When I decided to write about the Frank Bowling exhibition at the Tate Britain in London, my assumption was that it was going to be a relatively short article, where I would talk about the Guyana-born British artist’s work and the various influences that inspired him, although when I arrived at the exhibition, I immediately knew that there would be a lot more to say. An artist as stylistically diverse as Picasso, with a life and charisma as colourful as the vibrant and ecstatic works he has created, the challenge now is to make sure I don’t write too much given that each of the works on display were a universe unto themselves.
Frank Bowling was born in Guyana (then British Guyana) in 1934, and moved to London in 1953 where he eventually studied at the Royal College of Art alongside artists such as David Hockney and R. B. Kitaj. However, particularly unlike the former, his name remains relatively foreign outside of artistic circles, as his single minded and uncompromising approach focused on genuine expression rather than on kitsch or fashionable fads that seduced many of his contemporaries. However, history has shown how the greatest artists either receive recognition posthumously or later on in life, and in response to the notion “better late than never,” it feels as if Bowling’s time in the sun has finally arrived. Furthermore, Bowling continues to furiously paint every day at 85 years young, which means we shall continue to be blessed with these miraculous creations for the foreseeable future.
Initially, I only wanted to focus on roots and culture and did not want to bring the discussion of race into this article, given that our pandering to identity politics and political correctness has limited the actuality of individual potential, and due to the fact that art transcends all the limitations and boundaries that human beings impose upon one another. However, I realised that this would not be case given the various issues Bowling had to contend with in his lifetime, such as living in New York in the 1960s at a time when racial tensions and discrimination were prevalent, and having to make his mark as an artist in a predominantly white society less tolerant than ours today; thereby making the issue of race integral to his creative impulses. In his own words, “I feel very political about a lot of issues, and I’m certainly political about what it means to be an artist, an artist who happens to be Black” (read also “Music is Art because it’s Political”).
However, what was on display was not mere political art with overt propagandist messages. The political reactions merely served as impulses to create something that transcended the limitations of political dialectic, whereby the soil of the brutal past and disconcerting present blossoms into the wondrous, utopian future, of which in itself is an abstraction; the ideological foundations become a vibrant expression of free thought so to speak. Bowling’s penchant for abstract expressionism becomes the ideal vehicle for actualising this; the subversive political undertones of which are made even more explicit by the fact that he began utilising abstract expressionist techniques at a time when its popularity was fading. Truly a singular and unique figure, who confronted that which afflicts many, and transfigured it into something truly authentic; an empowering lesson for our time!
The art was displayed in nine rooms in chronological order, roughly categorising Bowling’s life as an artist into nine phases. Several works paid homage to the artists that inspired him throughout his career, such as Jackson Pollock (e.g. Silver Birch [No Man, No Vote], a work which was also made in reaction to the apartheid practices of then-South Africa), Francis Bacon (Mirror), and Barnett Newman (Who’s Afraid of Barney Newman), and made these influences apparent in his work, although it became quite clear that his work became more unlike anything else as time progressed. Bowling was also vividly inspired by his native Guyana and African heritage (e.g. Beggar No.6), as could be seen by the use of the maps of Africa and South America in his map paintings, and the distinct, effervescent colour palettes that he utilises.
To provide a thorough overview of what is on display would not serve justice to what one could see, as words cannot merely express the awe-inspiring experiences that these paintings aroused, in the same way that the exhibition merely scratched the surface of the true testament to Bowling’s achievements. In short, the political impulses and exotic colour schemes remained integral throughout his artistic career, although his earlier works were predominantly motivated by figurative practices (all however with hints of what was yet to come!).
However, by the late 1960s following his stint in New York, his work became exclusively abstract, commencing with the map paintings (e.g. Middle Passage, a work that perhaps epitomises Bowling’s work more than anything else, given that the middle passage refers to the journey millions of African slaves endured during the height of colonialism), followed by the poured paintings (a technique whereby paint is poured onto a canvas, resulting in images that reflect geological phenomena, such as Tony’s Anvil), a period of atmospheric paintings aptly curated as Cosmic Space (e.g. At Swim Two Manatee), a period where he utilised various materials on canvas to create uneven textures such as beeswax and children’s toys (e.g. Spreadout Ron Kitaj, my personal favourite of the exhibition – a work which I continue to frequently think about and perhaps will continue to do so for quite some time!), and the later periods (rooms 7 to 9 of the exhibition) which have seemingly refined and synthesised all that preceded it, and where some of his very best work has been created (e.g. 1991’s Girls in the City, and the most recent entry with 2018’s Wafting).
Bowling himself made an appearance during my visit, which made everything feel even more alive than it already was! A powerful presence, his personality filled the entire room, and as he evocatively spoke about each work to the cadre of people surrounding him, he spoke in a tender yet commanding tone that had a magnetic effect on all who were there. I had the privilege of briefly meeting him, and he kindly gave me permission to take his photograph (the one used here), although I did not want to disturb him given that he was already devoting his attention to several people. However, I hope he gets a chance to read this article, and would accept the request for an interview with LTTW in the not too distant future; it would be a great honour!
There’s barely any time left before this incredible exhibition comes to an end on August 26th. Any art enthusiast who is in London until then is strongly urged to see it before it ends – your experience will be soul enrichening!
Author: Jason Noghani
Jason Noghani is Listen to the World’s UK-based contributor. He is a composer, musician, cognitive psychologist, writer, illustrator, thinker, psychonaut and devout agnostic.