On ViewHauser & Wirth
May 5 – July 30, 2021
For Frank Bowling’s inaugural exhibition with the gallery, paintings from a six-decade career that saw Bowling work between London and New York are presented at both the London and New York locations simultaneously. Works on view span over 50 years of the artist’s career, from 1967 to the present day. The late Okwui Enwezor, curator and writer, believed that, “As when first made, today these paintings remain unparalleled pictures of astonishing physical power and stunning visual drama.” Born in Guyana (then British Guiana) in 1934, Bowling arrived in London in 1953, graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1962. London is the city where Bowling completed his studies as a painter and received early acclaim. However, New York drew him at the height of the civil rights movement, where he became involved in discussions of Black art—he found in New York a place of energy and ideas for an artist in search of new ways to make paintings.
The largest of the celebrated map paintings from the early 1970s here is Texas Louise (1971), a vast painting at 111 × 261 3/4 inches of engulfing yellow, pink, and gray. It features a centrally placed stencil—North America, through the Caribbean to South America—outline. The earliest painting here, also a map painting, and another horizontal work, is from 1967, Towards Green. The picture plane is divided into three equal sections with vertical lines made using masking tape, the tape later removed as the painting is completed. Additionally, opposing curved lines, made the same way, create a linear, spatial dynamism. Two of the three sections, one purple, one ochre, contain stenciled silhouettes of the South American continent. The third section, at the right side, is a veil of thin greens moving top to bottom, like heavy rain through which light penetrates but only partially illuminates. This internal division is explored further in Girls in the City (1991). This painting is a composite of smaller rectangular units that together form an irregular grid within the overall rectangle of the painting. Each segment comprises areas of stained and spattered canvas glued on top of a larger canvas—a technique known as marouflage—painted a flat color at the exposed edges of around an inch or two at most. The painting is a lattice of intense ribbons of color together with a variegated all-over field of color. The pulsing geometry of skeins of flat color, together with a tactile surface of stain, paint build-up, and acrylic gel is Bowling at his best—daring, innovative, and rigorously intelligent—the level of mastery of his means at no point restricting the desire to get on to the next painting to see what might happen. This impression is both intensified and confirmed on seeing the paintings here one after the other.
The occasional extended narrow rectangle at an edge of the face of the canvas, such as in Where is Lucienne? (1971), or the actual edge of a painting, stained with color, like Armageddon (1984), are examples or precursors of Bowling’s use of marouflage. Now used extensively, marouflage allows for an unstretched canvas to be painted to its edges and then, with the addition of strips of canvas glued to extend the surface, stretched. This technique is used with great invention and is an integral component of Bowling’s compositions, adding varying inflection and emphasis to the structure of his overall color.
In the paintings, layering—that is, what’s underneath—builds a depth in surface that reveals slowly the myriad strata and the reflection and refraction of light therein of colored substance: stains, thick impasto, acrylic gels, collage, stitched canvas, and metallic and pearlescent pigments. An articulation of the body and its movements and reach is there in accidents and distributions of paint and other materials. The particular and transcendent are inseparable. Found objects crop up unexpectedly: a tree branch embedded in Pondlife (After Millais) (2007), though the title may alert us. In Enter the Dragon (1984), bottle tops, a credit card, and ribs of polyurethane foam. Mallarmé’s comments on Manet’s Le Linge (The Laundry) of 1875 come to mind when considering the effects of such physicality combined with color atmosphere. Mallarmé responds to Le Linge as an introduction to his ideas about plein air painting in his 1876 Salon emphasizing the “transparent atmosphere” which takes on “substance,” thus “plunder[ing] reality,” the “contours … wasted by space,” and “invisible action rendered visible.” Think of the artist J.M.W. Turner, admired by these Impressionists and Bowling alike.
In recent years, Bowling has been working from a chair in his studio and directing the works in progress. His wife, the artist Rachel Scott, and other family members and close friends assist. It’s a collaboration Bowling deeply values. His ability to strive onward is undiminished, despite, as he has said, the fact that, “Beauty is awesome and frightening, something to aspire to, but intimidating.” At the Window (2020) certainly upholds this with its large scale and sublime expanse of interweaving resonant color—achieving both subtle and dramatic relation through other means than simple tonal contrast: this color is modulating and ever changing. It is difficult not to speculate about how much influence Bowling has had on painters such as Peter Doig and Chris Ofili, once also of London and now living in Trinidad. Like Sam Gilliam or Larry Poons, Bowling continues his long exploration of painting’s material and chromatic possibilities, an exploration joined by a younger generation of painters, most notably Katharina Grosse.