“Through the destruction of the natural picture-plane, Bowling allows himself to reconstitute new boundaries of creativity. This strategy is clear in “Elder Sun Benjamin” (2018) wherein the artist divides the canvas into thirds with two strips of patterned cloth. Bowling is a very careful artist, meticulous about whatever materials appear on the surface of his paintings. The exhibition’s catalogue mentions how the artist’s grandson returned from Zambia with silks that Bowling would later incorporate into his new paintings — but these fabrics were actually made in China or Malaysia. Their inclusion conceals a compound meaning; it’s an obvious reference to the artist’s grandson, but a more subtle gesture to Bowling’s dressmaking mother. Emblematic of a globalized political economy, the fabric also points to how the fashion market obscures international state boundaries and theories of identity.” Zachary Small on Frank Bowling’s paintings, October 1, 2018.
Paraphrasing Jasper Johns – at some point one’s work tends to become more personal. (“One must simply drop the reserve.”) Purity will not, can not ever be maintained, because over time purity becomes doctrine and decoration. Artists should have very little patience for such things. Frank Bowling’s work has never been about pure abstraction from what I can tell. His process has always been personal and his abstraction feels close up and true to life. It’s always interesting when an artist goes after primaries principles and uses them in unexpected ways. And Frank is at his best when he does this. From the work I’ve seen online he uses Modern process as Johns did, but unlike Jasper his work isn’t distanced or conceptual. It’s more self-conscious, narrative and expressionistic in tone and feel right from the start.
“He [Clem Greenberg] taught me that I should never allow myself to be excluded from any of the activities concerning my work. When I arrived in New York, I left London thinking I was being put in as a black artist, rather than an artist who happens to be black. When Clem came to see my work, I became committed to abstraction and he asked me why I hesitated so long to commit myself and I said “I thought I wasn’t being allowed to participate, that was a no-go area.” He said, “Don’t believe any of that bullshit, you are allowed to do what you want.” While he was sick and dying, he tried to get me in a gallery that was the most forceful. Clem called them and told them to get in touch with me. I told him he shouldn’t have. He said, “Don’t worry about it, you just hang in there.” He died soon afterwards. I’ve hung in there.” Frank Bowling in conversation with Nadja Sayej, November 2014.
Bowling may have also had in mind the work of his contemporary Barnett Newman. In 1966, Newman completed a series of four paintings, Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue?… Bowling’s tongue-in-cheek response, Who’s Afraid of Barney Newman? (1968) calls into question the “purity” of primary colors and the authority of Western systems of knowledge; its green, yellow, and red bands echo the colors of the Ethiopian flag, a symbol of African and Caribbean independence movements beginning in the late 1950s. Bowling injects Newman’s abstraction with historical memory and challenges the mold of Black Art, with its insistence on representational forms. Nicole Miller reviews Frank Bowling’s show Make It New, November 1, 2018.