in 1961. Like many British painters in the 1960s, Bowling was onto the “American thing” – the American Abstract Expressionism to which young British painters were attracted. [ii] After Bowling moved to New York in 1966, he expanded his studio practice into a successful writing career. For nearly sixty years, he has continued to pursue abstraction, speaking to artists and critics alike in New York and the rest of the art world.
As a teenager, Bowling moved to London from the former British protectorate, British Guiana (now Guyana). Initially interested in writing, particularly poetry, he began to paint after fulfilling his national service in the Royal Air Force. From 1959 to 1962, he studied painting at the Royal College of Art, alongside Derek Boshier, David Hockney, R.B. Kitaj, and other students who engaged in a generational aspiration to paint in and against the American painting that had come to dominate postwar art – Abstract Expressionism. Bowling’s education in representational painting was intense. As Sylvester surmised, Bowling was close to Francis Bacon as well as to his Royal College tutor, the realist painter Carel Weight.
In the summer of 1961, Bowling broke from the Baconian trajectory and went to New York where he was initiated into abstraction. He took to it wholly, making numerous trips to the Museum of Modern Art and meeting several of the first generation American abstract painters. The museum was like a day school, where all of the postwar masters were on view for study and contemplation, giving Bowling a way to rethink his compositional figuration. Over the summer, abstraction crept into his style, pulling him away from Weight and the Royal College style in which he had previously been enmeshed. New York School painting involved geometry, the pure application of color, or even more adventurously, process: including bodily pouring, dripping, staining, or flinging paint onto available surfaces. Everything about this painting – from the painter’s lifestyle to the way he or she painted – was loose, fresh, and exciting.
Though Bowling returned to London after that first summer in New York, he remained enamored of the city and the art that he had experienced there. Over the next few years, after graduating, showing, and teaching in London, he returned to New York, due to an invitation for a solo exhibition to be held in January 1966 at the Terry Dintenfass Gallery. In New York he was close to various groups within the art world, including other British figurative exiles, young black American painters, influential curators, and art critics. Of the individuals he encountered Lawrence Alloway, and later Clement Greenberg, would become among his closest friends, critiquing and supporting his work.
In 1967, he won a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him to remain in New York, where he set up a studio and taught at various times, at Columbia University, Cooper Union, and Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. New York opened other doors for him as well. As a resident, he was eligible to participate in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Annual in 1969. The museum gave him a solo exhibition in 1971, and he took part in the 1973 Biennial.
During this period Bowling began what is now known as his map series, a suite of paintings that feature outlines of geographic spaces. Completed the year of his Guggenheim Fellowship, Bartica Born and False Start are representative of this series wherein figuration is reduced to the symbolic, compositional gesture of the stencil. Kobena Mercer has written convincingly that the map paintings were a sign of Bowling’s transition from “figurative painting to post-painterly abstraction,” one of the last Greenberg terms for proficient abstract painting. [iii] The outline of South America and the other continents that made their way into the map paintings are, like the paint in the rest of these compositions, without spatial depth. False Start features an outline of the continent of South America centered amid the work’s gradual top-to-bottom shift from orange to red-orange to red. In parts of the canvas, the paint seems to have been removed to such a degree as to suggest a process of staining rather than painting. Bowling rendered the contours of South America with an opaque projector, an epidiascope, lent by Larry Rivers, who had become his friend. The white outlined map glows amid the saturated color, Its spectral presence shows off Bowling’s “feel for paint as a substance.” [iv] The map is also one of Bowling’s references to the earlier gestural abstraction that he saw at the Museum of Modern Art in the work of Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline. In successive years, he returned to using white paint in a similar manner in paintings as varied as For Edvins (1984) and Crabisland (1980), in which intense bursts of white paint appear in great density.
