Frank Bowling

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FB_Rush Green 66x28 1977 copy 2.jpg
© Frank Bowling Frank Bowling, Rush Green, 1977 (detail)

A graduate of the Royal College of Art alongside David Hockney in 1962, British Guyana-born artist Frank Bowling hasn't enjoyed the same level of recognition as some of his peers. But in 2005, he was named the first ever black Royal Academician (itself a damning indictment of persisting hierarchies) and is finally the subject of some decent solo shows here, including a big room at Tate Britain.

Is this renewed interest in Bowling an overzealous attempt to correct the injustices of art history? Is it just another case of the art world turning its whimsical fancy to an overlooked septuagenarian with an intriguing life story? Or, is Bowling's abstraction really worth the looking back?

Bowling's overriding concerns have always been colour and materials. At Tate, the display consists of his poured works in which the artist tipped acrylic directly onto a painted canvas – a process he's tantalisingly called 'wet into wet' – before tilting the surface to guide the paint as it gushed downwards. He completed such vertiginous, upright pictures as 'Rosebushtoo' and 'Julia' from 1973 to '78 while living between London and New York, where he came into contact with American artists such as Barnett Newman and, later, Larry Poons.

Far from derivative, however, Bowling's surfaces overflow with a kaleidoscopic confection that's too good to be contained, conjuring words like cascading, oozing, swirling and coagulating which also fall short of capturing what they actually look like. This feels like real art, the kind you have to see in the flesh and up close.

The works at Hales are all recent, the paint so thickly applied that it has captured sponges, cloths, fork heads and studio debris in pools of gathered material. The drips, drabs and brushstrokes consume the entire canvas, resulting in a more polished composition but one in which the physical presence of the artist, and his actions, are diminished in comparison to the glacial dripping simplicity of the earlier poured paintings. Bowling is one of a lost generation of black British artists but what these two shows prove is that he's an undeniable master of his medium and that he hasn't yet lost it.


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