A native of California, Harry Bowden began his art studies at the Los Angeles Art Institute and later worked in commercial advertising. Between 1928 and 1931, Bowden divided his time between the National Academy of Design, the Art Students League in New York, and the Chouinard School of Art in Los Angeles. He soon became dissatisfied with academic training: “It made art too much of a craft. You win a prize and pretty soon you have a home in the country and it becomes a routine business.”(1) In 1931, after a summer class with Hans Hofmann at the University of California at Berkeley, Bowden determined to pursue painting seriously. He made his way to New York working as a petty officer on a merchant ship. By 1934, he was again studying with Hofmann. The following year he became one of Hofmann’s assistants and was friendly with George McNeil, Albert Swinden, Wilfrid Zogbaum, Ad Reinhardt, and Willem de Kooning. In 1937 and 1938, he painted two murals for the Williamsburg Housing Project.
Bowden’s New York work prior to 1940 reflects his fascination with a broad range of abstract themes, some of which, like Untitled: Nude, have a figurative basis, while others, as Number 47 (Untitled Abstraction), avoid reference to recognizable elements. Throughout his work from these years, however, runs evidence of Hofmann’s teachings and an abiding interest in Cubism.(2) The unsigned catalogue statement for the 1940 exhibition of Bowden, McNeil, and Swinden at the New School for Social Research stresses the significance of abstract concepts, whether or not recognizable objects appeared in their work: “In each [work] an idea has been adapted to the elements of painting.…” Pure nonobjectivity, like pure representation, was sterile ground: “An artist who only portrays a geometric arrangement of colored forms he has in mind, contributes nothing more than the artist who tries to copy nature. They show us the possibilities of a painting, but do not fulfill the promise.… A painting embraces many ideas, symbols, forms, tones, and colors, but all are resolved into a new thing. The metamorphosis makes the painting realgives it a life of its own.”(3)
In New York, Bowden achieved recognition through exhibitions of his paintings at the non-profit Artists’ Gallery (1938–46), the Egan Gallery, the Reinhardt Gallery, and the New School for Social Research. His fashion and commercial photography was also well received.(4)
In 1942, after the United States entered World War II, Bowden returned to California to become a shipfitter. Although he continued to show in New York, and periodically visited there, Sausalito became his permanent home. Following the war, photography again became an important part of his life. From the mid 1950s until his premature death of a heart attack in 1965, he concentrated, in both photography and painting, on the figure. An admirer of Edward Weston, of whom he made an unfinished film called Wildcat Hill Revisited, perhaps Bowden remains best known for photographs of sensual female nudes inlandscape settings and portraits of jazzmusicians, writers, and other painters.
1. “Artist Tells Why He is Anti-Academic,” Sausalito Independent Journal, 13 January 1951, sec. M7; Harry Bowden Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., roll 1882.
2. Although never a Cubist, Bowden’sideas about abstract art are colored by his appreciation for Cubism. His notebooks are sprinkled with quotations by Juan Gris, Georges Braque, Picasso, and others. Firsthand contact with Fernand Léger, whom he (along with McNeil, de Kooning, and others) assisted on an unrealized mural project for the French Line terminal in New York in 1936, further cemented his commitment to abstraction based on objects, although he continued to do nonobjective work occasionally over the next several years.
3. “Paintings: Bowden, McNeil, Swinden,” Exhibition brochure (New York, New School for Social Research, 1940); in Bowden Papers, Archives of American Art,roll 1892: 111.
4. The Artists’ Gallery, where a number of members of the American Abstract Artists exhibited, was formed in 1936 to exhibit the work of “mature contemporary artists, so that their work could be seen by the public… and picked up by commercial sales galleries.” Supported by voluntary contributions, the gallery charged no fee to the artist and did not receive a portion of sales proceeds for the exhibitions. Among the original sponsors of the gallery were Clive Bell, C .J. Bulliett, Fiske Kimbel, Walter Pach, Frank Jewett Mather, Jr., Audrey McMahon, Paul Sachs, Meyer Schapiro, and James JohnsonSweeney.
Virginia M. Mecklenburg The Patricia and Phillip Frost Collection: American Abstraction 1930–1945 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of American Art, 1989)