New York

Frank Bowling

Tibor de Nagy Gallery

In the face of Frank Bowling’s paintings it’s hard not to feel like Darcy explaining to Elizabeth Bennett how he has struggled against falling in love with her. If memory serves, that lady’s proud and prejudicial reply runs something to the effect of, “Why do you choose to tell me that you like me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character?” Bowling’s work has virtually everything I loathe in modern painting—acrylic paint, candy color, a surface that’s slick, and no apparent emotional content—but somehow it’s very affecting and I’ve thought about it a lot. This is not damning with faint praise.

What distinguishes Bowling from the ranks of like abstractionists is that such painting, so long valued for its all-over qualities and its landscape affinities, doesn’t read to New York School type because his canvases are vertical. Proportioned with the dimensions of a door, these paintings reject the panoramic snootiness so central to the paintings of a generation of Bonnard-worshipers. The surprise of the vertical format makes this work challenging. With Bowling there are no givens.

What do Bowling’s paintings mean? Since the easy answer of landscape is eliminated from the running, other options must be considered. The temptation to backslide into ’60s patois and talk about surface is compelling, but doesn’t seem appropriate. The color—a pastel and citrus convention—doesn’t appear to be key to meaning, either. The drama of the paintings is in their shape, and the reason I keep emphasizing format as the clue to meaning is because Bowling’s format is so damned distinctive. These slender doorways of light practically resemble a grouping of stained glass windows; their placement is measured, subtle. Traditionally, canvases of this shape are reserved for standing portraits.

Not being able to figure Bowling’s paintings out makes me feel like a jerk. An analogy: say you’re accustomed to seeing movies that have a width to height ratio of 3:2 (like pre-sixties movies) and suddenly you go and see a movie that’s the shape of a looking-glass, that is, more vertical than horizontal. It’s unexpected. And what seems as if it could be just another gimmick is, by Bowling’s hand, decidedly ungimmicky.

Carrie Rickey