Denis Bowen

Space Age abstract painter


Denis Bowen, painter, teacher, gallery director and critic: born Kimberley, South Africa 5 April 1921; twice married (one daughter); died London 23 March 2006.

For over 50 years Denis Bowen was a leading proponent of informal abstract painting in Britain. His painting adhered to the existential freedom and automatic procedures of "Tachism" and "Gesturalism". In later years he marshalled the energetic blobs, splashes and dribbles of poured or sprayed paint towards a cosmological symbolism expressive of phenomena like eclipses, supernovae, galactic explosions or volcanic eruptions - themes that bridged the gap between art and science, and expressed his interest in the revelations and discoveries of the Space Age.

Bowen was born the son of a Welsh farmer in Kimberley, South Africa, in 1921. Orphaned at an early age, Bowen returned to England with his brother and two sisters in the mid 1920s. He grew up with relations first in Manchester, then with an aunt in Huddersfield. Showing precocious artistic talent, Bowen entered Huddersfield Art School in 1936, where his tutor, the Royal College-trained painter Reginald Napier, directed him towards the RCA in London. The Second World War put Bowen's art education on hold; but after serving in the Navy, with which he travelled on Atlantic convoys and on trips to the Far East, he entered the RCA in 1946.

Despite his encountering tutors like Carel Weight, Robert Buhler and John Minton, who were figurative painters, Bowen's tendency was to experiment with the pure processes of painting. His awareness of paint as a deliciously tactile, fluid substance capable of a range of expression beyond the merely descriptive ensured his involvement with the burgeoning avant-garde of the early 1950s.

However, Bowen's awareness of nature - particularly the spectacular light effects of skies at dusk - also brought a romanticism to his work. The wartime experience of the dark, fathomless waters of Portsmouth harbour at night seen from the deck of his frigate imprinted itself on his imagination - the ambiguous spatial continuum between sea and sky pierced by broad searchlight beams. Many of Bowen's drawings and paintings of the early 1950s used this source both as theme and iconographic device.

Bowen's teaching career began in the Interior Design department at Kingston School of Art. He also had stints at Hammersmith, Ealing, the RCA, the Central School and later at the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island. Like many painters Bowen often taught in an adjacent department to painting, in his case that of Industrial Design; this led to his later use of metallic car sprays and fluorescent paints.

His style matured neither in an ivory tower nor in a cultural vacuum. He read enthusiastically about contemporary French painting in the periodicals Art d'Aujourd'hui and Cimaise. His artistic pantheon was not distant or academic, for in London this ubiquitous and lifelong gallery-goer met heroes like Giacometti, Pierre Soulages or Georges Mathieu, artists that, through their process-led aesthetics, consolidated Bowen's own belief in "pure painting".

Bowen was a "gallery man" par excellence. His personal charm, articulate mind and generosity of spirit made him an ideal ambassador for young artists and for the avant-garde cause. Between 1956 and 1966 he directed the New Vision Centre Gallery downstairs in the building near Marble Arch where he would live for the rest of his life. Co-founded with the painters Halima Nalecz and Frank Avray Wilson, the NVCG aimed to provide a broad and democratic voice, something that the seemingly élitist Institute of Contemporary Art sometimes failed to do.

Many artists had early exhibitions at the New Vision; Peter Blake and the comedian Charlie Drake enjoyed solo shows there. A committed internationalist, Bowen gave exhibitions to notable continentals including Piero Manzoni, the Dutch "Zero Group" and Yves Klein's mother, Marie Raymond. The American painter Robert Goodnough also exhibited.

Though more European in feel, Bowen's work also related to the direct "action" painting of New York "abstract expressionism" and Bowen met Theodoros Stamos, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman in London, the British painter taking Newman to see Brunel's Paddington Station.

The New Vision was seen in some quarters as an irritant, challenging the West End gallery status quo that wished to specialise in a coterie of St Ives or London abstract artists. Bowen's own exhibiting career during the 1950s, however, extended beyond the underground walls of the NVCG or those of the coffee houses, for he enjoyed many prestigious solo or group shows in leading galleries in London, Paris and beyond.

In 1957 he contributed to the Redfern Gallery's landmark "Metavisual, Tachiste, Abstract", an exhibition that put Bowen's painterly abstraction in context - among the other exhibitors were Roger Hilton, Patrick Heron, Sandra Blow, Adrian Heath and Gillian Ayres. The same year he contributed his aptly named picture Automatic Image to the first John Moores biennial exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

Bowen's urge to experiment saw his work take a different tack during the 1960s. While key paintings like Instant Moons (1962), Colonel Glenn (1962) or Venusian (1963) used the explosive language of thrown paint to express a fascination with rockets and manned space travel, the colour remained dark and sombre.

By the late 1960s, however - and in line with his emotive poetic and astronomical titles - he formalised the recurring planet-like discs, surrounding them with bright, sometimes even fluorescent coronas and, in the case of Ruby Planet (1969), emulating the crackled surface effects of fired ceramics through a maverick use of unstable media like acrylic on top of oil paints.

The introduction of fluorescent colours struck unearthly, luminous effects in the 1970s. The suspicion remained, however, that Bowen was a tonal painter rather than colourist and even spectacular later paintings like Red Barrier (1987), Prismatic Planet (1988) or Magma (1988) used jet blacks alleviated by gold and silver metallic sprays.

As a member of AICA (the international art critics group), Bowen travelled widely in later years, painting, teaching and exhibiting regularly in the Balkans. His popularity on the London art circuit was matched by manifold connections abroad. But he strongly associated with his Celtic roots, joining the Celtic Vision Group, initiated by the painters Derek Culley and John Bellany.

A book and retrospective at the Belgrave Gallery, London in 2001, together with the belated acquisition of work by the Tate Gallery, finally celebrated his broad, but underrated, contribution to post-war abstract art in Britain.

Peter Davies

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