Frank Bowling’s work as an artist, critic, and curator has found new life in the present moment. He has always been a profound and enigmatic artist, but he wasn’t always appreciated or celebrated. His work from the mid-1960s into the late ’70s is a beautiful take on modernist abstraction that also manages to depict territorial boundaries and representations of land and sea. These compositions, which appear nonrepresentational at first, actually allude to the artist’s roots and routes: his origins in British Guiana and his status as an immigrant, first to England, then to the United States. Bowling is able to convey where he came from and who he is as an artist.
With each move to a different country, Bowling surely gained a new point of view. His Blackness and immigrant status gave him not just what W. E. B. DuBois called a double consciousness, but a triple or quadruple consciousness. This complexity of perspectives surely provided Bowling with a unique outlook on his place in the world, which he conveyed in his art. With its emphasis on vertical lines, his painting Suncrush (1976) almost feels like a horizon that has been shifted 90 degrees, seemingly an allusion to the disorientation of migration.
Bowling’s complex identity gave him a different perspective on what it meant to be a Black artist and make Black art. Because he was an immigrant to the United States, he may not have had the same connections to the civil rights movement as Black American artists did, and his ideas about what committed art was supposed to look like may have differed as well. His art doesn’t adhere to the prescriptions of the Black Arts Movement, which advocated for figurative depictions of Black life in America. During the same period, Dana Chandler and Faith Ringgold were depicting scenes of violence and struggle, Bowling was creating nonrepresentational abstract art.
Although his work didn’t explicitly address Blackness, Bowling was still a Black artist. He engaged with ideas of the Black Arts Movement while staying true to himself and his process. He indicated his political position by capitalizing the word “Black” in the catalogue for his 1969 exhibition “5+1.” He worked to uplift some peers and critiqued others, always adhering to a belief in quality. He advocated for the need to exhibit works by Black artists whose output he deemed worthy in the same spaces and with the same sense of honor as the famous white artists of the time.
Frank Bowling is important today because his paintings are still relevant and impactful. His use of color, gradations, and gestural marks come together to yield beautifully constructed images. His belief that a Black artist’s works should be presented within institutions in the same way as those by white artists importantly recalls today’s focus on issues of Black representation. The fact that Bowling now has his own exhibition at MFA Boston perhaps reveals—returning to DuBois—that “the problem of the color line” is starting to be addressed, and redressed, by museums that haven’t always given the same level of respect to Black artists as their white counterparts. This is an important step in changing the canon of art history.
Black Is Everything and Nothing All at Once
Representative of the world.
Nonrepresentative of thought.
Further into the notion of abstraction.
Themes, more opaque, more blurred.
Now enlists us as viewers and artists today, to look
Evermore deeply into what it means,
For a Black artist to be Black?
For an artist to be, an artist?
Now, thinking is art truly indicative of identity?
Or is art a manifestation of thought on a plane beyond that of our physical?
Where art is you, but it is also not an extension of your/self(-image).
Nicholas Davis is a senior at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is majoring in art with a concentration in art history. He enjoys all medium and forms of art, and plans to work in museums or archives in a curatorial capacity.