Frank Bowling

Swan 1

Bowling Swan I Private Collection Courtesy Hales Gallery 1500 - © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016. Photo: Charlie Littlewood
  • Frank Bowling
  • Swan 1
  • 1964
  • Oil on canvas
  • 112 × 243 cm
  • Courtesy a Private Collection - © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016. Photo: Charlie Littlewood

Frank Bowling, the Guyana-born and British- trained abstract painter, was the first black British artist to be elected to England’s Royal Academy of Art. He painted his “Swan” series (1964) during a difficult period of his personal and professional life. His friendship with painter Francis Bacon (1901–1992) had just come to a messy end, his marriage was in trouble, and his career experienced a setback when his work was excluded from two important London exhibitions (Painting and Sculpture of a Decade ’54–’64 at the Tate Gallery and The New Generation: 1964 at the Whitechapel Gallery). His concerns are suggested in imagery of the twisted, dying swans of these two works. In Swan I (1964) and Swan II (1964), he places the agonized figure of a swan against a series of hard-edged chevrons. In both works, the cool, formalist background gives way to a mélange of stylistic references, from the expressionistic splatters at the edge of Swan I, to the more linear abstractions of Swan II, to the almost op-art circular pattern that fixes the swan to the canvas in both works. These images paralleled the stylistic crisis that would ultimately see Bowling leaving London for New York two years later and instead begin to produce works that tended toward abstraction. When he exhibited these paintings at a London Group exhibition in 1966, Bowling attached ribbons, chains, and an anchor to the works, quite literally weighing down the once-graceful creatures.

Damian Lentini

Biography of Frank Bowling

  • Born 1936 in Bartica, British Guyana
Frank Bowling migrated to London in 1950. In 1959 he received a scholarship to the Royal College of Art and graduated three years later with the silver medal in painting (David Hockney [b. 1937] won the gold). Associated at the time with Pop art, Bowling mounted his first solo show—Image in Revolt—at London’s Grabowski Gallery in 1962. A travel scholarship then enabled him to visit South America and the Caribbean. Bowling quickly abandoned figurative, postcolonial art for abstraction. In 1966 he moved to New York where, bolstered by the African-American community, he developed his “Map Paintings” (combining Color Field techniques and stenciled images of South America, Australia and Africa). Bowling received Guggenheim fellowships in 1967 and 1973 and was a contributing editor to Arts Magazine from 1969 to 1972. In 1971, he received a solo show at the Whitney Museum and befriended critic Clement Greenberg (1909–1994), who encouraged his abstract direction. Bowling’s later series include his “Poured Paintings” and reliefs built up with Styrofoam. Bowling splits his time between studios in London and New York. In 2005 Bowling became the first black artist to be elected a member of England's Royal Academy of Art.