IIn the late 1980s, one of Britain’s most acclaimed painters, Sir Frank Bowling, made his only foray into sculpture: welded steel abstractions were fashioned from stubby steel bars, of loose metal flourishes and spirals of mesh left in the yard of his studio by engineering. office next door. Originally designed to be shown alongside his paintings, they are now the centerpiece of the first exhibition highlighting the less considered sculptural dimensions of his canvases. For the past 30 years, however, these pieces have been foreign to public view, laid out amicably around Pimlico’s central London flat which he shares with his wife, textile artist Rachel Scott.
“[My sculpture] king crab was halfway up the stairs,” Bowling says. “Bubul was next to the TV and The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat was in the living room, wearing a pith helmet and a hand-knitted sock. They always seemed to collect things: postcards, woolly animals and drawings. One has a jemmy and a hacksaw. Unfortunately, some works from the series no longer exist: left outside the studio, they were stolen and probably sold as scrap.
That Bowling sculptures are almost part of the furniture is perhaps no surprise. First, real life often has a direct role in his painting, with everyday wreckage embedded in many intensely hued abstractions. “I am moved to litter and watch it swim and settle. It makes me feel like I can get a holistic view of what I’ve been through in life,” he says.
Yet the casual treatment of the sculptures also testifies to the late recognition of the Guyanese-born artist in the UK. Although he was a top talent among an art school cohort that included David Hockney, his career was most celebrated in the abstract art flier, New York. As an art critic and practitioner, in the 1960s and 1970s Bowling fueled debates around black art there, including the potential for abstract art to speak to black identity. Back in the UK, he was an exception among his pop art-dominated generation. In recent years, however, things have changed rapidly for the 88-year-old, from becoming the first Black Royal Academician in 2005 to his praised retrospective at Tate Britain in 2019.
While it is Bowling’s more overtly political paintings that have attracted particular attention, his engagement with his medium has many dimensions. For curator Sam Cornish, the sculpture exhibition will be an opportunity to see “Bowling’s complicated and contradictory work in a more complete way”.
The artist’s interest in geometry is at the heart of the exhibition, starting with his cabinetmaker uncle in Guyana, who taught him how to make “rock-solid furniture” by inlaying circles into squares, and 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 in Ancestor Window, with lengths of foam under the pigment, there is a concern with the structure that the steel geometries draw. Recent works where the paint contains everything from glitter to acupuncture needles also share an attitude with Bowling’s sculptures, experimenting with ideas with what comes to hand. “Maybe I’ve become more playful since doing these sculptures,” he says. “Getting older has given me a new impetus to take risks. I’m looking for that special thing that you’ve never seen before and see out of the corner of your eye.
It’s all about geometry’: Bowling on his art
Mummy Belli, 2019
“This is the diary of my last trip to New York in 2018. A gallery owner’s warm welcome is present in the painting as well as the bouquet of roses he sent us, all soaked in gel and gold powder. I use techniques that I have used for decades: dyeing, dripping, pouring, incorporating this and that into the canvas.
“As a student, I avoided sculpture. As I got more involved in painting, I realized that geometry was a vital element. This structuring inevitably attracted me to sculpture.
“In 1988 a curator asked me if I was interested in showing the sculpture alongside the painting, so I thought, ‘Well, why not make some?!’ The sculptures are made of scrap metal. Just like you see them. Things that I liked.
“In paintings and sculptures, it’s about geometry – the way squares, circles and triangles interact to create stability in form.”
Ancestor Window, 1987
“This is part of the Cathedral series. The design is arranged using strips of acrylic packing foam around a pattern loosely based on an illustration from Franz Sales Meyer’s Handbook of Ornament. The heavily constructed surface bears a lot of paint color, but you also have this very strong underlying geometry.”
Frank Bowling and Sculpture is at the Stephen Lawrence Gallery, London, until September 3.