AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

Born in 1934, Frank Bowling moved from New Amsterdam, Guyana (then British Guiana), to London in 1953, and later graduated from the Royal College of Art. In the late 1960s he spent several years living in New York, where he maintains a studio, and in later life continues to divide his time between the two cities.

His work, recently the subject of a large-scale retrospective by the Tate in London (and the first living black artist to be included in the gallery’s collection), explores what can be achieved with paint as a medium, when it is poured, dripped, stained or thickly layered (“painting as total activity“). His canvases are often enormous in scale, with vivid use of colour, and they are notable for their luminosity and iridescence, achieved through his use of materials such as fluorescent chalks, metallic pigments, acrylic gels and acrylic foam.

The work combines figurative elements and geometric shapes with abstraction, and from early on autobiographical elements and a pre-occupation with sociopolitical issues were evident. From the 1980s he began to incorporate remnants of materials from everyday life, from plastic toys to scraps of African fabric brought back from a trip abroad by one of his grandsons.

Detail from Witness, 2018, which incorporates – embedded in the paint – a cocktail umbrella, pipe-cleaner dog, plastic spiders and fabric (picture taken from the Tate exhibition catalogue)

Bowling’s early work displays an expressionist, representative, sometimes visceral, painting style, inspired by artists such as Francis Bacon and Goya. As Bowling’s work moved towards abstraction and away from the obviously personal in the late 1960s, a number of motifs were nevertheless used and re-used repeatedly in Bowling’s art. These include shadowy contour maps of continents, as well as screenprints of family members and of his mother’s home in Guyana. He employs these as if they were abstract forms, but they remain ambiguous and, as Richard Schiff notes in the Tate catalogue, can’t avoid being connotative.

Bowling is perhaps most renowned for his iconic late 1960s map paintings, as well as his subsequent ‘poured paintings’, which, as the name suggests, experiment with the effects achieved by pouring paint onto unstretched canvases.

Through his writing as well as his art, Bowling has also played a leading role in issues relating to ‘black art’ and the right of artists from all backgrounds and identities to express themselves artistically. The catalogue from the Tate show tells of the duality that Bowling felt as a young man, where, as a rapidly well-established part of the London and New York art scenes, he hoped to represent black people and the black experience in his art, but resented the reductive label ‘black artist’.

“[critics] tend to stress the political over the aesthetic … concerned with notions about Black Art, not with the works themselves” – Frank Bowling

Moby Dick, 1981, acrylic paint on canvas, 250.5cm x 189cm. Taken from exhibition catalogue.

Sacha Jason Guyana Dreams, 1989 – 178cm x 136cm (taken from exhibition catalogue)

The above painting was inspired by a trip to New Amsterdam with his son Sasha, and the quality of the light he found there, and the combination of brightness and heat haze: I really like this one.

For Bowling, painting seems almost like a kind of performative act of transcendent philosophy (which I’m not sure I’ve fully got my head around!)

Spirit, where is it? But painting will continue to declare thingness.” – Frank Bowling

Currently my aspiration is to make my work as my life has been. The unfolding of light, and the total experience of my body within history, making real those moments when the material I’m using registers a spirit of the wholeness of extemporaneous life, of things. As a thing myself I was there, I witnessed, I felt, I know, and knowing is the work.” – Frank Bowling

Frank Bowling at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1971 , catalogue picture (although not an American citizen, Bowling was sufficiently immersed in the New York art scene for his painting to qualify as ‘American painting’.)

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