Born in 1934 in what was then British Guiana (now Guyana), Frank Bowling studied at the Royal College of Art alongside David Hockney and Patrick Caulfield. An abstract artist who used spray paint, stencils and acrylics poured across his canvases, Bowling’s work did not reach the commercial heights of his once fellow students — so much so that many of his paintings from the 1960s have disappeared.
Walking through the Tate Britain, this is remarkable to think. In this long overdue first major retrospective of his work, we can see an overlooked genius, a bridge point that links Constable and Turner with the abstract expressionism of Rothko and Pollock. It is a truly brilliant show.
Part of the slow response to these paintings may lie in the fact that he is quite difficult to place as an artist. While Bowling’s work expands on the abstract expressionism of the 1950s and 60s, it also tackles issues of imperialism, of the slave trade, and of his place both in the metropolis and the art world. In his early years, we read that Bowling struggled with the idea of defining himself as a ‘black artist’, and indeed from looking at the paintings you can understand why — many of the references in his early paintings and style are canonical, the flourishes and depth within his huge canvases have as much in common with the romantic painters as anything else.
As such, many of his early paintings, while brilliant, borrow heavily from the British style of the era, with particular reference to Francis Bacon, but also the pop of Peter Blake, as seen in the painting “Cover Girl 1966”.
Towards the end of the 1960s and in the early 70s however, Bowling begins to focus on Africa and South America, creating vast maps with the two continents foregrounded in the centre. These paintings are vast, and the combination of acrylics and spray painting create a glimmer that is not only unusual to see within the walls of an art gallery, but is also difficult to reproduce through images of the paintings — they demand to be seen in person.
There is an apocalyptic energy to many of these paintings, with the effect of the spray painting making the maps of the world look like they are having their atmosphere torn apart like holes in the ozone layer. Similarly in his paintings of the Thames, a motif that he returned to again and again, are murky, polluted, and chaotic. But this is no bad thing — the paintings elegantly convey the sheer noise of city life in an incredibly unique way.
While Bowling’s life and ideas are fascinating however, it is his use of colour that is the real takeaway. The paintings veer between lurid, almost day-glo effects and murky hellscapes, where purples, whites, browns and oranges all collide but never mix.
A brilliant show from a wonderful artist. Go and see it while you can.
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