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Mapping a Life in Paint

An Interview with Frank Bowling

by , and , July 2023
Sir Frank Bowling in his London Studio

Frank Bowling in his London Studio, 2017; photo: © Alastair Levy; courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Born in Bartica, British Guiana (now Guyana), Frank Bowling moved to London in 1953, where he went on to study at the Royal College of Art and begin his career as a painter. He started traveling to the U.S. in 1961 and settled in New York from 1966 to 1975. There, he lived at the famous Hotel Chelsea before moving to his studio at 535 Broadway. SFMOMA’s exhibition Frank Bowling: The New York Years 1966–1975 focuses on this transformative decade, in which Bowling explored the possibilities of paint through color-soaked “map paintings” and dynamic “poured paintings.” In this period, he was immersed in a vibrant creative community where he participated in key debates around abstract painting and the role of Black cultural identity in artistic practices. Bowling recently spoke with us about the exhibition, his artistic development, and how the city propelled his work to new heights.

Frank Bowling: The New York Years 1966–1975 is on view through September 10, 2023 on Floor 7.


SFMOMA: What first attracted you to painting?

Frank Bowling: When I first came to England from what was then British Guiana, I didn’t know anything about art. I wanted to be a writer or poet because I felt that poetry was the best way to talk to myself, about myself. During my time in the Royal Air Force, I had an inspiring group of friends who attended the Royal College of Art before me, including artist Keith Critchlow, who introduced me to London’s museums and galleries. I was transfixed by British painters like Thomas Gainsborough, whose marvelous touch I admired deeply, as well as prominent painters of the time like Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach. I was keen to write because I kept hearing from people that I had a story to tell. But once I started visiting the art galleries, I got hooked on painting, and that was it.

SFMOMA: What experience did you bring from London and Guyana to New York? How did this play into your work?

FB: The biggest influences on me in London were the old masters that I studied at the National Gallery and Royal College of Art — Goya, Rembrandt, Titian, and Velazquez, and then English landscape painters like Constable and Turner. I was also heavily influenced by Francis Bacon and how he moved paint about the surface of the canvas in a way that I wanted to emulate. When I arrived in New York, I came with a roll of maybe a dozen canvases, each featuring a silkscreened imprint of my mother’s house. I made them with the help of technicians in the textile design department at Camberwell College of Arts, where I’d been teaching. The canvases also included stencilled portraits of family members — particularly my mother and my sons. In those early days, I leaned on readymade motifs, but as I became more involved in painting, I realized the focus had to be on shape, color, and structure. Abstraction was a way to give up the obviousness of images of birth, life, and death that had preoccupied me for years as an expressionist painter in London. I moved away from figuration towards a kind of Pop art. Still working with these screens, I would follow the shadow of the sun as it came through the windows of the Hotel Chelsea. It was these shapes that led me to map paintings of Guyana, South America, and Africa.

 

Above, an example of a painting with a silkscreened image: Frank Bowling, Untitled (Mother’s House), 1966; Komal Shah & Gaurav Garg Collection; © Frank Bowling; all rights reserved Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London, 2023; courtesy the artist; unknown photographer

SFMOMA: What did late 1960s New York City offer you as an artist that London didn’t?

FB: My career got off to a good start with gallery shows in 1962 and 1963, then a prize for painting in Senegal in 1966. But by the mid-1960s, I felt my career in London was grinding to a halt. In Britain, everyone was expecting me to engage with post-colonial politics and paint protest art. I felt the only way to proceed was to try to build a career in New York. I thought that if I didn’t, I would be stuck in a pigeonhole. In New York, my work was freed as my head was freed. I felt intuitively what my friend Clement Greenberg later told me: “In America, there is no no-go area for anybody.” Life in the new world offered me new possibilities as an artist and human being. Without my experiences in America, I would never have been able to develop as an artist. My experience at the Royal College of Art and admiration for the old masters and the English landscape tradition collided with American abstract painting to produce something that no one had seen before.

“The city called to me, and its toughness, competitive edge, and excitement drove me and my work to new heights.”

–Frank Bowling

SFMOMA: How did the community of artists and writers you found in New York influence your art?

FB: New York City in the 1960s was the place to be for art and culture, but also literature, theatre, politics, you name it. The city called to me, and its toughness, competitive edge, and excitement drove me and my work to new heights. My fondest memories of those early years are about the friendship, the camaraderie among the people I met there. I was introduced to New York’s cultural scene by my great friend Larry Rivers, who was the original hipster and who introduced me to the city’s bar life — Max’s Kansas City, Elaine’s, El Quijote, and so on. Larry also introduced me to Stanley Bard, the owner of the Hotel Chelsea, who gave me a suite with the idea that I would trade art for rent, as I had no money at all in the summer of 1966. I became close friends with Al Loving, Daniel LaRue Johnson, and especially Jack Whitten, Edvins and Irja Strautmanis, and Marcia Hafif who lived around the corner in SoHo. I also visited with established artists like Andy Warhol, Franz Kline, Ken Noland, and Jules Olitski. It was through Rivers that I also met Jasper Johns. Being around all these abstract painters expanded my horizons, and Johns was instrumental in making me feel that being an artist was not just a cul-de-sac, and that one was free to do what one liked.

 

Frank Bowling, Jack Whitten, Al Loving, and friends at the opening of 5+1 at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, New York, 1969; photo: Adger Cowans; © Adger Cowans; courtesy Frank Bowling Archive

SFMOMA: In New York, you developed some of your signature practices, such as thinning and altering the chemical composition of paints and pouring paint across the canvas. What brought you to these techniques?

