The premise of the exhibition ‘Inventing Abstraction 1910 to 1925’, that ran at MoMA New York in 2013, was that abstraction was not a single, monolithic movement, but a complex network made up of individuals connecting with one another, talking, writing, travelling, organising exhibitions- big and small -across the world. A hundred years on from these events, Frank Bowling’s art and life continue to embody and renew these free-wheeling values of restless travel and responsiveness to people, ideas and places.
Bowling’s is a generous, open, yet protean and restless art, that could never be bound by art-doctrine or defined by borders, whether geographic or intellectual. His career took off amidst the optimism of the post-war period, the infectious dynamism of the civil rights movements, and the hopes for a post-colonial world; and he forged an original, prismatic understanding of the potential of painting within Modernism and abstraction that has sustained his practice till the present day. While fashion and zeitgeist have turned against such approaches to favour either polemical figuration, institutional critique or conceptual concerns, Bowling remains committed to the pursuit of a personal kind of lyrical abstraction that draws sustenance from a deep engagement with the history of painting, and with British painting in particular. Bowling is way ahead of us: only now are we learning about the dynamic histories of the ‘Black abstraction’1https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/changing-complex-profile-of-black-abstract-painters-2452/ of which Bowling has been and has remained a major transatlantic innovator.
Although abstract and process-driven, Bowling’s art communicates something peculiar to human perception that one can immediately respond to and empathise with: for me, it bodies forth a particular kind of abstract beauty, born of a colossal reach of imagination, painterly intelligence and historical understanding. But there are problems with this word ‘beauty’: it has become either freighted with too many ideological connotations; or reduced to an empty signifier. Bowling acknowledges the concept’s inherent instability: he has said that he ‘is on the side of beauty, and beauty doesn’t stop still.’ Our perceptions of, and responses to, the idea of beauty are mitigated by a complex set of sociological and political factors. It would be easy to romanticise artworks as sacred symbols, lodestars of an uncomplicated and direct communion between a human being and nature. But this would fail to do them justice: they are embedded in a complex, constantly-evolving cultural and societal structure; they never ‘stay still’. Bowling is deeply aware of painting’s complex ties to history, a history characterised by periods of deep conservatism, but also by moments of great change, such as the convulsive transformations that painting underwent at the beginning of the 20th century. Rather than making it do his bidding by representing aspects of the real world, or enacting some conceptual conceit, Bowling insists that the paint leads the way. In this he is uncompromising; for him, painting’s subject matter is the paint itself. This, however, is only the beginning of the journey: he is always pushing the possibilities of paint past their limits, into that space of experimentation, that liminal realm between tradition and its undoing, where contemplation yields to action like the perfect silence before a summer storm.
It is the countless colours of the human temperament, and how that temperament is shaped by its environment, that the art of painting, over thousands of years, has been peculiarly able to express. Frank Bowling, over a sixty-year career, has continued to push that project forward, and has, in the process, marked out new pathways for abstract painting. He forges ahead, making ambitious, visceral and, yes, beautiful paintings.