Bowling's life is almost as colourful as his work. He was born in Guyana (then British Guiana) in 1934 and moved to the UK when he was 19. He then joined the RAF, before winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, where he studied alongside David Hockney. Like Hockney, he decided to move stateside in the mid sixties, and it was in New York that colour and experimentation became the driving force in his work. Soon, Bowling was dripping and spilling the paint onto his canvases, creating energetic abstract works that have gone on to influence a generation of younger artists following in his wake.
Installation view at Tate Britain. Image: Matt Greenwood
The first room of this exhibition introduces us to the young student artist, who was inspired by Francis Bacon. On witnessing his neighbour give birth, he painted the scene as seen through an open window, the woman's face contorted into a scream, her body the pallid grey that Bacon so favoured. But it wasn't long until Bowling embraced colour in all its glory.
Certain motifs reoccured regularly in his early canvases, including the outlines of continents, his mother's house and the faces of family and friends. Gradually these figurative and biographical elements dissolved, subsumed by a drive to experiment. But his use of maps persisted a little longer with prominence given to Africa and South America, just discernible in the fields of shimmering hues. Bowling created these works at the height of the Civil Rights movement and played a key part in the debate surrounding black art, not just through his painting, but through his writings too.
(Detail) Frank Bowling. Barticaborn I (1967)
Following on from these are the poured paintings – large canvases that resemble psychedelic lava flows formed on a tilting platform. These were made in a direct response to the critic Clement Greenberg's writings on abstraction. The two were friends, and Greenberg supported Bowling's endeavours at a time when the scene was dominated by white Americans.
In the next room Bowling's experiments with ammonia, turpentine and pearlessence form cosmic patterns that look akin to distant galaxies. These canvases are extremely pleasing to look at and have the unique quality of working well from a distance and close up. But it wasn't long before his was again trying something new, stitching canvases and adding texture.
Bowling's career spans six decades and counting, but it is only recently that his work has started to gain the public recognition it deserves. In 2005 he was elected to the Royal Academy, the first black artist to be admitted in the institution’s 200 year history. Based in London, just a stone's throw away from Tate Britain, Bowling is still working, with his grandson acting as a studio assistant. And he continues to achieve what few contemporary artists can – he manages to make abstract expressionism look fresh, contemporary and relevant in an era when it sometimes feels as though everything has been done before.
|What||Frank Bowling, Tate Britain review|
|Where||Tate Britain, Millbank, London, SW1P 4RG | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Pimlico (underground)|
31 May 19 – 26 Aug 19, 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM
|Website||Click here for more information|