Nov. 2014: Frank Bowling is a Guyana-born, London-based abstract painter who was one of the first black artists to have a solo show in America. Even still, he’s kind of an overlooked art star. His colleagues at the Royal Academy of Art include David Hockney, and Lucian Freud was his mentor. Bowling, who is known for dreamy abstract expressionist paintings, was championed by Clement Greenberg alongside artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Barnett Newmann. Bowling has a slice of art history nobody has really heard about, for an art movement where many of the key players have passed away.
Bowling is having a big retrospective at the Spiritmuseum in Stockholm until April 2015, called Traingone, which includes 13 large-scale paintings spanning from 1979 to 1996. Bowling, who lives in London and has strong connections to the New York and London art scenes, reminisces over the golden years of abstraction, recalls eating steak with Hockney, and offers advice for young painters in a digital era.
Frank Bowling, Traingone (Mahaicony Abary), 1996. Acrylic on canvas, 96.5 x 210 cm; Courtesy of the Artist and Hales Gallery, London; Copyright of the artist
Nadja Sayej: Was there ever a point in your career when you wanted to give up painting?
Frank Bowling: No, dear. Never. I’ve been through the ringer but I’ve never thought of giving up. I’ve thought of doing drastic things, like punching somebody or whacking somebody for being insensitive and insulting, but giving up? I’d never give up.
NS: That’s good to hear because a lot of painters struggle today in a digital era, so there is more of a struggle to keep painting alive.
FB: I think you’ve hit it absolutely on the button. Younger artists are having a tough time in a new media era. I’m trying to figure out how to say this that doesn’t sound too dark: My wife’s eldest daughter, my step-daughter, is a painter. She lives in the United States in Miami, and is having a show in a museum gallery. She is having a really hard time getting her career going because people are just playing games with her.
Ralph Lauren wants to borrow one of her paintings to show in his New York showroom. They’re putting her through the ringer for size and location in downtown Manhattan. She was about to have an exhibition at a New York gallery, run by someone in his 80s who I know, who just closed the gallery. Things like that happen. People do give up. I didn’t give up and she is not giving up.
I have a deep sympathy for younger artists. I really think it’s a tough game, career-wise. You can be in your studio, doing your work, feeling up. When I’m really up is when I’m in my studio.
Portrait of Frank Bowling; Photography by Jäger Arén; Courtesy of the artist.
NS: Did art school prepare you for the financial and business side of the art world?
FB: No, and that’s the thing with my generation, they’re always commenting that we really wish we had known how to proceed to set up a career. We were never taught that, we were just warned at the Royal College of Art, by the head of painting who said, “Don’t bother with galleries.” But if you don’t bother with galleries, how do you get representation? You need representation. Younger artists today who get representation today are not painters. They are using current technology and media.
NS: In an interview with The Guardian in 2012, you said you were “waiting for a really big show.” Is this it?
FB: This is a really good show and I’m really grateful to the Swedes, but the big show I’m waiting for is a proper survey of my achievements in somewhere like the TATE. I feel this is an important step. My dealer feels the same way.
NS: How important is it to develop a relationship to art critics, as an artist? You refer to Clement Greenberg as “Clem.” It gave me the impression you were close.
FB: We were very close. When I met him, I was enlightened by a lot of stuff, in terms of career. He arrived in my life when I was very discombobulated and doing a lot of drinking and writing and doing a lot of work. He steadied me. What he did was, he came to my studio and found me a dealer. During the times I was disturbed, he would call me every morning and say, “How you doing? Want to meet for lunch?” He would come down and we would meet for lunch. We’d walk around and see the other studios. We would do it until he was not able to do it anymore. I consider him the guy who put me right on how to proceed in being an artist.
Frank Bowling, Installation view, Traingone, Spiritmuseum 2014; Photography by Jäger Arén; Courtesy of Spiritmuseum, Stockholm
NS: What was the most valuable thing Clement Greenberg taught you?
FB: He taught me that I should never allow myself to be excluded from any of the activities concerning my work. When I arrived in New York, I left London thinking I was being put in as a black artist, rather than an artist who happens to be black. When Clem came to see my work, I became committed to abstraction and he asked me why I hesitated so long to commit myself and I said “I thought I wasn’t being allowed to participate, that was a no-go area.” He said, “Don’t believe any of that bullshit, you are allowed to do what you want.” While he was sick and dying, he tried to get me in a gallery that was the most forceful. Clem called them and told them to get in touch with me. I told him he shouldn’t have. He said, “Don’t worry about it, you just hang in there.” He died soon afterwards. I’ve hung in there.
NS: Is your painting Train Gone a shout out to John Coltrane?
FB: It is. The reference is to Coltrane and a leper colony in Guyana where I was born. The train usually stops at the leper colony who share what they’ve made—food, vegetables, ceramics—to sell to train passengers. I remember people would say “Train gone!” as it left. It’s also the sound of Coltrane’s horn.
NS: Are you still in touch with David Hockney? I always wondered if there is competition between artists.
FB: I was reminded of him, I wrote him not too long ago. A woman who is making a documentary about my work interviewed him and David had nice things to say. Competition can happen. David and I were very close. We used to be friends. He is a vegetarian and I would eat steak.
Frank Bowling, Great Thames II, 1989, Acrylic on canvas, 171.4 x 274.3 cm. 67.5 x 108 in; Courtesy of the Artist and Hales Gallery, London; Copyright of the artist
NS: What advice do you have for young artists?
FB: If you want to do this shit, you have got to be better than me. If you’re not better than me, you’re going to have a lot of trouble. If you are as good as me, you’re still going to have a lot of trouble. You better be as good as, if not better so you can take what’s going down.
NS: Are you still painting every day?
FB: Everyday. My wife who has been a friend of mine since 1959 insists I shouldn’t work as many hours. I get out of bed and go to work until I’m too tired to work. I exhaust myself. It is where I feel at my best. I try and stay in the studio as much as possible. My Chinese acupuncturist told me to only paint in two-hour shifts. But sometimes I do more. I can’t stop myself.
Traingone by Frank Bowling is at the Spiritmuseum in Stockholm, Sweden from October 23, 2014 to April 6, 2015.
ArtSlant would like to thank Frank Bowling for his assisance in making this interview possible.
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