Richard Sheridan Patrick Michael Aloysius Franklin (Frank) Bowling was born on 26 February 1934 in the town of Bartica in colonial British Guiana, eldest son of Agatha and Richard Bowling. When Richard took up a post as paymaster in the local police force in 1940, the family moved to New Amsterdam, where Frank spent the greater part of his childhood. There, Agatha, who was an accomplished seamstress, dressmaker and milliner, set up a small dressmaker’s shop which soon expanded into a larger convenience store with a three-story house above it where the family lived. Between 1945 and 1950 Frank attended the Catholic Boys School and then the Barbice High School in New Amsterdam, while helping in his mother’s store.1
In May 1953, aged 19, Frank Bowling left New Amsterdam for London, arriving the following month.2 Bowling signed up for the Royal Air Force in the autumn of 1953. During his first year of service he became friends with the aspiring artist and architect Keith Critchlow, who took him to the National Gallery, which greatly affected Bowling: ‘I was very struck by the British painters like Constable, Turner and Gainsborough, whose marvellous touch I was very engaged by’.3
Choosing to embark on an education in art, between 1957 and 1959 Bowling studied at Regents Street Polytechnic, Chelsea School of Art and the City and Guilds of London Art School, before winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Art to study painting. Inspired by Francis Bacon, Bowling’s fellow students included David Hockney, Derek Boshier, Robin Denny, Peter Blake and R.B. Kitaj.4
While still at the RCA, in 1960 Bowling married the writer Paddy Kitchen, who was working at the college as a registrar and assistant to the Principal. As relationships between staff and students were forbidden, Bowling was suspended. He spent a term at the Slade School of Art, where he joined the Young Commonwealth Artists Group, before returning to the RCA when Kitchen left her post.5 Bowling graduated from the RCA in 1962 with a silver medal, with David Hockney winning the gold, and soon after had his first commercial exhibition, showing expressive, figurative works alongside Derek Boshier in Image in Revolt at the Grabowski Galleries in London. He also exhibited three paintings in the Young Contemporaries exhibition.6
Bowling’s first son, Dan, was born to Kitchen in January 1962, and he had a second son, Benjamin, with the artist Claire Spencer later that year.7 In 1964 Bowling’s third son, Sacha, was born to Irena Delderfield who he would go on to marry in 1969.8
In late 1963 Bowling was commissioned, alongside artists including Ceri Richards, Peter Blake and Leonard Rosoman, to produce three large paintings for an exhibition in Stratford-upon-Avon to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth the following year.9
In 1962 Bowling established a discussion group with friends to talk about geometry, architecture and colour, and the influence of these interests led to paintings such as Mirror 1964–6 (Tate T13936), with Bowling beginning to blur the lines between figuration and abstraction. He also looked increasingly to popular culture and personal memories, such as his mother’s store, creating integrated images such as Cover Girl 1966.10
When his first marriage ended in 1966, Bowling decided to move to New York, having visited twice during his studies in 1961 and 1962. From 1966 until early 1967 he lived in the Chelsea Hotel alongside other artists like Andy Warhol and Mark Rothko, and in 1967 Bowling was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.11 His painting moved further towards abstraction, and he began to work on a larger scale, abandoning the easel and frequently pinning canvases to the wall or onto the floor. From the mid-1960s, Bowling made his important map paintings, learning how to use an epidiascope or optical projector from the painter Larry Rivers.12 This device allowed him to project map outlines directly onto the canvas, and the resulting paintings formed the basis of his solo exhibition at Whitney Museum of American art in 1971.13
Bowling was contributing editor for Arts Magazine in New York from 1969 to 1972. In the fierce debates on the role and possibilities of black art that were raging at the time, he argued for abstract formalism as a genuine possibility for black artists.14 It was during this period, in late 1971, that he met the critic Clement Greenberg who was important in crystallising Bowling’s thinking: ‘Clem was able to make me see that Modernism belonged to me also, that I had no good reason to pretend I wasn’t part of the whole thing.’15 In the years that followed Bowling demonstrated an increasing focus on material, process and colour and by early 1972 his canvases were devoid of motif and symbol. In 1975 he developed apparatus to tilt the canvas so he could pour paint onto it and create his iconic poured paintings.16
In 1975 Bowling returned to London and from 1975 to 1982 he taught at Camberwell School of Art and Byam Shaw School of Art. In 1977 he married the artist Jean Askew, a marriage that lasted just two years.17
The 1980s saw him produce quasi-sculptural works, when he began to use thick acrylic gel and semi-rigid acrylic foam in his paintings. Bowling spent the summer of 1984 as a resident artist-teacher at the Skowhegan School of Art in Maine. He was joined that summer by his close friend Rachel Scott; they went on to live together from 1989, and married in 2013.18 In Maine, the rural environment returned him once again to landscape painting and memories of works by John Constable and Thomas Gainsborough.19 In 1986 Bowling had a major exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery. From 1990 to 2008 Bowling spent the spring and autumn each year working in New York, returning to London in between.
In 2001 Bowling’s eldest son Dan died suddenly, an event that led him to make a new series of elegiac white paintings. Bowling was elected as a Royal Academician on 25 May 2005, the first black artist to be awarded the accolade. Three years later, in 2008, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to art and became a senior Royal Academician on 1 October 2011. Bowling maintains working studios in New York and London.