Frank Bowling: The Possibilities of Paint are Never-Ending

How fitting that Tate Britain’s first solo retrospective about the 60-year career of Guyanese-British painter Frank Bowling, OBE, RA (b. Bartica, 1934) should be titled and themed around his own words:

“The possibilities of paint are never-ending”
– Frank Bowling, 2017

Detail from one of Frank Bowling’s map paintings from the late-1960s featured in Room 3 of the Tate Britain retrospective. Photo: Carol Dixon.

This long-awaited exhibition was presented over nine rooms at the Millbank site in London, 31 May – 26 August 2019, each section providing insights into the aesthetic qualities of his oeuvre and the range of techniques and influences informing in his creative practice spanning the decades since his graduation from the Royal College of Art, London, in the early 1960s.

Given the longevity, excellence and international renown associated with Bowling’s outstanding career, one might have expected this type of exhibition to have taken place long before now for an artist who migrated to the UK from Guyana (formerly “British Guiana”) 13 years prior to its independence and who has spent most of his life living and working in London where he resides to this day. Regrettably, however, those who have known about and followed his achievements for a long time recognise the impacts of both overt and covert forms of racism within the Western-dominated art world – that have, without doubt, hindered and deferred the rightful accolades he has (belatedly) received in the UK during the 21st century: becoming the first British artist of African descent to be elected a Royal Academician in 2005 (at 71 years), and later receiving an OBE in 2008.

“Ziff” (1974), by Frank Bowling. Acrylic on canvas. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Room 1 presented paintings from his early years in Guyana, which were heavily influenced by the socio-political issues of the late-1940s and 1950s – not only in relation to the islands and nations of the circum-Caribbean region, but also world-wide. For Bowling, his arrival in Britain in 1953 was followed by service in the Royal Air Force in the years prior to pursuing his artistic studies (1959-1962) alongside peers such as David Hockney and R. B. Kitaj. Several of the featured works illustrated his early interests in geometry, often juxtaposed with pictorial references to recurring themes such as the dying swan.

“Swan” (1964), by Frank Bowling. Oil on canvas. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The second room featured artworks from the early 1960s, that included paintings completed during his years studying at the Royal College of Art in London and throughout his time spent tutoring part-time at Camberwell School of Art prior to relocating to New York in 1966.

As a cultural geographer, I appreciated the strong emphasis on Frank Bowling’s numerous “Map Paintings,” displayed in Room 3, which signified a shift away from figurative representations of the human body and animals towards the use of stenciled images of the South American continent as well as the Guyanese coastline and other cartographic features throughout the Americas, thus exemplifying how identities – particularly the experiences of Caribbean diasporans around the world – are shaped by geo-politics, histories of migration, displacement and the legacies of imperialism.

“South America Squared” (1967), by Frank Bowling. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Bowling’s “Poured Paintings” were presented in Room 4, representing the period during the 1970s when the artist created a tilting platform in his New York and London studios to allow him to experiment with pouring paint onto canvases from a height of two metres. The curators characterised this time period and series of works as an expression of Bowling’s interest in “the tensions between a structured approach to painting and accidental developments.”

I couldn’t help comparing the dynamism and vibrancy of this work from the 1970s with Jackson Pollock’s celebrated portfolio of ‘drip paintings’ and earlier compositions made using poured acrylics during the 1940s, in addition to more recent pouring techniques used by British contemporary artist Damien Hirst to create some of his famous ‘spin-art paintings’ in the mid-1990s. However, it is notable that Bowling’s name seldom appears in listings of high-profile, internationally acclaimed artists known for their innovative use of these types of techniques.

The fifth of the themed galleries was titled “Cosmic Space” and included works such as “Moby Dick” (1981), shown below. Here, the interpretation literature mentioned Bowling’s increasing use of pearlessence and hand-painted splotches to create spectacular marbling effects that were likened to “atmospheric impressions of skies, visions of the cosmos, or alchemical transformations.”

“Moby Dick” (1981) by Frank Bowling. Acrylic paint on canvas. Photo: Carol Dixon.

By Room 6 – titled, “More Land Than Landscape,” in reference to a description of Bowling’s work by the painter Dennis de Caires in the mid-1980s – attention turned to the artist’s use of acrylic gel to create impasto works that extended out from his canvases like three-dimensional sculptures more-so than two-dimensional paintings, thus blurring the boundaries between the respective artistic traditions. At this time, Frank Bowling also began to incorporate metallic pigments, fluorescent chalk, glitter and small found objects into his compositions to give the pieces greater complexity.

“Wintergreens” (1986) by Frank Bowling. Acrylic paint, acrylic gel, acrylic foam and other materials on canvas. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The exhibition concluded with a selection of Frank Bowling’s most recent artworks – presented in galleries titled “Water and Light”, “Layering and Stitching” and “Explosive Experimentation.” Each of these sections represented the artist’s desire to keep innovating – whether this was achieved through his ongoing ambition to capture the natural light he had often seen along the Guyanese coast-scapes during his youth and reflect this through his painting, or by continually experimenting with stitching, stapling and glueing techniques to join together several canvases at a time and create increasingly undefinable, genre-breaking works.

“Wafting” (2018), by Frank Bowling. Acrylic, paint and fabric on canvas. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Additionally, the incorporation of this multiplicity of different techniques within his most recent compositions – ranging from poured and blotch-based painting styles through to his varied use of stenciled applications, acrylic gels, textiles and other materials – added completely new dimensions to previously established practices, thus presenting fresh perspectives on fluidity and flow within each individual artwork.

Detail from the portrait “Artist Frank Bowling,” by Tedi Lena. This artwork was displayed at the National Portrait Gallery, London, as part of the 2019 BP Portrait Awards. Photo: Carol Dixon.

I was delighted to have seen this exhibition during the final two weeks of its run, as the galleries at Tate Britain were not too crowded and this provided opportunities to contemplate each of the artworks and the thematic assemblages within the nine rooms at an unhurried pace.

A view inside the themed galleries showcasing Frank Bowling’s paintings at Tate Britain, August 2019. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Although this major solo retrospective was presented somewhat late in the day for an artist who has always deserved far more (and much earlier) attention and accolades from the most important art institutions within the nation he has made his home, I was nevertheless very pleased to see Frank Bowling’s portfolio given this scale of exposition, which was certainly warranted for an artistic career comprising seven decades of consistently stellar achievements.

Carol Ann Dixon at the entrance to Tate Britain’s Frank Bowling solo retrospective, August 2019. Photo: Donalea Scott.

A full-colour catalogue of the exhibition, edited by Elena Crippa (Curator of Modern and Contemporary British Art at Tate), is available from Tate Britain.

Further details about the artist and his oeuvre can also be viewed online at the following links:

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