With his essay, ‘Equivalents to Life: Frank Bowling at Tate Britain’ Sam Cornish joins Charley Peters on Instantloveland’s ‘Writer-in-Residence’ programme. Welcome aboard, Sam!
Sam Cornish is a writer and curator with an interest in abstract art, particularly the transatlantic High Modernism that arose in the 1960s in dialogue between Britain and North America. His book on Mali Morris has recently been published by the Royal Academy. He is co-editor of the catalogue raisonné of the paintings of John Hoyland.
Frank Bowling’s Tate retrospective is overdue and overwhelming. During the last decade or so I have seen Bowling’s paintings in a number of commercial galleries, as well as in his studio. Always impressive, now they have the space to fully open up. At last they can breathe! Without sacrificing intimacy, these are epic paintings. Grand, dramatic statements, they are filled with beautiful details. These details accumulate on, in, and through their surfaces, with each speck, whirl, splatter or drip of paint poised between the intentional and the arbitrary. At their best they are expansive and exhilarating.
Bowling’s work sprung into life with his ‘Map Paintings’ of the late sixties and early seventies. Beyond their potential political meanings, they claim the world – more than this, the world dissolved in the infinities of deep space – as an arena in which the artist can act, as the territory over which painting can roam. The ‘Poured Paintings’ of the mid-seventies are tighter, more solid – although tightness and solidity are relative terms, and don’t do justice to the flowing light of ‘Kaieteurtoo’ (1975), the juddering intensity of ‘Tony’s Anvil’ (1975) or the muted glow of ‘Yonder’ (1976). The ‘Poured Paintings’ confront us as individual upright presences. Each stands in for a single person, painterly equivalents of sculptural monoliths. Painting as an equivalent to the universe; painting as an equivalent to the individual. How, Bowling seems to ask, does the individual stand in the universe; how is the universe contained in the individual?
Spending time with Bowling’s mature paintings, giving oneself over to them, is to be constantly and thrillingly pulled from the very small to the very large, and back again. Visual and material disintegration and reintegration circle around each other. With the partial exception of the ‘Poured Paintings’, fundamental to the work from the Map Paintings onwards is the visual drift found within the paintings of Helen Frankenthaler or Jules Olitski, that represented a loosening of the all-over energy of Jackson Pollock. Olitski, along with Morris Louis and Larry Poons, is perhaps the most important influence on Bowling’s mature art, although Bowling is alive to possibilities outside this particular trajectory in post-war American art. For example, it is striking how far an early engagement with Francis Bacon is sustained. As recently as 2006,the staging, dark background and turbulent, glowing forms of ‘Benjamin’s Mess (Hot Hands)’ shows this influence. Bowling is a much more direct painter than Bacon, able to confront emotions, even deeply troubling ones, and render them in paint, where Bacon often seems to fall into illustration, or the theatrical.
As an exhibition format the retrospective is especially appropriate for Bowling because of the extraordinary way he insists on painting as an equivalent to life, as something able to contain the whole breadth of life, or even the medium through which life can be lived at its most intense. The photographic images of his earlier work signal this co-existence, as does the detritus that gathers on the later paintings. His paintings’ sometimes cryptic titles often recall significant people from his own life, sometimes his collaborators. Crucially, the co-existence of art and life is made palpable – turned into a felt reality – by the rhythms of the paintings themselves, as they open and close, coalesce and fragment, shift from light to dark and dark to light. These rhythms are present within individual paintings and from painting to painting. Exploring a single work and moving through the exhibition as a whole are equally kaleidoscopic experiences within which structures shift, forming and re-forming.
The idea that paintings breathe, obviously somewhat an easy cliché, here becomes a much more acute metaphor. We could also see the paintings’ rhythms as tidal, from the ‘Map Paintings’ to the ‘Great Thames Series’ of the late eighties. From the surge of blood in the body to the surge of the tides, again we see Bowling’s concern for shifting from the micro to the macro, from the macro to the micro. Yet translating Bowling’s images so directly into words robs them of much of their power, which must lie in their resistance to language, their ability to figure states real but un-nameable. Intensely alive, as the exhibition’s subtitle puts it, to the possibilities of paint, Bowling is able to imbue the materiality of paint with meaning we cannot find elsewhere, that we can recognise but not otherwise articulate.
