Frank Bowling b. 1934


Frank Bowling – whose vibrant, boldly confrontational abstract canvases earned him a place as the first black Royal Academician – was born in British Guyana in 1934 and moved to England in 1950. He graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1962, alongside artists such as David Hockney and Allen Jones. He was awarded a silver medal in painting which allowed him to travel to both South America and the Caribbean.


First arriving in London in the 1950s, Bowling was impressed by the city and was determined to gain a thorough education in painting. He became involved with the bohemian art scene, befriending Francis Bacon who inspired his early work. In particular, it was the connection between sensation and consciousness that endured as an influence and laid the foundation for his emotionally evocative style. During this time, Bowling also made contacts with artists working in New York, deciding to move there in 1967. From this point onwards, his painting veered increasingly into the realm of abstraction.


Bowling used huge canvases to explore the purity of awe inspiring space, surface and colour in his ‘Map’ series, which were shown at the landmark 1971 Whitney Biennial, which focused on racial marginalization. In each work, a thin line of spray paint was applied to indicate the outline of various continents.


Although there has often been a desire in critical discourse to interpret his work through the lens of ethnicity, Bowling has aimed throughout his career to unravel himself from ideological constructions concerned with race. His later work removed any element of the referential or figurative, creating a clarity of focus on light and colour, and ensuring his pieces were not viewed as a politically charged statement.


In searching for a new way of painting, Bowling experimented with washes of acrylic paint, staining the canvas in oil and the applying acrylic gel, often layered with flashes of gold or silver, to give the canvas an iridescent and textural appeal. In this way attention shifted, in the paintings Bowling made from the late 1970s onwards, to the dynamics of flow and its vital materiality. Although it was the process of painting that was now being emphasized, the work continued to emulate the rush of human emotion in the explosive delivery of pulsating colour. With the impact of running paint, splashes of texture, and vibrant colours – such as fuchsia pink, yellow, deep azure blue and hot orange – Bowling has forged a highly original oeuvre.