LONDON – One recent afternoon behind a dilapidated door in south London, remarkable alchemical transformations were taking place under the watchful eye of painter Frank Bowling. Wearing industrial masks, a team of assistants brushed and injected ammonia, gold powder, acrylic gel and water onto a dripping canvas hanging on the wall of Bowling’s studio.
Dapper-looking in a fedora and green velvet jacket, the 87-year-old artist performed procedures from a wheelchair in the center of the room.
“Put gel around the edges of the square. No, you put it on the flat, ”Bowling said, guiding the action on the canvas with a laser pointer. “Sprinkle that with gold. Brush the water all over. “
“Charming,” he added. “Now throw whatever is left in the bucket to the surface.”
Bowling can bark orders at his assistants in such a direct way because they are, in fact, his family: his son, Ben Bowling; his daughter-in-law, Marcia Scott; and his grandson, Samson Sahmland-Bowling. His wife, textile artist Rachel Scott, makes colorful borders around his artwork by gluing and stapling onto painted canvas strips.
Throughout his career, starting in the 1950s, Bowling himself created his physically demanding works. But due to his fragile health over the past decade, he has increasingly ceded the painting job to his family. limbs – although he controls every detail, from the size and positioning of the canvas to the mixing of pigments, the layering of layers and the application of materials.
It was clear from the good-humored jokes in the studio that Bowling enjoys these intergenerational family sessions.
“Oh yes,” he said in an interview. “I’m going down on it.”
After many years in the wilderness of the art world, bowling is enjoying a belated wave of recognition. In 2019, Tate Britain in London organized a major retrospective; from May 5 to July 30, Hauser and Wirth will present “London / New York”, a single exhibition that spans its galleries in both cities.
The transatlantic presentation of the Hauser and Wirth show is suitable for an artist who has forged a career between Britain and the United States and a visual language that draws on the traditions of English landscape painting and American abstract expressionism .
Born in 1934 in Guyana, then a British colony, Bowling’s long career has spanned many styles, including expressive figuration, Pop Art and Color Field painting. He is best known for his “Map Paintings,” stenciled color fusion panoramas with pale maps of Guyana, Africa and South America; its vigorous cascades of pigments known as “Pouring Paints”; and its almost sculptural reliefs, thick inlaid with everyday objects ranging from jewelry to plastic toys.
Although not figurative, his paintings are documents of his life.
Bowling arrived in Britain in 1953, at the age of 19, and earned a spot at the Royal College of Art, studying alongside David Hockney and RB Kitaj. His early paintings have the raw, tortured feel of Francis Bacon, who was briefly a friend, but upon his graduation in 1962, Bowling created vibrant, geometric compositions with a Pop Art aesthetic.
These works were hits with London critics, but when international attention came with an invitation to represent Britain at the 1966 World Festival of Negro Arts in Senegal, Bowling said he was irritated.
A group of nations had recently gained independence from colonial rule, and the festival was a celebration of pan-African culture, bringing together artists, musicians, writers and performers from the African diaspora, including Duke Ellington and Josephine Baker. Still, Bowling felt he was co-opted by the British art establishment and pushed into an unwanted role as a black British artist, he said.
“The empire had collapsed. The whole business of trying to appease the old colonial people – my art suddenly served that purpose, ”Bowling said.
Zoe Whitley, co-curator of Tate Modern’s flagship 2017 exhibition “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” said in an email that Bowling “has always had a complex relationship with l ’empire, race and identification labels sort of everything other than “artist”. “
“This resistance to pigeonholing, while disconcerting to many, may well be one of the character traits that herald Frank’s six decades of mold breaking,” she added.
His shift to abstraction when he moved to New York City in 1966 is just one example of bowling against the tide. During the civil rights movement, many artists of color created figurative works dealing with the black experience. But Bowling was interested in painters like Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Morris Louis, whose influences he synthesized into his own distinctive style, incorporating zip patterns and dreamy color fields.
“All of these tricks or inventions, or technical discoveries in my work, are informed by the boldness of the Abstract Expressionists,” Bowling said.
In magazine articles, Bowling defended the right of black artists to focus on aesthetics rather than politics, and he collaborated with other black abstract painters to stage the group exhibition “5 + 1 In the galleries of the State University of New York at Stony Brook; in 1971, he had a solo exhibition at the Whitney. All the while, Bowling was obsessively experimenting with color, smudging, spraying, coloring, splashing, pooling, and cutting in the works.
He began using a self-built wooden tilting platform to pour paint onto a raised canvas, changing the direction and speed of the flow to allow what he called “controlled accidents” to shape the works.
“There is this kind of incredible ecstatic exuberance in these works that is just palpable and transformative,” said American artist Julie Mehretu by phone from New York. Mehretu said his current solo show at the Whitney, through August 8, was an acknowledgment of the importance of abstraction after Bowling and others’ efforts to fight back in his corner.
She was indebted to “all these artists, and all these years of work, and an insistence, persistence and invention in that form,” she added.
Despite success in the United States, Bowling struggled to hold exhibitions in Britain when family commitments brought him back in 1975 (he kept his New York studio and has been commuting between the two cities since then. ).
Yet the darkness in Britain gave him the freedom to innovate, resulting in some of his most daring works.
His “Great Thames” paintings from the late 1980s, for example, are heavily constructed works combining metallic pigments, acrylic foam, pearlescent powder, and autobiographical mixtures such as pill holders and test strips. urine, which Bowling uses to treat his diabetes. . These teeming river landscapes have the brightness and drama of JMW Turner and the rigor of John Constable, two English painters whom Bowling admires.
By the turn of the century, the artist gained more attention: in 2005 Bowling became the first black British artist elected to the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts in London. It is a tradition that the new members of the institution, called “academicians”, donate one of their works to its collection. In an unprecedented snub, its members initially rejected Bowling’s offer.
Artist Isaac Julien said in a telephone interview that the reception of Bowling in Britain had been affected by “deeply structured racism” leading to “significant neglect” of his works. Bowling has always been a role model for him, he said, adding that the older artist’s self-confidence and ability to endure tribulations without giving up was an “amazing life lesson”.
In this interview, Bowling preferred not to talk about race; he wanted to talk about painting, which dominates his waking thoughts. Even at night, he says, he stays awake in his bed and imagines his canvases gathering on the ceiling.
Translating these visions into physical form is now the job of his helping family, but this new way of working has done nothing to quell his appetite for risk-taking.
“Lovelock’s Whole Earth,” completed in March, is a dazzling array of fuchsia, magenta, purple and fluorescent orange hues. The work took a month to dry after Ben, his son and Marcia, his daughter-in-law, soaked the canvas with the contents of half-used paint buckets, then scooped up acrylic gel, gold powder and ammonia (which turned gold into indigo). .
To soak up the liquid, they threw a shredded magazine and piles of packing material on the flooded surface, along with bags of toxic waste, syringe cases and other rubbish collected by Bowling on a recent visit. to the hospital. When the thicket of packing material refused to flatten out, they picked it up with a blowtorch.
“I was definitely worried that the paint wouldn’t work,” Ben said, “but Frank said,“ No, no, no! We are not failing. ”
“Frank has real guts,” Marcia said, adding, “Every day the paint changes, and you’re against it.”
Bowling, who still goes to the studio every day, gazed with satisfaction at the atmospheric canvases lining the walls. “I’ve had times where I wish I could have done it on my own,” he said. “But what has been done makes me feel good.”