In Frank Bowling’s two monumental paintings titled “Middle Passage,” created in 1970, the yellow color falls in a way that is reminiscent of the setting sun. The yellow color travels across the canvas, revealing the shape of Bowling’s home country at the bottom, as well as hints of South America and Africa in the distance. The yellow eventually merges with a green color, creating a hue that can appear black from certain angles. While Bowling emphasizes that the most important aspect of these paintings is the way the color spreads and interacts with the viewer, the paintings also have significant ties to place.
Bowling, who is now 89 years old, was born in Guyana, a country under British rule at the time. His memories of childhood revolve around his mother, who ran a clothing store and involved Bowling in her work. Before becoming a painter, Bowling helped his mother with sewing projects, running errands, and collecting orders. Bowling explains that his mother’s attentiveness was to protect him from his strict father, who was a policeman. Bowling’s desire to leave Guyana stemmed from his desire to escape from the control of his father and his colonial upbringing.
Leaving Guyana meant relocating to London for further education. Bowling arrived in London in 1953 and initially aspired to be a writer. However, he soon discovered a passion for art and immersed himself in the city’s museum culture. He began creating self-portraits and paintings of figures, and eventually attended the Royal College of Arts. Bowling’s time in London was formative, but he soon felt the need to move to New York to further his artistic journey.
New York provided Bowling with a vibrant and competitive artistic community, which pushed his practice forward. He experimented with different techniques and materials, and embraced paint as a physical medium. He moved his canvases onto the floor, allowing the paint to spread and bleed over the unpromised surface. It was during this time that Bowling created works like “Middle Passage” and the “Map Paintings,” which focused on the textures of topography.
Bowling’s practice has remained relatively consistent over the years, with a focus on materials and an exploration of paint. Despite his age and physical limitations, Bowling still feels most alive when he is in the studio. His process begins with priming the canvas, followed by mixing the paint and flooding the canvas with thin color. He knows a piece is finished when he feels it is an allover picture and pays attention to the edges. He often adds final touches with oil paint and comes up with a title for the work.
In terms of his work routine, Bowling used to work every day in two shifts but now works about three to four hours at a time. He often dreams about his next painting and is eager to get to the studio as soon as possible. He listens to a variety of music, including blues and jazz, while he works and frequently speaks with other artists. Bowling wears different clothing depending on the season while working.
In conclusion, Bowling’s complex relationship to place is evident in his paintings, particularly in the “Middle Passage” series. His journey from Guyana to London and then to New York had a significant impact on his artistic development. Despite his age, Bowling continues to create art and finds joy and vitality in his studio practice.