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Frank Bowling, O.B.E., RA: Paintings 1974-2010

September 14-October 16, 2010


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Reviews by Piri Halasz in Artcritical and From the Mayor's Doorstep


Artcritical - October 16, 2010

"The Ultimate Proof of His Freedom: Frank Bowling's abstract painting"
by Piri Halasz

In Frank Bowling’s earlier, more representational work, he was often concerned with the kind of autobiographical and socio-political themes that occupy many other artists of Afro-Caribbean descent. In England, he is still best known for the semi-abstract “map” paintings he made in the later ‘60s, with stencilled images of South America on the far left and Africa on the far right, the ocean in the middle evoking the infamous “Middle Passage” by which captured or purchased African men, women and children were transported to slavery in the New World. Nevertheless, when Bowling made his own transition, around 1965-66, from being London-based to being New York-based, he gradually transferred his allegiance from the representational to the abstract, finding that abstraction liberated him to focus on those aspects of picture-making that mattered most to him. “The practice of painting within the boundaries of Formalism,” he wrote in May 1972, “provides a setting in which I am able to test and ultimately prove my own freedom.”

Frank Bowling - Oddysseus's Footfalls, 1982 - large image
Frank Bowling, Oddysseus's Footfalls, 1982
Acrylic on canvas, 93-1/4 x 70 inches

Today, he divides his time between studios in London and DUMBO (having been elected to membership in the Royal Academy of Art in 2005, and made an officer of the Order of the British Empire two years ago).  He was born in 1936 to a shop-keeping family in Guyana, then a British colony, and sent to England in 1950 to complete his schooling. Initially, he considered a writing career, but after visiting the Continent, and seeing Goya, Rembrandt and Van Gogh, he turned toward painting.  Graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1962, he at first moved in circles of representational artists, including Larry Rivers (then resident in London) and fellow RCA graduates like David Hockney. His full-time stay in New York lasted approximately ten years, and included a stint as a contributing editor to Arts Magazine from 1969 to 1972. He was introduced to Clement Greenberg in 1971, at a party given by Peter Reginato, and Greenberg became a visitor to Bowling’s studio, offering advice and encouragement.

The earlier paintings in the Spanierman show are in the tradition of color-field paintings of the ‘70s and ‘80s.  The Bowlings from the ‘70s, with their loose, vivid and flame-like pourings of paint, are clearly related to near-contemporary paintings by Helen Frankenthaler or Paul Jenkins. The Bowlings of the ‘80s, with their subdued, closely valued colors, often mottled or with intricately-wrought accretions of gel and other elements, are kissing cousins to the works of Jules Olitski and Larry Poons from this period. Yet all the work at Spanierman retains its own vigor and individuality. Nobody with any familiarity with this school could mistake a Bowling for a Jenkins, Frankenthaler, Poons or Olitski.  Though he belongs in their company, he is his own man. This is especially evident with canvases like 13th Hour (1976), in which a thrilling, vertical whoosh of brilliant yellow rises in the center of a narrow soft pink field, accompanied by accents of chartreuse and rust.  Another memorable picture is Odysseus’s Footfalls (1982), a monumental panorama of speckled cloudlike shapes of pink, purple and mint. It clearly takes its name from the enormous foot-like shape descending through its middle, though certainly Bowling never intended to paint a foot.  Rather, the shape must simply have emerged in the course of creating an abstraction, and the artist (whose literary talents frequently lead him to whimsy and word plays in his titles) titled it after the fact.

Were Greenberg still alive, he might not be as enthusiastic about Bowling’s work since the ‘90s, but it too is distinguished, in a different way.  Pictures are smaller, and the paint is much more controlled, often sutured into collaged elements. Squares, strips and rectangles of brightly painted fabric are cut out (sometimes with pinking shears) and stapled into place. In some of these paintings, especially those from around the turn of the century, the palette is ripe with rich, deep browns and other urban hues, but the newest works of this show are mostly clearer and brighter. This is especially true of a series of three done this year, in which a central area, dominated by yellow, is decorated with playful little flower-like dabs of pink and blue, and framed by strips of fabric in contrasting colors. The largest and most successful of this series is Old Dutch Vase (2010).   Some examples of the later work are a bit off from the high standard set by most of the other works on view, but this is a minor cavil.  On the whole, the show offers an outstanding artist who (as the Guide Michelin might say) vaut le voyage.

