New York

Frank Bowling

Center for Inter-American Relations

Frank Bowling showed ten paintings from this year, some of them very large. He deals in juicy coloristic delectation; rich stained hues soak into expanses of canvas, settling the pigment in delicate but vivid deposits. Masked rectilinear bands, sometimes heightened by metallic paint, introduce an organizing armature without repressing the flow of pigment and its velvety residue across them. Other means of paint application involve more conventionally Expressionist dripping and splattering, but the fluid play of paint against and across the taped bands is more to the point. It is a virtue of Bowling’s art that the processes employed, staining in particular, do not evoke a consciousness of temporality that is of the essence in Abstract Expressionism. Instead the painting seems to have been effected all at once. And this extends also to the assertion of the plane: great inflected plateaus of color avoid retiring into the metaphorical space of color, hanging instead in tight extrusions or like the thinnest slices of stones.

Bowling’s combination of atmospheric density with flatness and softly rectangular design relates back through Rothko toward Whistler. In contemporary terms he has affinities with Bannard, Poons, and Olitski: in the lovely pale purply Silver Fish . . . For Susan they reverberate in the tonality, the pastellike resiliency of texture, and the high degree of edge sensitivity. More and more, however, the specter of Whistler seems to be making itself felt nowadays, even in selections of color. . . . Was it Whistler or Wilde who said that mauve is just red trying to be purple?

The division of a horizontal canvas by a longitudinal band midway down cannot but tend to break the picture in half—an organization once academically called “double composition” and one that too heavily implicates a landscape horizon. One way to avoid this is to have instead two main divisions that break the surface into three unequal bands, as in For Josephine . . . New Life. But then a new question can arise in that the proportional relations of the various bands become an unexpectedly Constructivistic matter of weighing and balancing the widths. The most complex work, 20’-long Kiai, comes to grips with both issues by introducing vertical taped bands at more irregular intervals across the field; these intersect with two continuous horizontals—one rather neatly masked, the other fairly swamped by paint and now but an edge or line—only by implication. Thus we get an organizing principle without heavy implications of subordinating structure, like a lifting dancer whose presence is only partly felt.

For the direct, unrelenting cut of a more or less white band from one edge of a painting to the other Barnett Newman is, of course, of the greatest importance, even though Bowling rotates the cut to a horizontal position. Bowling differs from Newman, however, both in the softness of his surface, and in his flaglike shift of color from one side of the dividing line to the other. When Bowling’s bands become full or fragmentary rectangular shapes in analogy with the format of the canvas itself and its stretcher—as in Silver Fish . . . For Susan and For JJ . . . New Life—the device is if anything more like British Constructivism (J. C. Stephenson, for example) than American modernist painting. Similarly, the tendency for painted bands to strum actively as forms, and even to actually consist of major and minor strands, is similar to a use to which line was put by Victor Pas-more. Bowling’s own too English earlier work doesn’t interest me in the least, but these new works are lovely as hell. The Weather is Clement has the coloristic directness and heat of Nolde’s poppies.

Joseph Masheck