On ViewHauser & Wirth
Frank Bowling: Landscape
May 26–August 5, 2023
Frank Bowling: The New York Years 1966–1975
May 20–August 5, 2023
British painter Frank Bowling conversed with Alex Bacon via email on the occasion of a traveling exhibition exploring his time working in New York in the 1960s and ’70s. During this tumultuous, innovative, and exciting period Bowling explored new techniques and motifs in his painting while also honing his skills as an incisive writer about issues relating to abstract painting and race, and as a curator advancing the positions of artists of color.
Alex Bacon (Rail): Who were the artists you sought out when you moved to New York and why?
Frank Bowling: When I moved to New York in 1966, it was because I needed to be there. I was being told that I would be better off in New York by my friends Frank O’Hara and Larry Rivers. I was feeling hemmed in and stifled in London and when I arrived in New York, I fell right into the aesthetic and social aspects of abstract painting. It meant I could break loose from the expectations and predictable narratives that swirled around me in London, the reduction of everything to some kind of post-colonial political statement.
In New York I started to get much more involved in pure painting. It was a liberation. I still had in my head what I learned in London—the Old Masters, Expressionism, the English landscape tradition—but I started looking at the American abstract painters—Barney Newman, Mark Rothko, and so on… Through Rivers, I also became friends with Jasper Johns and Norman Lewis. I also knew Franz Kline, Alex Katz, Ray Parker, Roy Lichtenstein and Virginia Jaramillo. I was trying to fuse the kinds of things I was interested in with what could work viably in painting.
Rail: During the late 1960s and 1970s in NYC you moved between predominantly white abstract painting circles and predominantly Black ones concerned with racial issues in the art world. Was there a divide at the time between who was concerned with which kinds of issues that made this necessary?
Bowling: When I arrived in New York I was heavily influenced by Pop art and became good friends with Rivers, who I met when he was living in London in the early sixties, and we saw a lot of each other there. When I moved to New York, we used to hang out at the Cedar Tavern and Max’s Kansas City, walking around the West Village all day long and half the night, just hanging out and waiting around for people to show up. I was hanging out with Tom Wesselmann, Jim Rosenquist and many of the younger artists who were involved in pure abstraction.
Then in 1969, I got thrown into this big art world row about the Metropolitan Museum doing a show called Harlem on My Mind; the entire exhibition was documents, photographs, media, and so on. Hardly any art at all. It was the establishment telling artists what their station was and their position in society, but not showing what they were doing with their art. And there was a group of artists around my age—people like William T. Williams, Al Loving, Mel Edwards, Jack Whitten, Daniel LaRue Johnson—all of them making abstract paintings and sculpture that was the kind of art that I was interested in. And these guys were offended, very offended, by the fact that they were not consulted about this show, even though many of them lived and worked in Harlem.
It was the fact that Black artists’ works never got shown except when they dealt with related political concerns, like slavery or civil rights. Artists who were involved in making explicitly political art were able to get attention from the establishment, rather than other artists who I thought were the better painters and sculptors. I was certain that what these abstract artists were doing was the essence of what you might call the Black soul… It was like jazz. That’s the closest comparison to the daring extemporizing and sheer quality of these young Black artists.
As for moving within and between groups of people… well, my experience in London in the late 1950s and 1960s was that everyone mixed. Then in New York in the sixties, I used to hang out in the bars frequented by all the artists—Max’s Kansas City and the St. Adrian Company—and the bar was like my front room, you know. I drank there, I ate there, and I was able to trade a painting for food and drink. And I would say that there was a feeling of camaraderie where the Black guys were just part of the scene, part of the milieu of the time.
There certainly was segregation in sixties New York and fights—usually more about the art than anything else—but the fights stopped quickly, and the disputes were resolved. My instinct is that the art that these people were making and the behavior in the bar was connected… in the sense that these guys—Black and white—were avant-garde and forward looking. I felt that what was going on in the late sixties and early seventies seemed to reflect what was happening in American society. Among painters and sculptors, yes there was Black and there was white, but the artists were striving for, aspiring to, a forward-looking view of American modernism.
