Orginally Published on July 2, 2021
By: Hester Lacey
Q&A with the artist on his mentor Clement Greenberg, what keeps him painting and a missing diptych from 1963
Frank Bowling, 87, is one of Britain’s greatest living abstract painters. He was made an OBE in 2008 for services to art and was knighted in 2020. Known for his large-scale canvases and his sensual use of colour, he has made works that hang in major collections around the world.
What was your childhood or earliest ambition?
When I was 13 or 14, I wanted to be chief of police. I thought that I could be — that I would be — a great detective. Private school or state school? University or straight into work? State school in New Amsterdam [in Guyana], then national service in the RAF when I arrived in England aged 19 in 1953. My art education started at Chelsea College of Arts, then City and Guilds Art School, then the Royal College of Art and a term at the Slade.
Who was or still is your mentor?
The writer and critic Clement Greenberg. He was a father figure who spotted that I was a natural colourist and understood what I was trying to get at. His was a kind of influence that opened new directions, rather than made you feel that this was the direction in which you should go.
How physically fit are you?
I used to be an athlete. I played cricket and soccer and I was a sprinter, winning at 100 yards and the 440-yard dash. Now my body is ravaged by age.
Recommended Visual Arts Frank Bowling: the British-Guyanese artist on his 60-year transatlantic career Ambition or talent: which matters more to success? Ambition is the central magnet. I got to the Royal College with almost no academic background. Although Vivian Pitchforth, my tutor at Chelsea, always referred to me as “this fellow with talent”, my success at the RCA was down to the confidence that Carel Weight, professor of painting, had in me.
How politically committed are you?
I’m politically aware. I’m depressed by poverty, unfairness and the ravages of capitalism. But my art is about paint, not politics. What would you like to own that you don’t currently possess? I’d like to own the house where I live in Pimlico near the Tate Britain and have my family turn it into a museum when I’m gone.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Booze. In what place are you happiest? In the studio making paintings. I try to go every day and I have a good time there. That’s where it’s at.
What ambitions do you still have?
I want to make the best painting in the world ever. What drives you on? Anxiety keeps me painting. I want to get better. I’m always risking things with the old methods and processes, constantly trying to push things further and looking for what will surprise me in the work.
What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?
Living long enough to meet my great-grandson. What do you find most irritating in other people? When they’ve got the cheek to think that they can make better art than me. If your 20-year-old self could see you now, what would he think? “Wow!”
Which object that you’ve lost do you wish you still had?
A painting that I made in 1963 called “Lent”, a diptych of two six-foot-square canvases. The council ordered some workmen to clear out my studio and “Lent” probably ended up in a skip. What is the greatest challenge of our time? Time seems to go by far too quickly. I’d like to see an end to poverty in the world and to end the wanton destruction of the planet. Do you believe in an afterlife? Sometimes. If there is one, I’d like to see my mother again. And my son, Dan.
If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?
Nine. It would be 10 if I could find “Lent” and all the other paintings that I’ve lost over the years. “Frank Bowling: Land of Many Waters” shows at Arnolfini, Bristol’s international centre for contemporary arts, until September 26. His work is on display at the Hauser & Wirth galleries in London and New York until July 31. arnolfini.org.uk, hauserwirth.com