The Painter of Bare Life

Frank Bowling’s retrospective at Tate Britain marks the homecoming of a great contemporary painter.

Installation view with a selection of Frank Bowling’s Map Paintings from Tate Britain.

Following ongoing attempts at rewriting post-war art history from a postcolonial or global perspective, the British-Guyanese artist Frank Bowling (b. 1934) has experienced something of a renaissance in the last fifteen years. Some may recall his Map Paintings (1966–1971) from Fault Lines at the Venice Biennale 2003, and nine of these paintings are now shown in a joint installation in Tate Britain’s first comprehensive retrospective of Bowling’s long career. In Venice, it was about the African diaspora; here it’s about the “never-ending possibilities of paint,” as we learn from the exhibition’s subtitle. And despite their scale – the largest canvas measures almost seven meters across – these works strike me as completely open, searching. Moving stencils around, Bowling has sketched the outlines of various maps, while pouring, throwing, or spraying paint onto the canvas. Dark historical undercurrents run through these pictures, which also allude to the sensual revelations of the natural world. There is an internal contradiction at work here, similar to when J.M.W. Turner or Francis Bacon portray horror and beauty, pain and pleasure, as permanent features of humanity’s tragic existence.

Yet another paradox is that the ambitious nature of Bowling’s work is presumably one of the reasons why it has taken so long for the artist, now aged 85, to receive the critical recognition he deserves. His mistake has been twofold: he is black in a world which prefers its artists white, and since the 1970s he has adhered to a ‘modernist’ painting which has probably been disadvantageous for someone wanting to be taken seriously as a contemporary artist. Bowling has also been an immigrant, twice: first in London, where he arrived from British Guyana in 1953, and then in New York, where he moved in 1966. In England, he felt discouraged, but in New York he could thrive as part of a larger community of African American artists. He wrote criticism and curated exhibitions, going against the grain of nationalism, gradually becoming convinced that it was painting as such – all the ways that paint can be applied to a surface – which offered an expression on a par with what he wanted to achieve as artist.

The exhibition starts with Bowling’s figurative works from the early 1960s, which include depictions of impoverished beggars, dying swans, and a woman in the throes of labour. It becomes clear that this is an artist who views art as intimately tied to lived experience. That is, Bowling does not approach painting on the level of aesthetics or politics – not as objects in an exhibition or as a set of opinions – but as an “attack on the nervous system,” as Francis Bacon famously put it. It is this approach which enables him to incorporate a myriad of impressions and influences in the montage-based works from the following years. Memories from his childhood in Guyana, which in the 1960s was in the process of decolonisation and becoming a sovereign state, are paired with references to life in ‘Swinging London’.

Frank Bowling, Mirror, 1964–1966.

An important painting in this context is the dark and ambiguous Mother’s House Overprinted (1967). The surface is divided in an upper part showing a print of Bowling’s Variety Store – the family shop run by the artist’s mother in his hometown New Amsterdam – and a lower part featuring the tilted outline of South America next to a map of Guyana. It is my understanding that this is one of Bowling’s first attempts – if not the first – to introduce maps in his work. According to the artist himself, it all started by chance when tracing a shadow falling on one of his canvases and discovering that the shape reminded him of South America. Guyana was added in reference to a childhood experience of learning to draw the country’s map in school. Thus, the painting establishes a connection between memory and picture making through the form of the map, while also examining nature’s own image-making capacity through shadows, traces, imprints, and reflections. In a sense, this is what Bowling keeps returning to in his abstract work from the 1970s onward, where paint itself is allowed to conjure visual effects, or ‘images’, in a manner similar to what occurs in nature.

Bowling’s formalism does not, however, mean that he has wanted to evacuate art of social or political content. Indeed, if this exhibition shows us anything, it is that formalist painting can be a way of connecting different times and places, memories and cultural references, by allowing them to exist side by side on the same surface. For instance, when he juxtaposes a fashion model from a glossy magazine with the barely visible outline of his mother’s house, in the painting Cover Girl (1966), the result can be interpreted as an image of a migrant’s fragmentary experience of leaving a place where they will always remain in memory. On the other hand, this way of making a picture reveals a deep understanding of how memories and associations always muddle the act of looking, splitting our vision. This takes on a programmatic form in what has been called Bowling’s first masterpiece, Mirror (1964–1966).

Frank Bowling, South America Squared, 1967.

A prominent feature of Bowling’s early work is the high degree of identification between artist and subject matter, but the three-metre-high canvas Mirror is the only actual self-portrait in the exhibition. Again, we are confronted with how images duplicate and break up our perception of reality, here through a spiral staircase dividing the painting’s surface both vertically and horizontally. On the stairs, we see two versions of Bowling himself: one that swings from the upper floor in a wild manoeuvre, and an older and slightly blurred version at bottom, towards the base of the stairs. Stylistically, the picture combines Expressionism with elements from both Pop and Op art, elevating it above the personal into a portrait of an entire period in flux; the 1960s as a time marked by new opportunities and new freedoms, as well as by enduring political conflicts and forms of oppression. The fact that Mirror was completed the same year as Bowling moved to New York and began work on his Map Paintings is an indication of the level of ambition characterising his work during these years.