Read this review on the ARTCRITICAL website.


From the Mayor's Doorstep - September 26, 2010

"And on 58th Street"
by Piri Halasz

‘On September 14, I attended the opening of “Frank Bowling, O. B. E., RA: Paintings, 1974-2010,” a large, ambitious show at Spanierman Modern (through October 16). It was lovely to see Randy Bloom at the opening, as it was she who first introduced me to Bowling. The checklist to this show includes 24 paintings, half done in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and the rest since 2002. The last time that I reviewed a Bowling show in New York, at G.R.N'Namdi in 2006, some work from the ‘80s was included, but not nearly this much, nor do I recall any abstractions from the '70s. It’s the inclusion of so much work from the ‘70s &’80s that sets this exhibition off from the previous high-water mark in Bowling exhibitions, the wonderful one of work from the ‘90s that was staged at the Skylight Gallery in the Restoration Plaza Center for Art & Culture in Brooklyn, in 1997. The present show looks especially great in the Spanierman gallery, which has large picture windows giving out onto Fifty-Eighth Street. These make it possible to see the big paintings from the ‘70s and ‘80s from the proper distance (the later, smaller work is hung on smaller partitions backing on the street, and only visible once one gets inside the gallery).

Bowling is really on a roll just now, following his election to the Royal Academy of Art in 2005 and his appointment as an officer in the Order of the British Empire (an honor bestowed by the Queen that entitles him to a coat of arms, should he wish for one). A book is being written about him by Mel Gooding, and a movie is in preparation, too. Next June, there will be a special small gallery devoted exclusively to Bowling works on paper at Somerset House, coinciding with the Royal Academy’s big summer show there, and also coinciding with the book launch & movie premiere. In the meantime, his “map paintings” from the later ‘60s will be featured in November at PINTA, New York’s 3rd Annual Latin American art fair, to be held in Chelsea.

The “map paintings,” with their sociopolitical overtones, are probably Bowling’s best-known work, especially in England, but it is the abstract work that he has created since which to me will form the basis of his lasting fame. Gooding, in the exhibition catalogue for the Spanierman show, suggests that the formalism which the artist embraced, starting in the later ‘70s, liberated him to explore those aspects of picture-making that mattered to him most. And Gooding also gives full credit to Clement Greenberg for the way in which he offered Bowling advice & encouragement.

Frank Bowling - The 13th Hour, 1976 - image
Frank Bowling, 13th Hour, 1976
Acrylic on canvas, 68 x 42 inches

Of the paintings in the show, the work from the 70s is composed of free-flowing, glowingly colored pourings. An especially fine example of this period is “13th Hour” (1976), a tall, narrow painting with a central vertical shaft of sunny yellow set on a pale pink field, and garnished with accents of russet and yellow-green. Among the paintings of the ‘80s, the most monumental (at 8’ x 6’) is “Odysseus’s Footfalls” (1982), a painting with cloudy, mottled & subdued, closely-valued shades of mauve, pink, and greenish white. The whimsical title, inspired by a book of Greek myths, was added after the painting had been completed, and somehow, a large foot-like shape had descended through its middle. The more recent paintings are smaller and occasionally a tad problematic, but there are plenty of lovely ones to choose from. As so often in Bowling’s oeuvre, they combine squares, strips and rectangles of mellow greens and reds stapled into place. Among the best & most recent are a series of three in which a field primarily of yellow sits in the center, ornamented with vigorous dabs of pink and blue, and framed by strips of contrasting hues. Of these three, “Old Dutch Vase” (2010) is the most appealing, but then the whole show is richly rewarding, a triumph.

Read this review on the FROM THE MAYOR'S DOORSTEP blog.

 
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