May 20, 2022

LONDON – On a final afternoon behind an unkempt door in south London, remarkable alchemical changes have taken place under the watchful eye of painter Frank Bowling. A team of assistants wore industrial masks and brushed and dolloped ammonia, gold powder, acrylic gel, and water onto a dripping canvas that hung on the bowling studio wall.

The 87-year-old artist looked elegant in a fedora and green velvet jacket and conducted negotiations from a wheelchair in the center of the room.

“Put gel on the edges of the square. No, you put it on the apartment, ”said Bowling and carried out the action with a laser pointer on the screen. “Dust that off with the gold. Brush off the water all over the place. “

“Nice,” he added. “Now throw what’s left in the bucket to the surface.”

Bowling can give orders to its assistants so directly because they are, in fact, his family: his son, Ben Bowling; his stepdaughter Marcia Scott; and his grandson Samson Sahmland-Bowling. His wife, the textile artist Rachel Scott, sets colorful borders around his works by gluing and stapling onto painted canvas strips.

For most of his career, beginning in the 1950s, bowling created his physically demanding works himself. Due to poor health over the past decade, he has increasingly ceded the work of painting to the family Members – though he controls every detail, from the size and positioning of the canvas to the mixing of pigments, layers of layers, and the application of materials.

From the good-natured banter in the studio, it emerged that bowling enjoys these cross-generational family meetings.

“Oh yes,” he said in an interview. “I’m getting off on it.”

After many years in the wilds of the art world, bowling is enjoying a wave of late recognition. In 2019, Tate Britain held a major retrospective in London. From May 5 to July 30, Hauser and Wirth will present “London / New York”, a single exhibition that spans the galleries in both cities.

The transatlantic presentation of the Hauser and Wirth exhibition suits an artist who 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.

Bowling was born in 1934 in Guyana, then a British colony, and has gone through many styles in its long career, including expressive figuration, pop art, and color field painting. He is best known for his “map pictures”, melting color panoramas overlaid with faint maps of Guyana, Africa and South America. his powerful pigment cascades known as “Poured Paintings”; and its almost sculptural reliefs, densely covered with everyday objects, from jewelry to plastic toys.

Although they are not representational, his pictures are documents of his life.

Bowling came to the UK in 1953 at the age of 19 and won a place at the Royal College of Art where he studied alongside David Hockney and RB Kitaj. His early paintings have the raw, tormented feel of Francis Bacon, who was briefly a friend, but by the time he graduated in 1962, bowling was creating 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 upset.

A number of nations had recently gained independence from colonial rule, and the festival was a celebration of pan-African culture involving artists, musicians, writers and artists from the African diaspora, including Duke Ellington and Josephine Baker. Bowling, however, felt co-opted by the British arts institute and pushed into an undesirable role as a black British artist, he said.

“The empire had collapsed. The whole business of appeasing the former colonial people – my art suddenly served this purpose, ”said Bowling.

Zoé Whitley, co-curator of Tate Modern’s landmark 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 empire, race, and identifying labels on others Variety as an ‘artist’. “

“This resistance to organizing drawers, while confusing to many, could just be one of the traits that heralded Frank’s six decades of mold-breaking,” she added.

His turn to abstraction when he moved to New York in 1966 is just one example of how bowling goes against the grain. During the civil rights movement, many color artists created figurative works that explored the experience of blacks. Bowling, however, was interested in painters such as Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Morris Louis, whose influences he condensed into his own distinctive style that included zipper motifs and dreamy swatches of color.

“All of these tricks or inventions or technical discoveries in my work are shaped by the daring of the Abstract Expressionists,” said Bowling.

In magazine articles, Bowling defended black artists’ right to focus on aesthetics over politics, and he worked with other black abstract painters to stage the group show “5 + 1” at New York State University’s galleries at Stony Brook . In 1971 he had a solo exhibition at the Whitney. All the while, bowling obsessively experimented with paint, smeared, sprayed, stained, splashed, gathered and cut into the works.

He began using a homemade wooden tipping platform to pour paint onto a raised canvas, changing the direction and speed of the river to make this possible what he called “controlled accidents” to design the work.

“There is this kind of incredibly ecstatic exuberance in these works that is only tangible and transformative,” said American artist Julie Mehretu over the phone from New York. Mehretu said her current solo show at the Whitney through Aug. 8 is in recognition of the importance of abstraction after the efforts of bowling and others to struggle in their corner.

She was “indebted to all these artists and all these years of work and persistence and persistence and invention in this form,” she added.

Despite his success in the United States, bowling struggled to land shows in the UK when family responsibilities brought him back in 1975. (He kept his New York studio and has been commuting between the two cities ever since.)

However, the darkness of Britain gave him the freedom to innovate, which led to some of his most daring work.

His “Great Thames” paintings from the late 1980s are highly structured works that combine metal pigments, acrylic foam, pearlescent powder and various autobiographical items such as pill holders and urine test sticks, which Bowling uses to treat his diabetes. These teeming river landscapes have admired the luminosity and drama of JMW Turner and the austerity of John Constable, two English painters who loved bowling.

At the turn of the century, the artist gained more attention: in 2005, bowling became the first black British artist to be elected to the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts in London. It is a tradition that new members of the institution, so-called “academics”, add one of their works to their collection. In an unprecedented nudge, its members initially turned down bowling’s offer.

Artist Isaac Julien said in a telephone interview that Bowling’s reception in Britain has been influenced by “deeply structured racism” which has resulted in “significant neglect” of his work. Bowling has always been a role model for him, he said, adding that the older artist’s confidence and ability to endure difficulties without giving up is an “extraordinary lesson in life.”

In this interview, Bowling preferred not to talk about race. he wanted to talk about painting that dominates his waking thoughts. Even at night, he said, he lies awake in bed and imagines his canvases coming together on the ceiling.

The implementation of these visions in physical form now falls to his helper family, but this new way of working has not dampened his appetite for risk-taking.

Finished in March, Lovelock’s Whole Earth is a dazzling array of fuchsia, magenta, purple and fluorescent orange tones. It took a month for the work to dry after Ben, his son, and Marcia, his stepdaughter, soaked the canvas with the contents of half-used paint pails and then scooped up acrylic gel, gold powder, and ammonia (which turned the gold to indigo). .

To collect the liquid, they tossed a crushed magazine and lumps of packaging material on the flooded surface, along with toxic waste bags, syringe sleeves, and other rubbish that Bowling had recently collected from a hospital visit. When the thicket of packaging material refused to flatten, they took it on with a blowtorch.

“I was certainly afraid that the picture wouldn’t work,” said Ben, “but Frank said, ‘No, no, no! We don’t fail. ‘”

“Frank has real guts,” said Marcia, adding, “Every day the picture changes and you’re against it.”

Bowling, who still goes to the studio every day, contemplated the atmospheric canvases on the walls with satisfaction. “I’ve had times when I wish I could have done it myself,” he said. “But what has been done makes me feel good.”