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Chelsea

Portrait of Frank Bowling in his studio

An interview with Frank Bowling

Written by Sarah McLean
Published date 29 May 2019

Artist and Chelsea alumnus Frank Bowling OBE, RA will be celebrated in a retrospective exhibition at Tate Britain, opening Friday 31 May.

This long overdue celebration of Frank Bowling’s career will be the first exhibition to span the full breadth of his practice. Bringing together rarely seen works and iconic series that highlight the quality and range of his remarkable six-decade career, the exhibition will include a new painting by Bowling, as well as groups of rarely seen early works, some not exhibited in over 50 years.

Frank Bowling studied at Chelsea in the 1950s and in 2014 announced that he would donate scholarships to cover the full course fees for two MA Fine Art students at the college from the UK and Europe.

We interviewed Frank at his home just a stone’s throw from Chelsea’s Millbank site when the scholarships were first introduced and Chelsea had just appointed Paul Goodwin and Sonia Boyce as Chairs of Black Art and Design. Sonia Boyce would later go on to lead the three-year research project Black Artists and Modernism which incorporated a survey of Frank’s work.

Here we republish that article, in which he talks about his long, successful career on both sides of the Atlantic and what inspired him to want to support the artists of tomorrow.

An abstract painting by Frank Bowling. The main colours are blue, purple and pink. It shows two outlines of the African continent.
Barticaborn I, 1967, Acrylic paint, spray paint and oil wax on canvas, 2340 x 1224 mm Lowinger Family Collection - Credit: Frank Bowling

Frank Bowling became an artist in 1956 after completing his National Service which saw him employed as a clerk in the RAF. On meeting the artist Keith Critchlow and sitting for a portrait by him, he says he got a feeling suddenly, out of the blue, that “poetry was the best way to talk to myself, about myself” and began to write. Now known for his painting, he first picked up a paintbrush while looking for a more physically-involving form of self-expression. “What inspired me to make the move was that I felt, on being introduced to painting particularly, that I was using more of myself – I was using my body – to deliver the material onto the surface of the canvas. It seemed to be more all-encompassing than sitting at a desk with a blank piece of paper trying to deliver what you’re feeling and thinking.”

He hasn’t given up on language entirely, however. “A blank canvas is much more inviting to me than a blank page. Though I’m constantly scribbling this, that and the other. I play with words in my titling using riddles and hints, because the paintings are there to deliver their own message and if you can open a door to the content of the stuff on the surface, all the better. Just yesterday someone was asking me about one of my titles!”

A close-up portrait photograph showing the head and shoulders of artist Frank Bowling at home wearing red braces, a blue shirt, a black hat and glasses.
Frank Bowling at his home in April 2014. Photograph: Gavin Freeborn. - Credit: Gavin Freeborn

Having decided he wanted to study visual art, he joined Chelsea before winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in 1959. At the RCA, his fellow students included David Hockney to whom he lost out on the gold medal when they both graduated in 1962. Frank showed us his silver medal which happens to be sitting in its box on the coffee table, and I spied some spots of red paint along the edges. It has clearly been with him to the studio once or twice.

Frank has had the same studio in Elephant and Castle for the past 30 years, and at the age of 78, in spite of some health problems, he still visits it to paint for at least two hours every day. Once he had left college, he visited New York in the mid-1960s, and it was here that he moved from figurative to the more abstract work that he still makes today. Indeed, he still has a home there in the DUMBO area of Brooklyn with a view of the bridge and, as in London, right by the river. There, his studio is in the same building in which he lives, and Frank describes the time he spends there as an idyllic existence, hearing “the musical rattle of the subway trains over Manhattan Bridge” as he listens to jazz or classical music on the radio.

Though he is no longer able to spend half the year there, he still visits. Indeed, his next visit to New York will be for a show of new work at his gallery, Spanierman Modern, which opens this month, and has also financially supported an arts centre in New Jersey that was founded by a friend of his, allowing them to buy the building and create a sustainable complex dedicated to art, music and dance.

