Art history has traditionally celebrated prolific and singular figures of the past: the name J. M. W. Turner immediately evokes sentiments of greatness. Numerous artists, from Barnett Newman, a central member of the New York School, to contemporary new media artist Sondra Perry, have in some way reflected Turner’s influence. The British Guyanese abstract expressionist Frank Bowling also notably mined Turner’s work for inspiration, vying for a similarly central position in the canon of painting. Turner’s seemingly effortless, sublime seascapes and landscapes inspired Bowling, who cleverly made aspects of the older artist’s aesthetic his own.
In addition to being politically conscious, Bowling has astute awareness of the history of art. In particular, he learned lessons about the sublime, color, and playing between abstraction and figuration. By mastering and making his own the techniques of a master like Turner, Bowling makes an argument for belonging to the same lineage of painting. The practice of emulating former artists adds authority to his practice, like a citation, and gives it art-historical pedigree, suggesting parallel greatness.
Bowling was not the only artist active in New York in the 1960s and ’70s with links to Turner. Barnett Newman, another painter Bowling admired and whose style he sampled and remixed, also took inspiration from the British painter. According to Edmund Burke’s theory, the sublime as an artistic effect produced the strongest emotions humans are capable of feeling. In contrast to the 19th-century painters variously exploring the sublime, Newman sought to render sublime concepts through his own mind rather than from capturing experiences that call forth the sensations of overwhelming fear and awe of nature. In a February 1961 article in ARTnews, the art historian Robert Rosenblum connected the dots by tracing color field painting (epitomized by Newman’s paintings of the 1950s and ’60s) back through Turner to Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea (1808–10), effectively updating the aesthetic theory of the sublime.
Similarly, Bowling tapped into the power of the sublime—and by doing so placed himself within an artistic lineage that included Newman and Turner. Indeed, he channels both figures in the map painting Night Journey (1969–70), which reflects the maritime highway used in the transatlantic slave trade and may remind us, especially in the context of MFA Boston, of Turner’s famous rendering of the same subject in Slave Ship, (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On (1840). Emotionally charged color emphasizes both surface and subject in Night Journey: Bowling juxtaposes regions of royal blue, crimson red, and dashes of mint green, while an explosive yellow stroke (found in Newman’s work as well) cuts through the Atlantic Ocean, linking the outlines of Africa and South America.
What does Frank Bowling mean today? His unique take on abstraction and landscape nods to past artists while stepping forward into the future. It is this ever-unfolding mastering of different painterly languages that allows Bowling to at once appear and disappear through his work, a dynamic that continues through his recent output. What does Turner mean? What about Newman? These are questions with complex answers: Turner precedes Bowling and Newman, but it’s impossible to see either in 2023 without whispers of Bowling. Connected by a sublime bridge, one great artist cannot be mentioned without another being evoked in our imagination.
Melanee Russo attended the University of Massachusetts Boston from 2021 to 2022. She graduated in May 2022 and received a bachelor of arts in art history.