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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



“Frank Bowling,” by Mel Gooding, is a beautiful book. Published this past spring by The Royal Academy and distributed in the US and Canada by Harry N. Abrams, it has a powerful tale to tell, and tells it well. The narrative takes us from the artist’s turbulent childhood in what was the colony of British Guiana (and is now the independent country of Guyana). It continues through his migration in 1953, at the age of 19, to London, the capital of the British Empire, and his struggles there to gain an education and establish his career. This is followed by his trans-Atlantic years, first when he spent most of his time in New York, and then after he began his most recent phase of dividing his time between London and his studio in Dumbo (Brooklyn). Although Gooding is sympathetic to the difficulties posed by Bowling’s race, there is no self-pity on the part of the artist; rather the book documents his ability to maintain artistic relationships on either side of that divide.

To anyone like myself who only came on the saga late (in the 1990s), the early part of Bowling’s career is the most revelatory. Did you know, for example, that although in the 1950s, he greatly admired Francis Bacon and himself went through a figurative expressionist phase, nevertheless his dissertation for the Royal College of Art dealt with Mondrian? Or that Larry Rivers taught him how to use an overhead projector to create the accurate outline drawings of South America and other geographical features that he used in his famous “map” paintings? Gooding’s account of Bowling’s artistic progress continues through an exhaustive analysis of his most recent (and most abstract) decades, with the writer using his literary talents to begin and end his tale with an emphasis on Bowling’s close relationship to “the great rivers of his life, the Essequibo and the Berbice, the Thames and the East River, each with its own particular shimmer, gleam and brilliance of light.” That this shimmer, gleam and brilliance have found their way into Bowling’s paintings (especially the abstract ones) is superbly documented by the lavish and high-quality color illustrations, to be found on more than two-thirds of the 149-page text.

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