Frank Bowling in his New York studio loft, standing in front of South America x 3 at root 2 puce, 1967. Photo: Tina Tranter. Courtesy of Frank Bowling Archive.

Frank Bowling

Elena Crippa writes on the career of artist Frank Bowling.

In setting out to curate a retrospective of Frank Bowling’s paintings for Tate Britain – the first to cover his entire career – I immediately delved into the painter’s extensive audio interviews with the art historian Mel Gooding. I had listened to and referenced Artists’ Lives recordings at various times before in my work. Yet, on this occasion, hearing the artist’s voice felt particularly compelling. Bowling’s paintings billow with images and references to his extraordinarily rich and cosmopolitan life as he journeyed from his native Guyana (then British Guiana) to post-war London and then on to New York. Listening to Bowling’s voice, I often felt transported in time and space, affected by emotions connected with specific moments in his narrative.

Frank Bowling’s early life

Bowling was born in 1934 in Bartica, British Guiana, under British colonial rule. He grew up in the town of New Amsterdam, on the river’s east bank, approximately four miles inside the estuary of the Berbice River, which flows northward for 370 miles through dense forests to the coastal plain. He speaks of the difficulties of growing up in a country where the history was brutally marked by the violence of slavery, the scars still felt by his parents’ generation and beyond. Bowling’s upbringing was rigid and corporal punishment was performed harshly. Equally, the recordings communicate an extraordinary sense of joy and freedom. Of a childhood exploring nature, jumping into deep water despite not being able to swim, handling water and mud while playing in the sandbars. Bowling also speaks of a childhood frustrated by an unfulfilled desire to gain an advanced education. His great sense of freedom and determination to pursue further studies had him work hard for his mother’s successful business, Bowling’s Variety Store, and save money. As a 19-year-old – eager to experience life in its fullness – he sailed via Trinidad, Martinique, and Portugal, arriving in Portsmouth, England, in 1953:

Frank Bowling and the Royal College of Art

In London he lived briefly with his uncle, before serving for two years in the Royal Air Force. In the RAF, he became friends with Keith Critchlow, who went on to study at the Royal College of Art and introduced Bowling to the London art scene. While writing poems and considering a career as a writer, Bowling sat for painters including Critchlow’s father, Jerry Critchlow, and Anthony Whishaw. Visiting galleries and seeing others draw and paint spurred Bowling’s interest in art. In 1957, he attended classes at Regent Street Polytechnic and enrolled at Chelsea School of Art, but had to abandon the course because of lack of funding. He applied for the Royal College of Art for the following year. Despite the encouragement of the head of the painting school, Carel Weight, he received a rejection letter:

As well as highlighting Carel Weight’s kindness, Bowling’s recollections speak of his own passion and determination. After attending classes at City and Guilds of London Art School and building a strong portfolio, Bowling was awarded a scholarship and enrolled to study painting at the Royal College in 1959. He was part of one of the most talented and ambitious groups of students an art school had ever seen, training alongside R B Kitaj, Derek Boshier and David Hockney, among others. Bowling became part of the London art scene and befriended many artists, from Francis Bacon to Elisabeth Frink. Upon graduating, his work was presented alongside Derek Boshier’s in the exhibition Image in Revolt at the respected Grabowski Gallery, London. A year later, Richard Buckle commissioned him, Peter Blake, Leonard Rosoman and Ceri Richards to make new work for an exhibition planned for 1964 at Stratford-upon-Avon, to commemorate the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth:

Teaching at art school

At the invitation of Robert Medley, Head of Painting, Bowling began teaching at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts a day and an evening a week in 1963. A few months later the painter Claude Rogers, recently appointed Professor of Fine art at Reading University, offered Bowling another teaching post. This experience was not uncommon. In the 1960s, art schools routinely employed promising artists to teach one or two days a week. Although precarious, these roles were reasonably well-paid. The arrangement was beneficial for both students and teachers. Students were exposed to practising artists and learnt about the art world as much as art making. Artists could make a living while dedicating time to their practice. While one should not romanticise art schools at a time of limited accountability, this level of freedom enabled much cross-pollination between disciplines. For example, Bowling’s evening class at Camberwell was in the textile department. There, with the help of technicians, he produced silkscreens from a photograph of his mother’s house. He went on to use this image in numerous paintings in 1966-1967.