FB: My studios have always been spaces for experimentation as my intentions are never fixed, and I’m always hoping to find new things in the work. In New York, the size of the space gave me the scope to work on a large scale, and it was there that I made my “map paintings,” which I usually painted on the floor. It was also there that I built the tilting platform that allowed me to pour paint from heights of up to six feet. I would tack the canvas to it, and then I’d put the paint on the canvas and let the paint flow down over the canvas at a speed I could control. I’m interested in studying and inventing ways to expand traditional methods of applying paint. That’s as true today as it was 60 years ago. I began experimenting with paint as a student, using metallic pigments and sand in works. After art school, I was in a study group with a sculptor and painter, digging into the physics and chemistry of materials. In New York, I became friendly with people like Leonard Bocour, who pioneered the development of acrylic paints. I also used spray paints favored by graffiti artists, fluorescent and pearlescent pigments, acrylic gel, ammonia, water, natural turpentine, and beeswax. I still use traditional tools like the brush and palette knife, but the mainstay of my work has been liquid acrylic paint, wet-into-wet, that I pour, spill, drip, and skid onto the canvas. I also use paint pots and buckets and move between the studio floor and walls to find geometry in the work. Since the 1980s, I’ve chucked in pieces left around the studio. It started with bits of bling left by my stepdaughters, and then grew to everything from acrylic foam to plastic animals and even car keys ending up in the paint. I want to make something from paint on canvas that no one has ever seen before, to get something that gives me a buzz and what you might call an “eye-hook,” something that will hold the viewer’s eye, pull them into the painting, and allow their eyes to move from the general composition — its color and geometry — into the details at the surface of the work.

 

An example of a map painting: Frank Bowling, Barticaborn I, 1967 Lowinger Family Collection; © Frank Bowling; all rights reserved Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London, 2023; courtesy the artist; photographed by Stan Narten

An example of a poured painting: Frank Bowling, Suncrush, 1976 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Sophie M. Friedman Fund; © Frank Bowling; all rights reserved Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London, 2023

SFMOMA: How did trips back to Guyana impact your work?

FB: In 1968, I went back with photographer Tina Tranter as we’d cooked up this idea of going to Guyana to make a film about my childhood: to capture the landscape, the beggars my mother fed every Saturday, the slaughterhouse, the mental hospital, the things that found their way into my work. The film never got completed, but we had a wonderful time shooting it. We documented people and places, and when I was back in New York, I started screen printing some of these photographs onto my canvases. Even though I was pushing my work towards abstraction, I couldn’t let go of these references.

SFMOMA: How do your recent paintings connect with the work you made in New York?

FB: I’m pleased that the curators have decided to include recent works like Looking West Again (2020), 4 Bensusi (2020), and Elder Sun Benjamin (2018). Even though these paintings were made more than 50 years after most of the works in the show, there are of course connections between them.

 

A recent painting: Frank Bowling, 4 Bensusi, 2020; Frank Bowling Collection; © Frank Bowling; all rights reserved Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London, 2023; courtesy the artist; photographed by the Frank Bowling Studio

“I head serendipitously into the studio in each session. There’s rarely any planning, and there’s certainly no formula and no blueprint.”

–Frank Bowling

FB: The fundamentals of my approach are still the same as they ever were, and maybe I’m now able to play a bit more and push the boundaries still further. I’m not the kind of person who believes that making art is all about angst: I’ve always said that you have to have a good time when you go to the studio. Now that I’m an old man and sometimes it is tough even to get out of bed, I feel that even more acutely. I’ve always been competitive, and I’ve always been driven, so the urge to get into the studio every day, or as often as my body will allow me, is a constant. My recent work has also drawn back to earlier themes in material, process, and geometry. You’ll find swathes and washes of color, and an enduring concern with root rectangles, diagonals, lateral lines, the quadrant arc, and the circle-in-a-square. I’m finding new and interesting materials to put in the paintings. I’ve been experimenting with chalk, ink, Chinese tea, a kind of packing material called “wood wool,” seashells, bits of plastic, acupuncture needles, and the medical waste that comes from spending too much time in the hospital. When I’m asked about the intention in my work, my answer is that the intention is in the work itself as I am focused on making it. Although I’m using well-established materials and processes, I head serendipitously into the studio in each session. There’s rarely any planning, and there’s certainly no formula and no blueprint. The works just happen, and if they work out — if I like what I produce and if other people like them — that’s all that matters to me.

 


Major support for Frank Bowling: The New York Years 1966-1975 is provided by Pamela Joyner and Alfred Giuffrida, Diana Nelson and John Atwater, and The Elaine McKeon Endowed Exhibition Fund.

Generous support is provided by The Sheri and Paul Siegel Exhibition Fund and Pat Wilson.

Additional support is provided by Alka and Ravin Agrawal.

This exhibition is co-organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.


Caroline Harris

Caroline Harris

Caroline Harris is an assistant editor at SFMOMA, where she writes and edits content for the museum’s print and digital communications. A Bay Area native, Caroline is passionate about writing and majored in English at the University of Pennsylvania. When she’s not reading or writing, Caroline enjoys running, hiking, skiing, and exploring San Francisco.
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Alexxa Gotthardt

Alexxa Gotthardt

Alexxa Gotthardt is the Assistant Managing Editor at SFMOMA. She loves helping creative, unconventional people tell their stories and writing about the forces that inspire and sustain artists. Outside of work, she likes to spend time in the water, take photos, and grow plants. She studied Art History at Middlebury College and is originally from Ohio.
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Cristina Chan

Cristina Chan

Cristina Chan is the Managing Editor at SFMOMA.
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