Frank Bowling: From Postcolonialism to Abstraction
Richard Sheridan Franklin Bowling was born in the former colony of British Guyana in 1936. He moved to England at the age of 15, where he studied at the Chelsea School of Art, before winning a scholarship to the prestigious Royal College of Art in London. He graduated alongside David Hockney, Allen Jones and Peter Phillips, as part of the legendary class of 1962. On graduation, Hockney was honored with the Gold Medal in Painting, whereas Bowling was awarded the Silver Medal. His early paintings can be described as expressionist and figurative, exploring a rather dark palette of thick-layered colours; Beggar, a painting from 1960 is a perfect example to illustrate Bowling’s early figurative aspirations.
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Acclaimed by art critics and the press from an early age, Bowling had several solo and group exhibitions in the sixties. However, the young artist felt that his development was blocked in England. Being of African–Caribbean descent, but having received a traditional British education, Bowling often found himself playing the role of the postcolonial artist. He stated in an interview for the Guardian: ‘It seemed that everyone was expecting me to paint some kind of protest art out of postcolonial discussion. For a while I fell for it’. To escape being pigeonholed and in pursuit of artistic freedom, Bowling moved to New York City in 1966. He quickly found himself understood and supported by the African-American art community. No longer forced to be a representative of postcolonial art, Bowling could concentrate on his artistic progress and career development.
However it was not only the sense of solidarity that changed his life; the exposure to American contemporaries and especially the influence of art critic Clement Greenberg, led him to progressively immerge into abstraction. Distancing himself from his former fellow students involved in the British Pop Art scene, the painter deepened his artistic investigation and put colour and geometry at the centerpiece of his artistic voyage and exploration. Bowling brought about this duality and his ‘irrevocable commitment to abstraction’ on canvas, manifesting characteristics of Colour Field Painting, as well as Action Painting to appear. Poured, spilled, dripped and brushed on canvas, colour in all its vivacity, thickness and chromatic power, became Bowling’s leading lady. From intensely vivid to pastel tones and a dense unsaturated palette, the painter explored the power of colour in all its diversity. Geometrical shapes, often barely recognisable, seem to operate discretely in the background. Improvising on proportions of the Golden Section or the Fibonacci sequence, Bowling uses the geometrical forms to compose his art works. The artist claims that he never totally determines his intentions, allowing accidents and coincidence to appear on canvas. Nevertheless, like many of his fellow abstract painters, Bowling controls the unexpected effects. He follows a slow, step-by-step way of creating his art, allowing him to alter and manipulate at any moment. At the beginning of the 1980s, Bowling started to integrate different materials into his paintings. Covered by colour, these objects are often difficult to identify. Using foam, acrylic gel, metallic pigments, small plastic objects and other materials, he composes a sort of assemblage on canvas.
Spreadout Ron Kitaj (1984 – 1986, 228,5 x 286 m, Tate Collection, London) is a perfect example of Bowling’s work. A mixture of luminous and dark, thick-layered colours vibrates on the canvas. According to the Tate’s catalogue, the painting is composed of acrylic gel, acrylic paint, oil paint, dammar, beeswax, chalk, metallic pigments, acrylic foam, shredded plastic packing material, acrylic-based Christmas glitter, costume jewellery, plastic toys and oyster shells. The eye has to adjust to recognise that it is guided by linear and circular structures, which seem to vanish behind the busy surface.
Using titles to reconnect his works with reality, Frank Bowling gives an insight into his life during the artistic process, anchoring his abstraction in private memories and emotions. The title Spreadout Ron Kitaj for example, relates to a Reggae song and a letter from former classmate R. B. Kitaj, that had inspired him at the time.
The Tate Gallery purchased Spread out Ron Kitaj in 1987, making Bowling the first living Guyanese artist to find his way into the collection. Since 2005, he is the first African-American member of England’s Royal Academy of Arts and he was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2008. He is represented in major art collections, including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
By Michèle Kieffer