Frank Bowling: London/New York
On ViewHauser & Wirth
May 5 – July 30, 2021
Water is of striking and singular importance to Frank Bowling’s life and artistic work. One can perhaps begin with the coasts of Guyana, where the artist was born, or the banks of the Thames, where his East London studio is located, or even with the seascapes of J. M. W. Turner, whose scintillating waters are often referenced as a point of comparison with Bowling’s work. It’s no coincidence that water is also a seminal part of Bowling’s artistic technique: he begins almost all of his works by soaking the canvas in water, enhancing the tautness of the fibers and enabling the paint to move with more fluidity. The resulting paintings seem to maintain a sort of liquidness themselves: abstract forms float with weightlessness on the canvases and soft color washes swarm together, mingling in the folds where they overlap and give birth to new tones.
Frank Bowling—London/New York takes Bowling’s movement across water as its point of departure. Centering the artist’s peripeteia between the two cities that give the show its title, the exhibition is fueled by the Transatlantic. Bowling arrived in London in 1953 and went on to attend the Royal College of Art, where he befriended the likes of Francis Bacon and David Hockney. During his time as a student, he also made his first journey to New York City in 1961. Textured by the growing civil rights and Black Power movements, the trip engulfed Bowling in sentiments of Black self-determination. In 1966, he moved to the city, building relationships with Jack Whitten, Jasper Johns, and Melvin Edwards—artists whose commitment to abstraction inspired Bowling to make his own work. But the Hauser & Wirth exhibition does much more than stage a comparison between these two cities and their various relevancies to Bowling’s life; rather, it asks what can be mined from them as one entanglement. The installation articulates the full force of what Paul Gilroy famously calls The Black Atlantic (1993): the geographical and political standpoint carved from the dispersal of, and cross pollination between, African-descended people across the Atlantic Ocean. Churning with colorful washes and running heavy with acrylics, the canvases are guided by the “special mood of restlessness” that characterizes the Black Atlantic—the proclivity towards flight and fugitivity that expresses the ebb and flow of being in diaspora.
Bowling’s lifelong reckoning with geography is perhaps most obviously realized in his “Map Paintings,” which repurpose the world map as a device for exploring color and abstraction. Dominating the exhibition’s first gallery is Texas Louise (1971), a lush meeting between electric pink, earthy purple, and pastel orange. Almost indistinguishable among these washes floats the mirage-like trace of the Americas, which stand in conspicuous solitude, severed from any broader geography. No longer is there a center and a periphery, an east and a west or a north and south. The world map—which hegemonic powers envision as the basis of an unflinching and universal order—becomes seemingly liquid, thrown into a sea of colors. Like Bowling himself, it is deracinated, untethered. The following gallery includes three additional map paintings, including Where Is Lucienne? (1971), where various continental forms are overlapped with silkscreened photographs of Bowling’s family. Staging a fraught encounter between memory and place, the painting upends the certainty of space-time. Geography blurs together in a sublime ensemble, visualizing Paul Gilroy’s suggestion that we take the Black Atlantic as “one single, complex unit of analysis,” to “produce an explicitly transnational and intercultural perspective.”
Movement and flight take on a formal quality in Bowling’s “Poured Paintings,” iridescent explorations of paint, color, and speed. The apotheosis of his technical inventiveness, Bowling created the “Poured Paintings” by dripping paint onto a canvas while simultaneously manipulating the direction and angle of the surface—and thus the velocity of the paint—using a self-made tilting mechanism. With Bowling having relinquished direct touch and control over the paint, colors pool together and form layers of staggered saturation and contrast. In Rosebush (1974) and Rising (1978), paint cascades towards freedom, pausing at moments to meander, and then taking off again to race down the surface. Movement itself becomes a medium as the paint gleefully navigates the canvas, insisting on the poetry and possibility of migration.
I sensed the restlessness that Gilroy describes most profoundly in Bowling’s more sculptural paintings. With equally untamable titles, these canvases—made three dimensional by found objects, polyurethane foam, and layers of impasto—bear the marks of open struggle between color, texture, and form. Armageddon (1984) is crowded with an infinity of colors and shapes, descending into an arrhythmia that one might envision at the end of the world, or the making of a new one. Piano to Guyana (2004) is an abundantly polyphonic love song to Bowling’s homeland. A seemingly geological texture emerges from built up layers of acrylic, gel, and adhesive, while soft paint washes peek out at the edges of the canvas, ocean-like in their contours. These errant congregations are dense with the materiality of resistance: refusing to be tamed by our gaze, the paint writhes and clamors with the immensity of diasporic experience.
In even the smallest corners of Bowling’s wondrous abstractions, we find an enormity of questions and experiments, an invitation to delight in what Bowling once described as the “thrilling unpredictability” of painting. Bowling’s canvases are saturated with a Black Atlantic mood, a mood of struggle and errantry, a mood of intractable commitment to experimentation born out of existing within the gathering of cultures that is Blackness itself.