In the exhibition, Mirror is echoed by a painting of the same monumental shape and scale hanging directly to the right in the next gallery. At first, the viewer might only see a throng of colours, bright yellows and reds with hints of green, with vague outlines of maps and a set of screen-printed portraits at the top. The paint has trickled in different directions, indicating that Bowling has worked on the canvas both with it lying on the floor and hanging on a wall. The effect is visceral. Yet, the viewer soon realises that this is a work which one has to look at for a long time, which has a structure that becomes visible only to the lingering eye. What one discovers is that, paradoxically, there is something almost cold about the warm hues. The composition works through similar echoes and reflections as Mirror, but instead of breaking up horizontally, it splits inwards, through complex layers of colour building up the surface as a palimpsest. It is not until reading the title, Middle Passage (1970), that one understands with horror that this is a work about the transatlantic slave trade, where over two million people are estimated to have died during the cruel passage from Africa to the New World.

Frank Bowling, Middle Passage, 1970.

Okwui Enwezor, who curated Bowling’s large exhibition at Haus der Kunst in Munich 2017–2018, compared the artist’s work from this time to Gerhard Richter’s series Birkenau (2014), which in a similar way approaches painting’s inability to represent the memory of historical trauma. This corresponds with my experience of viewing Middle Passage. The title, it strikes me, can also refer tothe image itself as a passage: a process that can never be equivalent to the experience represented, but which instead reaches viewers as a distant echo reminding us of the catastrophe which at one time put history in motion. Bowling’s painting is a seminal work, which in terms of its moral stature and intellectual rigour it could easily stand its own alongside some of the foremost achievements in film and literature during the post-war period.

In the following decades, Bowling seems to have reached the end of the road in terms of incorporating various external elements and shapes into his paintings. Instead, during the 1970s, he began experimenting with pouring paint on the canvas, which he tilted to make the paint flow in different directions. Yet, he soon opened up the process again by building the painted surface using acrylic gel and foam applied in large swathes. In these thick constructed surfaces, different things begin to appear: toy cars, drawings, and other objects that sometimes seem to have ended up there by accident. Magnificent paintings such as Wintergreens (1986) and Philoctetes Bow (1987) appear to be on the verge of collapsing under their own weight. At the same time, Bowling’s love of colour sets him apart from the bleak outlook often associated with the 1980s. There is an everyday poetry to his work that gives it a different tone than most of the heroic Expressionism that triumphed at auction houses during this period. Notably, Bowling differs from the postmodern painters of the time by becoming increasingly preoccupied with light as a central feature of painting.

The ‘Great Thames’series from the late 1980s represents a culmination of Bowling’s work from this period. With the help of acrylic gel, he manages to technically develop painting’s age-old ambition to represent the optical conditions of how we perceive visual phenomena on a sensory level. And similar to how nineteenth-century painting shows us how air pollution changed the very fabric of vision in the great cities of industrialism, so the sublime spectacle of late capitalism is made visible in Bowling’s semi-translucent accumulations of plastic and paint. The resulting images are as ominous as they are beautiful, evoking the polluted oceans and rivers of our time. For instance, in the mirage-like Sasha Jason Guyana Dreams (1989), Bowling has aimed to capture the short depth of focus that is a consequence of Guyana’s tropical climate. In this sense, the painting can be said to be about how the artist’s vision is formed, how it keeps being formed, by his Guyanese heritage.Yet, for contemporary viewers, the result is bound to be rife with eerie premonitions of climate change and rising temperatures in the oceans. Again, Bowling’s work is haunted by history, as the pop aesthetic of the 1960s seems to resurface in the dirty, polluted waters of these later paintings.

Frank Bowling, Fishes, Wishes and Uncle Jack, 1989.

Thus, one could argue that the existential dimension of Bowling’s work, while remaining firmly rooted in the artist’s own lived experience, has expanded with time. Yet, I cannot help but feel that his works from the latter decades of the 20th century, though unwavering in scale and ambition, feel less charged, less invested in what matters in his own life. Perhaps this is why, in the 2000s, Bowling seems to have been searching for a more intimate relationship between painting and his own personal associations, most notably through assemblages of sewn canvases connecting to the memory of his mother, a seamstress. These works convey something fragile and precarious that I think most people can relate to on a physical and emotional level. Unfortunately, the selection in this part of the exhibition is a bit too narrow. Emphasis is put on how Bowling keeps discovering new things in the process of painting, which is true enough, but it becomes less obvious what he aims to achieve besides continuing to experiment. It is as if the exhibition is cut short, and it seems to me that Tate ought to have given Bowling more room to expand the audience’s understanding of his more recent work. 

Nevertheless, one particular painting strikes me with a force that I find inexplicable at first. Haze (2005) was made during a time when Bowling reduced his work to a series of almost entirely white canvases in surprisingly intimate formats. What remains is a radiating light with breezy sketches of yellow, blue, and red paint. As a young man, newly arrived in London, Bowling spent his days in front of Turner, Constable, and the other nineteenth-century English masters, making it impossible not to associate his small, visionary painting with Turner’s Norham Castle Sunrise (ca. 1845), on display a few rooms down at the museum. But when I learn that Bowling’s painting was made after his son passed away, my reaction is given a more profound explanation: the image of pure light becomes a picture of deep loss; the act of viewing opens on to an abyss, where there is still something to hold on to for someone gazing into the void. It is a suitable ending for an exhibition that can be described as a homecoming of a great painter and postcolonial subject of the British Empire.

Installation view from Frank Bowlings retrospective at Tate Britain.