Bowling’s sense of painting as capacious is well served by the cumulative effect of the beautifully arranged exhibition. The height of ‘Mirror’ in room two prepares us for the huge size and scale of the ‘Map Paintings’ in room three. The near-sculptural energy of some of the ‘Poured Paintings’ is succeeded by a room of softer, calmer works, a sequence subtly repeated as the laden and brooding surfaces of paintings such as ‘Spread Out Ron Kitaj’ (1984-86) or ‘Wintergreens’ (1986) are followed by the pale luminosity of the ‘Great Thames Series’ (1988-89). Each painting within the exhibition is overlain with the memory of those that preceded it, so we are conscious at some level at least of a continuity, or otherwise of a change of mode or feeling. The exhibition opens with a group of images of a dying swan, made in the early sixties. Combining a desire for liberation with tragedy and a sense of the absurd, the way the swans’ unfurling wings blur and slice through space resurfaces, in abstract guise, through much of the work that follows.
Perhaps the only disappointment in the arrangement is how the exhibition ends. In the final room, containing paintings from 2011 to 2018, there is a heightened sense of experiment. The variety of approaches Bowling habitually uses becomes clear in a way that it had not been before. Not all of these paintings achieve the emotional heft and weighty coherence present in his earlier work. Yet despite- or because of? -Bowling’s physical frailty, they have, as a group, a new kind of nimbleness – particularly the wonderfully fresh ‘Iona Miriam’s Christmas Visit to & From Brighton’ (2017). Now somewhat removed from the physical act of painting, at times directing from a distance, is Bowling more attuned, or at least differently sensitive, to the forking paths down which an image can venture? The recent Tate Britain retrospective of his Royal College of Art contemporary, David Hockney, was pretty much downhill from the mid-seventies, with the last few rooms dragging on, bright but meretricious. By contrast, Bowling’s most recent work may have benefitted from being given the chance to be explored in greater depth, and from being spread out over an extra room or two, showing more clearly the diversity a single room can only hint at. It could also be questioned why none of the recent paintings shown at Tate Britain display the partial return to figurative imagery, whether found, or derived from his own screenprints left over from the sixties, that has marked his last two exhibitions at Hales Gallery. How might have their inclusion have changed our sense of the arc of Bowling’s painting?
The ‘Map Paintings’ must be the crux of discussion of Bowling’s art in relation to issues of identity, at least in a political or public sense. It seems to me that they, and the related works that include screen-printed images of Bowling’s family, are about staking a claim, saying in some fundamental way: ‘I am here’. They seem to assert that as a black artist he has a right to the universality promised by abstract art – a universality otherwise almost always assumed by white artists. This statement – carried by such confident, ambitious paintings – is certainly hugely significant, and given current worldwide debates around racial and national identity, you can see why the ‘Map Paintings’ have recently been so lauded. Yet, I think it is worth asking whether Bowling’s titles and his screen-printed images can say anything specific about slavery, colonialism, or, as is claimed by the exhibition caption in relation to ‘Polish Rebecca’ (1971), the Holocaust? Jonathan Jones in The Guardian seems to me to be carried away by the works’ titles on a wave of false feeling that has little to do with genuine engagement with the paintings. But even more genuine and thoughtful commentators than Jones are running a great risk of over-interpreting the work.
Instead of being carriers of specific translatable content, don’t the ‘Map Paintings’ ultimately show how irreconcilable the means of High Modernist abstraction are with specific historical, political or social commentary? Images and titles float through glorious expanses of colour without really making contact with them. Perhaps it is not recognised enough that the richness and beauty of abstract art, even one as wide-ranging, dense and deeply felt as Bowling’s, necessarily entail a kind of loss. Discussion of the ‘Map Paintings’ should admit their power, but also their brevity within the trajectory of Bowling’s art, preceded as they were by the cryptic Pop riddles of his sixties painting and then followed by his move into a purer type of abstract painting that he has now explored for forty years. The Pop-type paintings of the sixties, with their discordant levels of meaning, and their discordant feeling, treat representation as a conundrum. From the early seventies, the abstract pictures reduce representation to its most oblique forms – titles, studio detritus – and allow colour, formal experimentation and feeling full reign.
