Knight’s vision

Sixty years after coming in second to David Hockney, Sir Frank Bowling takes his seat at the front of the class to collect a prestigious art prize

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Frank Bowling turned 87 this year, but his advancing years and increasingly frail health haven’t diminished his tireless work ethic.

Beset by numerous health issues and in near constant pain, the pioneering British artist still goes to his South London studio for two to three hours every day to work on new paintings, aided by a dedicated team of assistants, family members and his wife Rachel Scott, also an artist, who Bowling instructs from his wheelchair using a laser pointer.

“I’m happiest when I’m in the studio,” he says. “I have a good time there. That’s where it’s at. But I can’t do it without family. I’ve tried to get them all nearby.”

“He was in hospital just before Christmas last year. He came out on Christmas Eve and went straight from the hospital to the studio,” recalls the artist’s middle son, Ben Bowling, a regular presence at his side. “As soon as he gets into the studio it’s almost like he’s possessed. He goes into the zone and for two hours, the pain disappears and he is totally focused on the making.”

Bowling’s intense dedication to his craft has been a constant throughout his six decade-long career. “He doesn’t recognise weekends. I’ve never known him to go on holiday. He works Christmas Day, Boxing Day. He has always worked all the time,” says Ben, speaking over Zoom from his London home.

Ill health means that Bowling is currently unable to do interviews in person, so his son questioned him on behalf of Big Issue North over the course of several days and jotted down his responses. It comes at a very busy time for the abstract painter, who found international recognition late in his career.

In 2019, after many years in the art world wilderness, Bowling won widespread acclaim for his first major retrospective at Tate Britain. A BBC documentary, Frank Bowling’s Abstract World, accompanied the show, introducing the artist to a wider audience. Last year he received a knighthood for services to art, and this year he held major exhibitions at Bristol’s Arnolfini gallery and Hauser & Wirth, which showed a number of Bowling’s paintings across its London and New York galleries.

Next week he will receive the 2022 Wolfgang Hahn Prize, which recognises him as a “resolute and uniquely innovative figure in the history of abstract painting”. Bowling will receive prize money of up to £85,000 and the Museum Ludwig in Cologne will acquire his 2020 painting Flogging The Dead Donkey, an eye-catching orange-red mix of acrylic and acrylic gel on canvas.

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“I’m thrilled. The Wolfgang Hahn Prize is such a prestigious award,” says the painter. “Ever since visiting Munich in my student days I’ve had long abiding, deep affection for Germany and this is one of my proudest achievements.

“It’s strange to have all this attention in later life. People expect you to feel different, and, of course, I was giddy about receiving my knighthood – it’s just so British. But I paint as I’ve always painted. The most important thing is to get on with the work. You just get up, get to the studio, work hard to do the best you can to make it new.”

Born in 1934 in British Guiana, Bowling’s long overdue rise to fame began when he arrived in London in 1953, at the age of 19, with notions of becoming a poet.

“My earliest ambitions were nothing to do with painting. I had this idea, when I was 13 or 14, that I would be a great detective. And when I first came to England, I didn’t know anything about museums and art because I was trying to be a writer,” he remembers.

His life changed course when he met the artist Keith Critchlow while doing National Service in the RAF and was encouraged to take up art instead. He went on to study painting at the Royal College of Art alongside David Hockney, Derek Boshier and RB Kitaj, graduating in 1962 with a silver medal (Hockney won gold).

In 1966, Bowling moved to New York where, inspired by the likes of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, he embraced abstract expressionism. In the decades that followed, he maintained studios on both sides of the Atlantic and continued to develop his distinctive bold style, characterised by ornate washes of colour, constantly experimenting with new materials and techniques of applying paint to the canvas.

“The possibilities of paint are never-ending,” he says, referencing the subtitle of his Tate retrospective. “Use a brush, drip it, pour it – it moves around, it doesn’t sit still, there’s always an element of surprise. It’s deeply full of substance and potential. I let the material flow. I’ve been embedding this and that into canvases since the 1970s. I’m moved to chuck in detritus, and watch it swim and settle. It makes me feel I can get to a whole vision of what I’ve passed through in life.”

The evocative lyrical titles that he bestows upon his paintings come from his lifelong fascination with words and language, he explains. Notable examples include 1971’s Where is Lucienne? and 1992’s Fishes, Wishes and Star Apple Blue.

“I play with words in the titles of my paintings using riddles and hints, because the paintings are there to deliver their own message and if you can open a door to the content of the stuff on the surface, all the better.”

Ben believes his father – who became the first black artist to be elected a Royal Academician in 2005 – was overlooked by the British establishment for many years because of his resistance to being pigeonholed.

“There has been historically a difficulty in placing Frank as a British artist,” he says. “He has a strong affinity with New York and the New York art scene and, for many people, I think Frank is seen as an American artist. Is he a black artist? Well, he rejected the term. He would say: ‘I’m an artist who happens to be black, but I’m not going to be defined by my skin tone’.”

A changing of the guard means that his international outlook now works in his favour. “Maybe his time has come as a cosmopolitan artist citizen of the world,” ponders his son.

“For me, the subject of painting is paint itself,” says the man himself. “It’s about exploring geometry and colour and the application of paint. I sometimes go into the studio with a specific idea about what I want to achieve, but I don’t have complete control over the paint and that’s where interesting things happen.

“I’m interested in paint, colour, light, the way that light seems to come directly out of the paint on the canvas. I’m always interested in making something new, something that no one has ever done before.”

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