An abstract painting by Frank Bowling.
Iona Miriam's Christmas Visit To & From Brighton, 2017, Acrylic paint and plastic objects on collaged canvas, 1890 x 1225 mm. Courtesy Frank Bowling and Hales Gallery, Alexander Gray Associates and Marc Selwyn Fine Art - Credit: © Frank Bowling. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2018

It is clear that he thinks it’s important to offer support to other practitioners where and when he can, an instinct which can be traced back to his membership of the artist-run The London Group which was set up in 1913 as a counter-balance to institutions such as the Royal Academy. Though still a member and former vice chancellor of the group, Frank has since become the first black artist to be elected a Royal Academician. When asked what drove his decision to set up these scholarships for MA Fine Art students at Chelsea, it seems that it was a straight-forward decision to make. “The thing is, it’s always the simple things that are so difficult to explain. Clearly my own life informs the decisions to do things like this: when I was a student, if there was somewhere I could have gotten a scholarship to avoid having to ask my parents for support I would have done it.”

“My own agreement to do this is informed by that experience and I can only say that my fortunes having changed, it seemed to me rather a waste to give the money to a government that is not particularly supportive of cultural heritage.” He adds, “I’m not grumbling about the state of government or anything, I just know culture comes last on the list. By the time I was teaching [at Camberwell College of Arts] Mrs Thatcher came along and all the students’ support systems vanished overnight – no grants, you couldn’t get materials...”

“What it did is expose yet another aspect of culture: people who want to make creative things will do it anyway, they’ll do it with anything! Put an artist under pressure and they will find a way of coping and my contribution here is a way of facilitating that. Artists will always do what they have to do and find ways of doing it, but if I can find ways to alleviate some of that stress then I'm duty bound to do it.”

An abstract painting by Frank Bowling.
Great Thames IV, 1988-9, Acrylic paint on canvas, 18 10x 3210mm. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London - Credit: © Frank Bowling. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

The London Group was founded in part by artists who would go on to found the Vorticist movement, and Frank still identifies with a modernist tradition in his work today. Inspired while in America by the abstract expressionists and colour field paintings, the influences are still visible in the works he makes. Among the artists he mentions as he talks are Matisse, whose work he is “rethinking” and Auerbach, whose work at the De La Warr Pavillion in Bexhill recently “transfixed” him with “vicious brush strokes”.

However, he’s also looking further back into art history. “Right now I’ve been looking at Chinese art, which is partly to do with the fact that my dealer gave me a big bag of silk to use in the work I’m making and the Chinese painted on silk, so I’ve been looking at that in particular. I’m using the silk in a very different way, but I’m looking at the way silk has been involved in the making of art in history. I’m still quite visited by a lot of classical African art such as works by the Bambara and since what I do is extemporizing all the time, it’s coming from nowhere, coming from everywhere and coming from me. I don’t feel inhibited by hints in my work of other cultures, I feel it’s available to me and I can use it if I can make works that have that ingredient of modernism.”

“Novelty is a large ingredient in modernist art and of course, like anything else, novelty can be excessive and you can get ‘bling’ rather than art. I’m more concerned with carrying on the modernist tradition than locating myself into any sort of cultural bracket.”

A shot of one of the room at Tate Britain with three abstract pantings by Frank Bowling hanging in it. One is large, red and yellow. One is smaller and red and green. One is pale purple and pink. Also in the otherwise empty room are two benches.
Installation View, Frank Bowling at Tate Britain (31 May - 26 August 2019). Tate Photography, Matt Greenwood. - Credit: Tate Photography, Matt Greenwood.

Indeed, with regards to this aspect of his work, he admits that he has been frustrated in the past by being pigeonholed as a black artist, and the expectations this gave people about what his work should look like and be about. Born in Guyana, South America, his family settled in the UK when Frank was 15 years old. Yet his thoughts in response to Chelsea’s recent appointment of Paul Goodwin and Sonia Boyce as Chairs of Black Art and Design are perhaps somewhat unexpected. “I think terminology can be excluding – I don’t think there’s any such thing as ‘black art’, I think black people make good art.” He is supportive of both Paul and Sonia’s work, however, and is looking forward to seeing how the new roles have an impact at the level of higher education.

With our time at his flat coming to a close, we decided to end the conversation by asking him if he had any words of advice for the students that are about to embark on their postgraduate studies. “Keep on keeping on – just hang in there and on with it. The system is daunting and younger artists don’t realise that. When you start making art there’s something called ‘the career‘ that comes behind it and that’s the most difficult bit to deal with. It’s almost as if you can’t escape ‘career’. The art part is organic, natural, but the career concerns can be daunting and in fact a lot of people become disenchanted with the activity because they tend to weigh down your spirit.”

“Remember to go back and get on with your work. Have a good time in your studio, that’s where it’s at.”

Frank Bowling runs at Tate Britain until 26 August 2019

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