“Things that came to mind”: Frank Bowling on his forgotten sculptures art

IIn the late 1980s, one of Britain’s most renowned painters, Sir Frank Bowling, made his only foray into sculpture: welded steel abstractions were sculpted from blunt steel rods, free-floating metal squiggles and spirals of chicken wire left behind by the engineers in his studio courtyard with the firm next door. Originally intended to be shown alongside his paintings, they are now the centerpiece of the first exhibition, which highlights the less noticed sculptural dimensions of his canvases. For the past 30 years, however, these pieces have been alien to the public eye and have been arranged convivially in the flat in Pimlico, central London, which he shares with his wife, textile artist Rachel Scott.

“[My sculpture] King Crabbe was halfway up the stairs,” says Bowling. “Bulbul was standing by the TV and The Man Who Mistaken His Wife For A Hat was standing in the living room, wearing a pith helmet and a hand-knitted sock. They always seemed to collect things: postcards, woolen animals and drawings. One has a jemmy and a hacksaw.” Unfortunately, some works from the series no longer exist: they were stolen from outside the studio and probably sold as scrap.

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It’s perhaps no surprise that Bowling’s sculptures have almost become part of the furniture. First, real life often plays a direct role in his painting, with daily flotsam embedded in many intensely colored abstractions. “I feel compelled to throw rubbish in there and watch it float and settle. It makes me feel like I can get a full vision of what I’ve been through in life,” he says.

However, the casual treatment of the sculptures also speaks to how long overdue the Guyanese-born artist was for recognition in the UK. Despite being a leading talent among an art school cohort that included David Hockney, his career was more celebrated in Abstract Art’s Flagflyer, New York. As an art critic and practitioner, Bowling fueled debates about Black art there in the 1960s and 70s, including abstract art’s potential to speak of Black identity. Back in Britain, he was an outsider in his Pop Art-dominated generation. However, things have changed rapidly for the 88-year-old in recent years, between his appointment as the first Black Royal Academician in 2005 and his acclaimed Tate Britain retrospective in 2019.

While it’s Bowling’s more overtly political paintings that have garnered particular attention, his engagement with his medium has many dimensions. For curator Sam Cornish, the sculpture exhibition is an opportunity to see Bowling’s “complicated and contradictory work in a more rounded way”.

A focal point of the exhibition is the artist’s lifelong interest in geometry, beginning with his carpenter uncle in Guyana, who taught him to make “rock-solid furniture” by embedding circles in squares, and was later sharpened by encounters with the work of Mondrian and caro. In earlier paintings such as Sasha’s Green Bag, with its gridded surface, and Ancestor Window, with sheets of foam beneath pigment, there are structural concerns that emphasize the steel geometries. Recent work, in which color incorporates everything from glitter to acupuncture needles, also shares an attitude with Bowling’s sculptures, trying out ideas with what’s at hand. “Maybe I’ve gotten more playful in the years since I’ve made these sculptures,” he says. “Getting older has given me a new impetus to take risks. I’m looking for that special something you’ve never seen before that you can just see out of the corner of your eye.”

It’s about geometry’: bowling about his art

Frank Bowling’s Mummybelli, 2019. Photo: Anna Arca/Frank Bowling

Mummybelli, 2019
“It’s a journal of my recent trip to New York in 2018. A gallerist’s warm welcome note features on the painting, along with the bouquet of roses he sent us, all drenched in gel and gold powder paint. I use techniques I’ve used for decades: stain, drip, pour, embed this and that into the canvas.”

Frank Bowling
Frank Bowling, Hrund, 1988. Photo: Photo: Anna Arca/© Frank Bowling, All Rights Reserved, DACS 2022. Courtesy the artist. Photographed by Anna Arca.

Horn, 1988
“I avoided sculpture when I was a student. As I got more involved with painting, I realized that geometry was an essential element. This structuring inevitably drew me to the sculpture.”

Frank Bowling's Bulbul, 1988.
Frank Bowling’s Bulbul, 1988. Photo: Anna Arca/Frank Bowling

Bulbul, 1988
“In 1988 a curator asked me if I would be interested in showing sculptures alongside paintings, so I thought, ‘Well, why not do something?!’ The sculptures are made of scrap metal. As you see them. things I liked.”

Frank Bowling's Pendulum, 2012.
Frank Bowling’s Pendulum, 2012. Photo: Jess Littlewood/Frank Bowling

Pendulum, 2012
“Both the paintings and the sculptures are about geometry – the way squares, circles and triangles interact to give stability to form.”

Frank Bowling's Ancestor Window, 1987.
Frank Bowling’s Ancestor Window, 1987. Photo: Angus Mill/Frank Bowling

Ancestors Window, 1987
“It’s from the Cathedral series. The pattern is wrapped with strips of acrylic packing foam around a design loosely based on an illustration in Franz Sales Meyer’s Handbook of Ornamentation. The heavily built surface wears a lot of paint color but you also have this very strong underlying geometry.”

Frank Bowling and Sculpture is on view at the Stephen Lawrence Gallery in London until September 3rd.

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