Upon settling in New York City in 1966, Frank Bowling became passionate about modernism and what he called “pure abstraction.” He explored it in his art, his magazine writing, and his numerous teaching positions—all during a time of unrest for Black communities in the United States and colonized countries in the Caribbean and Africa.
Bowling didn’t want to be pigeonholed into a particular narrative. He preferred his art speak for itself, rather than be defined by his race. He rejected the idea that Black artists should be obligated to create overtly political artwork and sought greater representation for his fellow Black abstractionists. That was the goal of “5+1,” the exhibition he helped stage at Stony Brook University in 1969, and which presented his work along with that of five African American abstract artists.
The abstract nature of Bowling’s art invites viewers to interpret it in ambiguous ways, allowing for an array of feelings and meanings, interpretations that stem from both the period of creation and the present moment of the viewer. The enigmatic nature of his art is best displayed in his Poured Paintings (1973–78), where he experimented with the serendipity of art making by pouring paint onto a canvas from a height of six feet. Bowling’s techniques make room for different experiences for each viewer. Looking at a work like Suncrush (1976) is almost like looking at a beautiful, magically made riddle. It’s as though the colors appear on the canvas naturally, interacting with one another in a cohesive way. How could someone have the capacity to create such a perfect coexistence of chance and intentionality? It feels as if Bowling aims to interact with his viewers through his techniques of visual illusion, of guiding the eye around the canvas.
As Stony Brook’s and UMass Boston’s companion exhibitions on the artist make clear, Bowling speaks to audiences to this day through his work as well as his advocacy for marginalized groups within the art community. Bowling serves as a muse for students and other up-and-coming creators by strategically pushing for representation and staying relevant to societal issues. He exemplifies how to do this while avoiding being forced into someone else’s narrative, allowing for individualistic expression that has purposes outside of an obligation to make overt political statements.
As a woman, I can relate to this idea. One can create feminine work, embrace femininity, and push for the respect and representation of women without being misinterpreted and stereotyped. In “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, her famous essay from 1971—not long after “5+1”—Linda Nochlin dismisses critics who would claim “the inability of human beings with wombs rather than penises to create anything significant.” Women creatives have always had to fight bias. Christine de Pizan, whose The Book of the City of Ladies (1405) is one of the earliest feminist texts from Europe, crafted her rhetoric to make the work appeal to a broad audience despite these views. She disingenuously describes her “disgust and sadness” at being a female “vessel [of] sin and evil” before leading readers down a path of feminist and literary innovation, getting them to actually see the work rather than ignoring it due to preconceived notions about its theme.
Resistance to identity-based essentialism in the drive to have one’s art exhibited and recognized is a concept I would imagine a lot of marginalized groups can relate to—the desire to express creativity in a way that isn’t clouded by others’ stereotypes or tokenism, but rather for one’s own wish to express an individualistic experience of the world.
Julia McQuaid is a senior at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, studying psychology and Italian studies.