Frank Bowling is an artist who has been painting for the best part of four decades. He was born in Guyana, a country near the top of South America, nestled between Venezuela, Brazil and Surinam. He first came to London at the age of fourteen, to complete his schooling. He was first a poet, eventually turning to painting in his late teens. After periods of study at art colleges in London, his career as a painter began in earnest with solo exhibitions in London in the early 60s.
Frank Bowling has come to be universally known and respected for his abstract paintings, often large expansive affairs rich with colour and texture. He came to abstract art via figurative painting, at the beginning of the 1970s. Before that time, his art of the late 50s and 60s was figurative and resonated with distinct political narratives. Bowling himself cited the death of Patrice Lumumba (in 1961) as being one of his themes during this period.
By the mid 60s Bowling had taken the first of the innumerable transatlantic flights that enabled him to maintain studios in New York and London. As one critic has noted "...Bowling, both as a man and as an artist, has travelled enormous distances during his life...His art has continued to evolve, and is still evolving today ...In another decade he will doubtless be painting in some quite new, unforeseeable idiom and dimension".
Having decamped to the United States, it was in New York, around 1966, that Bowling met, engaged with, and was influenced by abstract artists, both African-American and European-American. Thus began Bowling's enduring love affair with modernism, something to which he has remained steadfastly loyal, decade after decade. He has been quoted as citing Clement Greenberg as a major influence on this important and seismic development in Bowling's painting: "Clem was able to make me see that modernism belonged to me also, that I had no good reason to pretend I wasn't part of the whole thing". The central and pivotal esteem in which Bowling places modernism is evidenced by his statement that "I believe that the Black soul, if there can be such a thing, belongs to modernism".
It is perhaps this attachment to modernism that makes Bowling, particularly within a British context, such a unique and fascinating artist. He has consistently refused to aesthetically rule himself out of the main currents of contemporary, international art practice. Herein lies one of his most interesting aspects. As a Black artist, he confounds and frustrates stereotypes of what work a 'Black artist' should be producing or might be expected to produce. Through his painting, he relentlessly expresses the view that for him, art should not be burdened down by considerations of race, racism or racial/national identity.
His earliest abstract paintings 'consisted of thin, luminous washes infused with metallic pigment, often dripped or poured'. Further to this, he experimented with acrylic gels that were used to create tactile, undulating surfaces in which Bowling embedded an assortment of objects and on which Bowling applied liberal quantities of paint. It was perhaps these paintings, texturally reminiscent of large wall maps detailing the altitude of the terrain, that prompted one observer to suggest that "Bowling's paintings are not landscape, but land".
Critics struggle to satisfactorily locate Bowling's work. Some speak of 'obvious' or 'strong' Caribbean influences. Others mention tropical colours. But such labels do little or nothing to aid a fuller understanding of Bowling's paintings. Of course, such influences occasionally have a place, but they are by no means the whole story. Bowling can cite an endless, almost bewildering range of influences. Some are obvious influences, others less so. And the titles of his paintings offer additional (occasionally cryptic) pointers. Regarding the titles of his paintings, Bowling has described them as "private jokes, evocative. You'd have to know the connection between the activity of the painting and the literary connections that stretch across the cultural divide. They are meant to be ironic and evocative. An awful lot is personal and in riddles".
For much of the past three decades, Bowling has maintained studios in New York and London, enabling him to maintain a prolific output. Certainly, within the United Kingdom, Bowling has, in recent years, become known more by reputation than anything else, though his CV testifies to a career of extensive international exhibition activity. As one admirer has written, Bowling has already "produced a body of painting like nothing else in contemporary art. An achievement that deserves to be more widely known and appreciated". One thing is however, certain. That is, Frank Bowling has earned an important place in the post-war history of Black artists in Britain.
Frank Bowling - Bowling on Through the Century was shown at Leicester City Gallery, September 11 - October 12, 1996; Gallery II, University of Bradford, January 13 - February 7, 1997; De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, February 27 - March 31 1997; South Hill Park, Bracknell, April 5 - May 10, 1997; Midlands Arts Centre, June 14 - July 27, 1997 and Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry, September 6 - October 26, 1997