Alan Bowness, a leading writer, curator, and philanthropist in the British art world who helped establish the prestigious Turner Prize, has died at the age of 93. According to a statement shared by his family, Bowness died of natural causes at his home in London.
The internationally renowned scholar was the first trained art historian to become director of London’s Tate Gallery, a position he held from 1980 to 1988. During his tenure, he spearheaded the creation of a ‘Tate of the North,” the project which became Tate Liverpool.
“We are deeply saddened that Sir Alan Bowness has died,” Tate Liverpool wrote on Twitter. “Bowness was determined to extend Tate’s reach beyond London—with our gallery opening in 1988 & Tate St Ives following in 1993. His legacy lives on in the galleries.”
Bowness was born in London in 1928. He attended the University College School, London, after which he served in the National Service in a volunteer ambulance unit. In 1950, he continued his education at Downing College, Cambridge, and went on to study French painting under art historian Anthony Blunt at the Courtauld Institute of Art. After graduation he joined the Courtauld’s staff, where he taught modern art history for 23 years, eventually becoming deputy director.
Even before joining the Tate, Bowness was dedicated to the appreciation and critical study of modern and contemporary art, having co-curated influential exhibitions like “54:64 Painting and Sculpture of a Decade” at the Tate in 1964. The survey included over 350 paintings and sculpture by 170 artists from America, Western Europe and Britain, and attracted over 100,000 visitors.
In the catalogue for “Generation Painting 1955–65,” Bowness wrote, “I am attracted to pictures that might be called difficult, which have secrets that are only slowly revealed. There is a puritan streak in me too that I recognize. I like my color subdued, often monochrome, the artistic gestures restricted and the eroticism present but hidden.”
During his stint as director of the Tate, he greatly expanded the holdings of modern art, purchasing with assistance from the Patrons of New Art and the Patrons of British Art, Francis Bacon’s Triptych, August 1972 (1972); David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash (1967), the artist’s most famous piece from his celebrated series; Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych (1962); and Max Beckmann’s Carnival (1920). He also bolstered the Tate’s collection of American abstraction with the acquisition of paintings by Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Jasper Johns.
In 1984 he helped establish the Turner Prize, one of Britain’s most influential art awards, which honors outstanding contemporary artists. Past recipients have included Antony Gormley, Steve McQueen, and Susan Philipsz. Another influential project was the expansion of Tate’s campus, first realized in Tate Liverpool and followed by Tate St Ives, which opened after his retirement at the age of 60.
In 1957, he married Sarah Hepworth-Nicholson, the daughter of sculptor Barbara Hepworth and painter Ben Nicholson, and in 1975, he became executor of Barbara Hepworth’s estate upon her death. In the years afterward, he arranged a gift of 26 of her sculptures to the Tate, which today stand in the garden at Tate St Ives.