Historical Memory Haunts Frank Bowling’s New Paintings

Frank Bowling, “Elder Sun Benjamin,” detail, 2018, acrylic and mixed media on collaged canvas,
119.29h x 203.54w in. Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York; Hales Gallery, London.
© 2018 Frank Bowling.

By Zachary Small | Hyperallergic

Frank Bowling spent his formative years criss-crossing between three continents and running into everyone from David Hockney to Jasper Johns and Clement Greenberg. But long before joining this elite crowd of Anglo-American abstract expressionists and modernist myth-makers, he was simply a boy from New Amsterdam, a coastal city located on the northeastern edge of Guyana in South America. There, his father was a paymaster of the local police district, and his mother ran a small dressmaking and millinery shop, which she later expanded into a general store.

And although Bowling has called London home for the majority of his lifetime — he moved to England at 15 — something is pulling him, now 84, back to his old Guyanese neighborhood. In a recent series of paintings currently on view at Alexander Grey Associates in Chelsea called Frank Bowling: Make it New, the artist mixes lyrical abstraction with elements of personal history and memory. The bold, bright color fields of these works signpost the artist’s position within a rapidly changing world just starting to grapple with the socio-economic legacy of colonialism.

As a Black artist born in a South American British colony, Bowling uses painting to investigate how state borders can shape an individual’s identity. After all, he was an ex-pat living in New York when he began writing about the emergence of the Black Arts Movement of the late sixties and early seventies for the now-defunct Arts Magazine. Contemporaneously, Bowling was exploring the shape of sovereignty in his “Map Paintings,” arguably his greatest contribution to the modernist canon, which debuted at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1971. Bowling’s transnational image of modernism allowed him to center the Black experience within a visual language that often ignored — or otherwise whitewashed — its existence from the historical record. Perhaps this is why he traces the outline of continents like Australia and North America in his “Map Paintings” with flag colors typically associated with the African diaspora: yellows, reds, and greens.

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