Moving to New York and debating issues around ‘Black Art’

By this time, despite his early success in London, Bowling was restless. He felt constrained by being defined as a Black artist rather than simply as an artist. In New York, art had acquired a confidence and ambition unparalleled in Europe. Bowling had already visited, had a friend in the artist Larry Rivers, and was soon able to lease a studio in SoHo, Lower Manhattan, and live off the money earned from his first Guggenheim Fellowship. Living in New York from 1966, in a country where racism was openly practiced and in which the Civil Rights Movement had built over the previous 20 years, meant Bowling was in a more politicised environment than London. It was a time of intense debates around issues of ‘Black Art’ surrounding the 1969 exhibition Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900–1968 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The debates led to the formation of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition. Bowling began writing for Arts Magazine and played a key role in debates around ‘Black Art’:

As well as writing about abstract painting and sculpture made by African American artists whom he admired, in 1969 Bowling organised an exhibition at the Art Gallery of the State University of New York, Stony Brook. This was at the invitation of the art critic and curator Lawrence Alloway and Princeton Professor Sam Hunter. The exhibition, titled 5+1, included Bowling’s work alongside that of Melvin Edwards, Al Loving, Jack Whitten, Daniel LaRue Johnson and William T Williams. Bowling felt compelled to champion his and other artists’ right to engage in any form of artistic expression, irrespective of their identity and background. Nonetheless, writing was a demanding task, taking time and focus away from his work in the studio. From 1972, Bowling discontinued writing for Arts Magazine and returned to dedicate himself entirely to painting.

Frank Bowling’s painting practice

Since 1967, he had been making paintings comprising fields of colour overlaid with stencilled maps of the world and silkscreened images. These were characterised by their ambitious scale, fluid application of acrylic paint and luminous quality. They provided a major contribution to the development of colour field painting. By early 1972, when he met the American art critic Clement Greenberg, Bowling’s work had entered a new phase, pursuing an exploration of the matter of paint without any figurative references:

Bowling explained that Greenberg played a fundamental role in making him feel he had the right to push his work in any direction he wanted. Their friendship and correspondence lasted until the art critic’s death. Bowling went on to produce many stunning series of paintings, exploring new possibilities through the pouring of paint and use of different materials. By 1982, the work was becoming heavily encrusted with acrylic gel and incorporated acrylic foam, cut and applied in narrow strips. In the summer of 1984, Bowling was invited to be one of six artists living and working at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in rural Maine. At times helped by his son Sacha, Bowling set to work on several challenging canvases. Through complex processes of accrual and sedimentation he made paintings akin to reliefs, as in the case of Armageddon (1984) and Enter the Dragon (1984). These paintings were originally on the same piece of canvas:

In his recording Bowling describes his process of making. Pursuing controlled accidents and unexpected effects prevents the work from setting down too soon, too predictably. Yet his skilled mastering of materials allows for elements of chance while maintaining a clear sense of structure. Offering a detailed and personal account of his life, Bowling’s Artists’ Lives sessions are testament to what has always been his major preoccupation: working in the studio and, when not in the studio, continuing to think about making.

Related oral history recordings

Follow the links below to listen to the life story recordings of individuals mentioned in this essay:

Carel Weight, Peter Blake, Leonard Rosoman, Terry Frost

Many more life story recordings from Artists' Lives and other projects are available on British Library Sounds.

Selected extracts from the exhibition Artists' Lives: Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery (Tate Britain 2016-2018) are also available on British Library Sounds in Curator's Choice.

  • Elena Crippa
  • Elena Crippa is Curator, Modern and Contemporary British Art at Tate. Recent exhibitions include London Calling, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2016; All Too Human, Tate Britain and Hungarian National Gallery, 2018; Objects of Wonder, PalaisPopulaire, Berlin, 2019; and Frank Bowling, Tate Britain, 2019. With Cathy Courtney, she co-curated the special project Artists’ Lives: Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery, Tate Britain, 2016 – 2018. She completed her PhD in 2013, while working on The Leverhulme Trust-funded Tate Research project ‘Art School Educated’, researching the relationship between art teaching and art making in British art schools in the 1950 – 60s.