There is much work to be done on fully situating Bowling in relation to the transatlantic ecosystem of High Modernist painting and sculpture, operating chiefly between American, British and Canadian artists in the sixties, seventies and beyond. Some of these artists have been extensively lauded, many have not, others were briefly successful before falling out of fashion. The backbone of Bowling’s mature painting was formed in dialogue – comradeship, competition – with British artists including Anthony Caro, Peter Hide, Alan Gouk, Tim Scott, John McLean and John Hoyland, or Americans such as Olitski, Frankenthaler, Jack Whitten, Peter Bradley, Sam Gilliam, Michael Steiner, Walter Darby Bannard, Susan Roth, and Larry Poons (many names could be added to either list). Of course, this dialogue is by no means the whole story of Bowling’s art, but it must be a substantial part of it. How great would it be to see Bowling in an exhibition which fully told the story of these interactions, which once occupied a central position in the British and American art-worlds, and which are now so neglected. Seeing this context is essential to understanding the formal story of Bowling’s work, allowing us to judge the extent to which he continued or broke with the example of his peers.
There are many specific questions that could be asked. To pick just one topic: how does Bowling’s technique of collaging canvases sit in relation to the cropping practiced by many High Modernist painters from Jackson Pollock onwards? Cropping – the finding of an image at the end of the painting process by cutting the canvas, or wrapping it round a stretcher – often seems to involve a judgment that is both communal and exclusive. It opened up painting to discussion beyond the decisions of the artist, but brought with it other questions concerning authority. If the artist alone doesn’t decide the limits of their painting, then who does, and how is a hierarchy of decision-making established? Clement Greenberg is important here, but a Canadian artist once told me the story of a workshop discussion in which Kenneth Noland suggesting cropping a large painting by a lesser-known artist down to the thinnest vertical sliver, only a couple of inches wide. In comparison to this example, Bowling’s collaging of canvases is positive and generous. It is also more directly physical. How might Bowling come over in direct comparison to Olitski or Poons, or perhaps in relation to the collaged canvases of Susan Roth? We might also ask to what extent the physicality of Bowling’s collaged canvases was arrived at via an engagement with modernist sculpture, an especially important aspect of the British contribution to this transatlantic story.
Judging from the current display, Bowling’s greatest period was the mid-eighties, with paintings such as ‘Spreadout Ron Kitaj’ (1984-86); ‘Silver Birch (No Man, No Vote)’ (1985); ‘Wintergreens’ (1986); ‘Philoctetes Bow’ (1987). In these works, Bowling reconciled the spreading expanses of the ‘Map Paintings’ with the sculptural physicality of the ‘Poured Paintings’. Each is covered in heavy acrylic gel, a material employed by many High Modernist painters during the eighties. Gel acts to anchor these paintings, giving them a kind of gravity. But as well as weighing the pictures down, gel is the medium through which light enters the pictures, holding colour in thickly physical suspension, and creating a variety of surfaces off which the gallery lights reflect. The power of the paintings comes from how their literal weight carries colour that is both strongly marshalled and strangely diffuse. The gel also creates a depth within which Bowling could embed a diverse range of materials. Most of these encourage the viewer to move closer to the surface of the picture, although long strips of material (I think some kind of packaging) are employed as a substantial part of the pictures’ overall architecture. These strips discipline the lateral movement across the surface of the picture, so what might have appeared chaotic or mercurial, instead – or perhaps rather, also – contains proportion, order, finality. In ‘Spread out Ron Kitaj’ and ‘Philoctetes’ Bow’ the strips also act to centralise the image, so that almost panoramic pictures appear concentrated, directed at the viewer. Across the group the mood is somber, meditative but without becoming portentous, the paintings glimmering as if their gloomy depths might soon burst into flame.
In Bowling’s art the light of the world permeates paint’s hue and stuff. This light, whether emanating from the Guyana of his boyhood, the shimmer of the Thames, or elsewhere, animates his paintings. As we move through the exhibition Bowling seems to be telling us – or rather demonstrating again and again – that our journey through life is one that always takes place in light. Even things that we feel in the depths of our bellies can appear rendered in light and colour. And that something this constant – nothing could be more literally everyday – can also be a medium of transportation, of revelation.