Rail: Can you speak about your experience writing art criticism during this period?
Bowling: Well, as I said, I was at this meeting at the Met that was triggered by the controversy over Harlem on My Mind and I voiced my opinion, which is something I hardly ever did when I was in London—maybe because there weren’t many Black artists around there—so I always felt as if I were expected to be some sort of Black representative and that was something that I was keen to avoid in London. At any rate, that was part of the reason why I spoke up in America, because I felt it was… it was proper to America, that kind of discussion, and that I had something to say.
Following that intervention, I was asked to write an editorial for Arts Magazine about this dispute. Then I got into the discussion about the definition of “Black art” and whether it existed or not. So I wrote several pieces, speaking to guys I’d met, like William T. Williams, Al Loving, Mel Edwards, Jackie Whitten, Danny Johnson—the people who were making the kind of art that I thought, and still think, was the best version of art-making by Black people. And, of course, I defended what they were doing in Arts Magazine because I thought that what they were doing was where it was at. And I still think that.
Well, I soon found myself being asked to give more of my opinions, writing for ARTnews and others—reviews of exhibitions and books, things like that. I’d always thought about it, but I’d never gotten around to it. And now, here I found myself being an art critic, and an opinion-maker as to who was good and who wasn’t. It was amazing, a wonderful time. I was invited to do it, so I did it. And my luck began to change from being yet another artist immigrant in New York, to being accepted as part of the art scene.
Rail: There was an increase in the political content of your work in this period, such as the maps of regions like Africa and Australia. How were you and your art affected by the social and political issues of 1960s and ’70s America?
Bowling: It’s an albatross that was hanging round my neck—that’s how I view that kind of thing. I’ve mentioned how in London I seemed to be called upon to represent the Black world so to speak, as a kind of stool pigeon to help the necessary pacifying for the awfulness of colonialism. I did nod towards this post-colonial thing, in the early sixties if for no other reason than I was taken by what was happening in the Belgian Congo. Later on, when I was in America, by ’69 I’d gotten involved with the discussions about Black artists, and when I was in London Ron Kitaj tried to get me to be much more interested in political things than I actually was. I became aware of politics much more when he was around, and I do remember that when I came back in ’71 or ’73 he sought me out because he discovered that I was writing, and I was trying to define what Black artists were doing and whether there was such a thing as Black art.
I feel very political about a lot of issues, and I’m certainly political about what it means to be an artist and I think a lot of the things which have gone down makes what I’m doing a reflection of a much wider spectrum. I’m not sure that my art was affected by what was going on, I don’t see my paintings as expressive of any positions except that of engagement with certain aspects of the recent histories of American painting. Today I’m much more interested in the fate of the planet, the environment, so it’s more of a whole world thing.
Rail: What was the process like curating the 5+1 exhibition at SUNY, Stony Brook in 1969?
Bowling: I helped organize 5+1, which was an exhibition of the works of five Black American artists and myself being the plus one. It was the beginning of this attempt to have greater exposure for some abstract artists who happened to be Black. I thought it was a start, because it occurred to me from the disposition of the artists themselves, and from the general situation, that something needed to be done. I took it on, I think because I felt that there was something that I could do about what appeared to be this overwhelming indifference to what Black artists were doing in this area. You know, if you were painting that kind of Harlem Renaissance and, you know, semi-abstract, figuration and stuff, then you were in, but otherwise your work was neglected, you weren’t getting shows, and so you were an unknown quantity.
Rail: What is your perspective on exhibitions from the 1970s, like The De Luxe Show, that attempted to establish an integrated approach to color field painting? Did it make sense to you that color field painting, a movement associated primarily with white artists, would be a space to explore the ramifications of race in art making?
