Michael F. Bowen by Marlena Donohue
In the history of arts, letters, culture (and anti culture) there are always individuals who—through some serendipitous combination of vision, charisma, timing, sheer focus of intent– take their place not so much as textbook names on the tips of our tongues, but rather as important pollinators; keepers of the keys, if you will, for the unique spirit of their epoch. Pissarro is not on the tip of our tongue and yet he mentored the renowned Cezanne, interfaced between Theo and Vincent Van Gogh, and traveled with Monet abroad.
If these creative conduits are sufficiently gifted and tenacious, they are the ones who endure the vagaries of fads and are still honing their skills, and refining their art long after their school of thought/action is deemed passé. Some thirty years after the heady days of Beat, Michael Bowen’s art continues to touch us, to hold its place.
Michael Bowen is a pollinator, a significant connector of people and ideas. He has been thus for some five decades, during which by his own admission he has lived hard—he recounts his era’s love-ins, peace-ins, exuberant sexuality, and world wandering. Also by his own admission, he has “never, ever missed one day of painting.”
Such artistic seriousness and commitment comes as a surprise considering Bowen stands at the hub of an era—the Beat 50s and related HAIGHT Asbury 60s—known for its tune in/drop out ethos. Think the 50s and 60s and you will hear Ravi Shankar and smell incense (Bowen hung out with this crowd); you will see Yoko and John in bed before the cameras (Bowen worked in Lennon’s studio and captured the singer in a series of works); you will recall Leary spinning his ramblingly brilliant yarns (Bowen introduced Leary to the shamanism of Mexico and the two became fast friends); and you will conjure up the heyday of Warhol (who Bowen worked with as well).
While at the epicenter of all this fame, Bowen continued then and continues today to make a compelling and original body of literally thousands of works in oil, collage, assemblage and other media collected by premier international patrons, and shown all over the U.S., Europe and Asia. He was included in a major 1996 traveling show originating at the prestigious Whitney that sampled and contextualized the so-called Beat Generation, and his archival art books chronicling his art and times are prized rarities that sell for hundreds of dollars.
The son of a super successful Beverly Hills dentist whose family hobnobbed with luminaries from Bing Crosby to Benjamin Segal, Bowen left a life of wealth and ran away (literally) from his deluxe L.A. military school at age 16.
Like the veritable Brahman prince/seeker moving outside the protection of the palace complex to find Enlightenment, Bowen hit the mean streets to learn of life. He apprenticed under and befriended Kienholz; he hung out with Hermes and other now famed names in the Laurel Canyon art district of the early 50s, when L.A. artists lived in studios at $10 a month, ate canned tomato soup with saltines and slept on floor bound mattresses.
Those were the days when Bowen and his circle–first around the now fabled Ferus Gallery in L.A., and later within a budding, equally famous bohemian nexus in San Francisco–began to make art from any manner of detritus: old cars, found junk, magazines, collaged photos, you name it. In the midst of post World War II consumerism and suburban lock-step convention, Bowen and the remarkable people who have surrounded and been impacted by him decided to redefine and expand our notions of both art and life. Art was anything the artist decided to call art; and life was experience lived to the edge, awash in unrestrained and innocent sensuality and full throttle creative license.
Rauschenberg and Pop art set the stage for this freedom in thought and materials. Like Rauschenberg, whose close association with Cage at Black Mountain College lent him a strong belief in Zen, in chance and the metaphysics of creativity, Bowen too inherited a healthy respect for creative transcendence tempered by good painterly know how. Unlike so many of his circle who were not from art fields and fell into making art when the 60s suddenly opened the doors to all, Bowen was making art or thinking about it seriously since his youth. Bowen had no interest in the then popular cliché of the self-taught artist. He was a tenacious student of drawing and at 17, rejected his parents, their life style and enrolled in drawing classes at Chouinard Art School.
True to the constant quest of his era for stimulation and life experience, Bowen made his way to San Francisco from L.A. in the 50s. The Beat fringe culture there included now renowned writers like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, as well as William Burroughs, Norman Mailer and dozens of other pivotal minds, all dropping out, and in one way or another linked to Michael Bowen.
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Ave. . . .”
So went Ginsberg’s poem, Howl. When Howl was censored and strip tease banned in S.F., Bowen saw the repressive writing on the wall and headed south to Mexico. There with a series of mentors and teachers, Bowen continued a lifelong interest in metaphysics, non Western spirituality, expanded consciousness and universal symbols—dimensions of human expression that Bowen feels yet today are inextricably entwined within the ageless, almost magical ritual of art making.
From Mexico, he made his way to New York, met Leary, Warhol and in the 60s became active in the anti-war movement. To counter the aggressive war policies of the late 60s, Bowen coined the term “Human Be-In”–people gathering to just be together. Bowen hatched the ten thousand strong Be In at the Lincoln Memorial in Oct. ’67. That paradigmatic Time magazine photograph of hippies putting daisies in the gun barrels of riot police intersects at Bowen’s indelible mark on this shape shifting moment in American social history. Determined to drop two hundred pounds of daisies on the Pentagon that day as an emblem of the make peace/not war philosophy, Bowen found the plan foiled and so he packed what flowers he could in his car, passing them out at the D.C. demonstration, transforming the daisy in the gun into a timeless icon of non violence.
You can try to explain Bowen’s longevity and impact by simply saying he was the right personality at the right time. It is true that the assault on tradition was global and that he was swept up by a zeitgeist bigger than any one person: Assemblage in L.A., Cages 4’ 3”, the Judson Dance theater, Kaprow’s Happenings in New York, COBRA in Europe, the Beats in S.F. However, Bowen’s staying power extends beyond a good many of his better known Beat peers, and grows out of dedication, an exuberant, youthful energy that’s taken this artist to live, work and study in India, Thailand, Meso America, Florence, Italy and half the world. Bowen has rigorously studied American Indian symbology with Ram Dass, mysticism with Sufi masters, parapsychology, and though he will tell you in no uncertain terms that his deeply rooted spiritual life fuels his art, Bowen is loathe to come off as a New Age fanatic in a sea of fads. . .He is careful and thoughtful when he talks and we take him all the more seriously as an artist and thinker because of this.
In the end to really understand Bowen’s appeal we need to look beyond his epoch or his circle and focus on the work itself. He is a superb, instinctual colorist. Hues are lush and moody in turn. For every stroke that seems freely associative, rest assured there is an underlying rigor, a careful concept. If DeKooning’s fractured surfaces made the female somehow frightful and carnivorous, Bowen’s archetypal Woman uses liquid hues and lyrical strokes to turn the feminine into fecund nature personified. In Lovers, we see that he is a master of almost classical, well-controlled line: confident marks on a black ground limn two faces, and describe with the sparest of means the complexity of passion.
In the final analysis, one cannot help but notice that behind the whimsy and good will of Bowen, behind the stories and the lore, there is virtuoso skill and an abiding belief in humankind that is timeless, childlike, and today more than ever, hopeful and inspiring.
Marlena Donohue is the editor of Art Scene Magazine and an art critic for several publications including Art Forum, Art in America, Sculpture Magazine, Art week, The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. She is a Professor at the OTIS College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, CA., and a visiting lecturer at California State University and UCLA.
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