The Ultimate Proof of His Freedom: Frank Bowling’s abstract painting
Frank Bowling, O. B. E., R. A.: Paintings, 1974-2010 at Spanierman Modern
September 14 – October 16, 2010
53 East 58th Street
New York City, (212) 832-1400
In Frank Bowling’s earlier, more representational work, he was often concerned with the kind of autobiographical and socio-political themes that occupy many other artists of Afro-Caribbean descent. In England, he is still best known for the semi-abstract “map” paintings he made in the later ‘60s, with stencilled images of South America on the far left and Africa on the far right, the ocean in the middle evoking the infamous “Middle Passage” by which captured or purchased African men, women and children were transported to slavery in the New World. Nevertheless, when Bowling made his own transition, around 1965-66, from being London-based to being New York-based, he gradually transferred his allegiance from the representational to the abstract, finding that abstraction liberated him to focus on those aspects of picture-making that mattered most to him. “The practice of painting within the boundaries of Formalism,” he wrote in May 1972, “provides a setting in which I am able to test and ultimately prove my own freedom.”
Today, he divides his time between studios in London and DUMBO (having been elected to membership in the Royal Academy of Art in 2005, and made an officer of the Order of the British Empire two years ago). He was born in 1936 to a shop-keeping family in Guyana, then a British colony, and sent to England in 1950 to complete his schooling. Initially, he considered a writing career, but after visiting the Continent, and seeing Goya, Rembrandt and Van Gogh, he turned toward painting. Graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1962, he at first moved in circles of representational artists, including Larry Rivers (then resident in London) and fellow RCA graduates like David Hockney. His full-time stay in New York lasted approximately ten years, and included a stint as a contributing editor to Arts Magazine from 1969 to 1972. He was introduced to Clement Greenberg in 1971, at a party given by Peter Reginato, and Greenberg became a visitor to Bowling’s studio, offering advice and encouragement.
The earlier paintings in the Spanierman show are in the tradition of color-field paintings of the ‘70s and ‘80s. The Bowlings from the ‘70s, with their loose, vivid and flame-like pourings of paint, are clearly related to near-contemporary paintings by Helen Frankenthaler or Paul Jenkins. The Bowlings of the ‘80s, with their subdued, closely valued colors, often mottled or with intricately-wrought accretions of gel and other elements, are kissing cousins to the works of Jules Olitski and Larry Poons from this period. Yet all the work at Spanierman retains its own vigor and individuality. Nobody with any familiarity with this school could mistake a Bowling for a Jenkins, Frankenthaler, Poons or Olitski. Though he belongs in their company, he is his own man. This is especially evident with canvases like 13th Hour (1976), in which a thrilling, vertical whoosh of brilliant yellow rises in the center of a narrow soft pink field, accompanied by accents of chartreuse and rust. Another memorable picture is Odysseus’s Footfalls (1982), a monumental panorama of speckled cloudlike shapes of pink, purple and mint. It clearly takes its name from the enormous foot-like shape descending through its middle, though certainly Bowling never intended to paint a foot. Rather, the shape must simply have emerged in the course of creating an abstraction, and the artist (whose literary talents frequently lead him to whimsy and word plays in his titles) titled it after the fact.
Were Greenberg still alive, he might not be as enthusiastic about Bowling’s work since the ‘90s, but it too is distinguished, in a different way. Pictures are smaller, and the paint is much more controlled, often sutured into collaged elements. Squares, strips and rectangles of brightly painted fabric are cut out (sometimes with pinking shears) and stapled into place. In some of these paintings, especially those from around the turn of the century, the palette is ripe with rich, deep browns and other urban hues, but the newest works of this show are mostly clearer and brighter. This is especially true of a series of three done this year, in which a central area, dominated by yellow, is decorated with playful little flower-like dabs of pink and blue, and framed by strips of fabric in contrasting colors. The largest and most successful of this series is Old Dutch Vase (2010). Some examples of the later work are a bit off from the high standard set by most of the other works on view, but this is a minor cavil. On the whole, the show offers an outstanding artist who (as the Guide Michelin might say) vaut le voyage.