Bowling: I remember The De Luxe Show being a really big deal, around the same time as my solo show at the Whitney and Some American History. I didn’t get to see The De Luxe Show, and Peter Bradley said that he wasn’t going to include me because my work wasn’t abstract… Because it had these map stencils. But you know, even back in London in the early to mid-sixties, once I was sure of my calling, that I was an artist, that I had something to contribute, then I was striving to “sharpen my art,” if you like, by taking on aspects of the prevailing trends in painting like color field and hard-edge painting. Like my previous attempts to get to grips with painting techniques at Royal College of Art, I felt that color field painting and hard-edge painting were making strong demands on the artist—I wanted to do it, I wanted to be good at it. I wrote about Mondrian for my dissertation at the Royal College, and by the mid-sixties I was looking at Minimalism and American abstraction and I was getting to grips with geometry and color and with sculpture too. I just wanted to make good art, to make the best art I could. And that’s still where I’m at today.
Rail: Did the loft space you had in NYC affect the kind of work you were able to make, versus the space you had in London prior?
Bowling: Well, yes, of course. In London I’d had good spaces to work, but nothing like the scale and scope that my loft on 535 Broadway gave me. The map paintings from the late 1960s and early ’70s—you know some of them are twenty-three feet across—the idea of making works at that scale, the possibility of making paintings that big, like Texas Louise (1971) or Penumbra (1970), that really only came from living and working in a New York loft. Then, being back in London in the 1980s, I also had a big space on Cable Street, and then in my current studio in Peacock Yard, I was also able to make large works.
I lost my Broadway loft in 1975 and wasn’t able to get back to working in New York in any sustained way until 1990. That was an incredibly tough time. We didn’t really have an income. At all. No one was interested in my work in London and I didn’t have representation. But we got a loft in Brooklyn in 1990 and Rachel and I put it together in a very minimal way. The windows looked onto the East River… like you could step out of the window into the river, and the first thing I did was to get Rachel to paint the window frames red, yellow, blue, green. And the reason for doing that was rules-based. Using this very specific color-chart thing was to anchor the discipline, to anchor the influence of the river on my work through the prism of red, yellow, blue, green. So the short answer is yes definitely, the studio space you inhabit affects what kind of work that you make.
Rail: What is the relationship between abstraction and figuration for you, something you’ve explored your whole career?
Bowling: I had always been good at figurative painting and been rewarded for it when I was young, but I realized I never wanted to be that competent in the tradition of figuration. I still have a feeling for the English landscape painters, but I’m not interested in painting landscapes. I feel that as an abstract artist you are trying to unearth your whole self with maximum openness. It was only when I stopped writing by early ’72 that I just got into my own work. And as luck would have it, just at that point I met Clement Greenberg, who encouraged me to think the way I was thinking, but to get it in the work rather than writing. Clem encouraged me to think that there were no no-go areas as an artist. There was no point in me writing any more because it was time for me to just show it… to do it. So that was when my work turned towards pure abstraction.
Rail: What attracts you to a process-based way of working?
Bowling: Knowing about painting arrives with doing it. I feel that the real substance, the thing that feeds me, what makes me feel good inside, are the rules within the activity of painting itself. They are a challenge that constantly has to be moved along. That constant searching for something new in painting, as I watch the liquid paint move across the carrier surface, seeing it spread and bleed and pool. I get off on that, I really do. I think you should have fun when you are making art. I’ve never been one of those people who think that you should go to the studio with feelings of angst, like being an artist is some terrible burden that makes you want to beat your breast. No, I go to the studio because it makes me feel good, and because I get a thrill out of seeing what appears on the surface of the canvas.
At the moment I’m preoccupied in making these large upright paintings. They’re mostly over twelve feet tall and I’m finding the making very engaging. I realize that I graduated from the Royal College sixty years ago, and that I have been an abstract painter for more than half a century. Now it’s just what I do. It’s what gets me out of bed and into my studio. I am still looking for that thing that will catch the eye. The thing that will hold your gaze in a work of art. That will make you want to reach out and touch it; maybe even make you feel like it looks so good that you want to pick it up and put in your mouth and taste it.