The maps are one of many painting series that Bowling has undertaken. While the overall effect of these paintings is the illusion of depth within a color field of flatness, other series have used the canvas to explore pure color and movement. In 1973, he began pouring paint directly onto unstretched canvases. The resulting poured paintings were completed for an exhibition at the Noah Goldowsky Gallery in the same year. Throughout the 1970s, as he traveled between his New York and London studios, he built tables that allowed him to pour the paint from heights of up to six feet for each studio. In his factory-sized New York studio, where Cathedral (1975) was made, the high ceilings and large open space allowed him to produce larger—in length and width—poured paintings than those made in London. In this painting, the large studio space allowed for the painting’s dramatic vertical plunge of yellow, black and gray against a still rose and purple hued background.
The poured paintings were often a combination of action painting and compositional devices, like vertical lines, that were used by the group of abstract painters that Clement Greenberg supported. A work like Leanora’s Seas (1976) – with its ambiguous reference to a close friend, and the painting’s marine green – were part of the body of Bowling’s art that Greenberg encouraged. Here the poured section of the paint is confined to the center of the canvas, implying a rigidity within the otherwise uncontrolled action of pouring paint. On either side of the poured paint, two background colors form a solid, tonal band. They are tight, linear rectangles in the otherwise fluid-looking surface. After a break of several years, Bowling returned to pouring paint in 2012, creating a new body of poured paintings that includes, Upright (2012).
In paintings from the 1980s and 1990s, Bowling began to experiment with building up the canvas with layer upon layer of paint, by adding foam and other found material and by collaging either sewn or stapled fragments of paintings together. In For Edvins (1984) a central panel is affixed to a flat painted background. On the edges, the other painting shows through, demonstrating the density of the whole work as well as its separate parts. Paintings such as this suggest interiority, as if a chorus of multiple painterly ideas were engaged in conversation.
Foam, staples, stitches, and, indeed, all of the added elements, allude to Bowling’s entry into other fields that contribute to his studio practice. From the late 1960s in New York, Bowling wrote art criticism for Arts Magazine, often confronting the pressing issues of art and politics. Not surprisingly, Bowling’s chief ally in New York on this issue was Alloway, who described Bowling’s writing as a form of activism produced by “the only artist at present in a position to act as a critic, a man able to speak to two different groups–the artists and their audience.” [v] Alloway was well known for his attraction to abstract artists who also wrote, like Newman, Ad Reinhardt, and, later, Robert Smithson.[vi] In addition, in his own writing, Bowling conveyed his admiration for Alloway’s writing. [vii] Their discussions culminated in the exhibition, 5+1, held in October–November 1969, which was curated by Alloway and Sam Hunter for the Art Gallery of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. The title referred to the five artists in the exhibition: sculptors, Mel Edwards and Daniel Johnson; and painters Al Loving, Jack Whitten, and William T. Williams, who joined Frank Bowling, the “+ 1.”
Bowling’s separate status in the show was due in part to the way the all-abstract concept was an explication of his thesis that it was quality that defined abstract art. While the exhibition may have been a group show, its concept and its staging clearly pointed to Alloway’s understanding of Bowling as a figure for whom abstract painting pinned together the construction of the artist, the role of art in society, and the function of abstraction.
Frank Bowling: Paintings 1967 – 2012 is on at Spanierman Modern, 53 East 58th Street, New York until the 20th of April. Courtney J. Martin’s catalogue introduction is courtesy of Spanierman Modern.
i David Sylvester, “No Baconians,” New Statesman 20 (April 1962): 573.
iii Kobena Mercer, “Frank Bowling’s Map Paintings,” in eds. Gilane Tawadros and Sarah Campbell, Fault Lines: Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscapes (London: Institute of International Visual Arts, 2003), 140.
iv Matthew Collings, “See How They Work: Frank Bowling’s Paintings,” in Frank Bowling RA (Hampshire, United Kingdom: ArtSway, 2006), unpaginated.
v Lawrence Alloway, “Introduction,” in 5+1 (Stony Brook, N.Y.: Art Gallery, State University of New York, 1969).
vi See, for example, Lawrence Alloway, “Residual Sign Systems in Abstract Expressionism,” Artforum 12 (November 1973): 36-42. In addition to numerous articles on Newman, Alloway curated Barnett Newman: The Stations of the Cross for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1966.
vii See Frank Bowling, “Discussion on Black Art,” Arts Magazine 43 (April 1969):16, for a description of an Alloway article as “moving.”