For six decades, Frank Bowling has experimented with how personal and political memory can be sustained within the constraints of late-modernist abstraction. A solo exhibition, “Penumbral Light,” is on view at Hauser & Wirth in Zurich through August 20, and a major survey, “Frank Bowling’s Americas,” will open at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in October. Below, the Guyana-born, London-based artist discusses his abstraction as an encounter with something simultaneously familiar and unexpected, compelled by an enduring fascination with what a painted surface can be.
I’M WORKING THROUGH WATERY TERRAIN at the moment. I’ve been crossing the river Thames every day to go to my studio for decades and I’m always working with water—buckets and buckets of it—to douse or spray the canvas. The works in the Zurich show all started out as ten-foot swathes of cotton-duck canvas soaked in boiling water and washing up liquid. Then I unfurl them on the floor of my studio in Peacock Yard and apply washes of color, spreading wet-into-wet. Laid on the ground, the surface of the canvas forms a kind of shallow pool that lets the material spread. I’ve been thinking about mud slobs, like those you find in Ireland, around the coast of West Cork, where you get little runnels of muddy water along the estuary when the tide has gone out, and the mud and muddy water is sort of sparkling where the water catches the sun. You might think mud is just mud, but it has a sheen and there are all sorts of things mixed up in its slime: broken glass, driftwood, flotsam and jetsam brought in by the tides. My painting process is similar. It’s endlessly fascinating to see what happens when the material hits the surface, how the paint will run and move, spread and bleed, wet-into-wet, doing things. Sometimes it feels like it might just turn out to be a muddy mess, and then you look again—you might just catch a glimpse of it out of the corner of your eye, and there it is! Something magical has emerged from material that you haven’t seen before. That’s what I’m looking for.
I understand this revelation as a kind of a paradox, in that I see it as a moment of recognition of the shape or quality of the work that was already there, or was already going to be there, even before I started. I see each painting as the unpredictable, but somehow inevitable, outcome of my process. It might sound crazy, but I think that each painting was always going to turn out the way it does, even though I couldn’t have predicted it in advance. I’m sometimes asked about my intention as a painter and my answer is that the intention is there in the work itself. There’s no blueprint, no formula, no planning. Like a baby trying to walk: Her movements aren’t taught, they just emerge. It’s like that.
I would also say that the recent works are color-driven. I was very sick after the big Tate show in 2019 and when I got back to work, I was particularly interested in color. Color as a formal discipline. Back in the 1960s, I was in a study group interested in color science, and I’m still there, looking at what happens when paint pigments and carriers meet and merge. I’m completely open to new materials. I moved from oil paint to acrylic in the 1960s, though I still use oil for final touches. I was using a lot of fluorescent paint back in the ’70s, I was also really hot on spray paint then. I often use powder paints, especially this gold powder that turns blue when it comes into contact with ammonia. And often stuff gets chucked into the material—it started out with bits of bling, you know costume jewelry left around by my stepdaughters, or glitter, sequins, bits of fabric, bits of rubbish from the hospital, stuff lying around the studio. I’m doing something with Chinese tea right now; the tea leaves themselves produce fascinating textures, and the color bleeds into the work to produce an ochre that I hadn’t seen before.
My work is motivated by encountering or uncovering the unexpected. It’s like residue, like the ore that you get out of the earth. And the aim is the sublime. But it’s very hard to find or even define. You might be looking for it, but you can’t expect to find it. You know it when you see it. It has to be glaring, yet unexpected. The spectacle can be so ugly—repugnant. It is a profound, inarticulate feeling. It creates this sense of awe; awe made real! Okwui Enwezor spoke about a deeply skeptical vision of the sublime in my work, and while what I’m saying might not sound skeptical, you can be skeptical in your reasoning—when things are so unreal they need to be touched. I think that abstraction is still valid. It is the basis upon which my work turns. Abstraction passes all the tests: It’s automatic, it’s chancy, it’s risky. It’s based on attempting to get the best from nothing.
— As told to Camila McHugh