Being in a room full of Frank Bowling’s big, blustery paintings, stained dark and bright, gives the feeling of being lost at sea and clinging to the wreckage. Familiar shapes drift in the murk, but all is liquid chaos. Every room of “Frank Bowling’s Americas,” just opened at the MFA, feels furtive and restless, like reaching for something slipped just beyond your grasp; they lure the eye into the unfathomable, or confront it with a fiery, incandescent infinity. Bowling gives you something to cling to, but leaves you hanging. In a Bowling painting, lost is a state of being.
It’s no great leap to think of these paintings as the product of Bowling’s own bewilderment, feeling unmoored and adrift. Now 88, Bowling paints as often as he’s able to in the seventh decade of his career. The show gathers up just nine of those years, from 1966 to 1975; but oh, what years. Born in British Guiana in 1934 and trained at London’s Royal Academy, Bowling moved to New York in 1966, driven by an urge to establish himself in the place where the shockwaves of Abstract Expressionism had transformed western art. What he found was a powder keg of a different kind: a nation boiling with racial unrest, the civil rights movement in full swing, and the era of Black Power soon to come.
How Bowling reconciled his pursuit of painting amid teeming social unrest is really what the exhibition is about. Bowling plays a canny outsider to a moment in American cultural history, critical of its divisions as a Black artist, as an educator, and as a writer. This would be a hard story to tell through abstract painting if not for Bowling’s bending its rigid formalism to his narrative will. That impulse made him an outsider twice over — Black, but not American, in the crucible of American Blackness; an abstract painter, but not quite, as abstraction teetered past its apex. Everything, it seemed, was ready to crumble and fall. Bowling’s arm’s length view is clarifying, and uniquely his own.
The show, with its 30-plus works, is Bowling’s first solo museum exhibition of any real consequence in the US. It follows a loose chronology, tracking the artist’s quick painterly evolution against a roiling backdrop. Its earliest works, “Beggar, No. 1 & 2,” 1963, made in the UK before he came to New York, read now as a farewell — to figuration, for one, with the gnarled figures at the painting’s heart doubled and twisted on the hazy ground, and to Britain itself.
Bowling arrived in London at 19 and went on to be a star student at the Royal Academy. He trained in classical landscape and figure painting, but quickly strained at its limits. In “Beggar,” his departure is clear. The distortions of the grizzled figures brought Francis Bacon to mind; the foreground is stained in a hazy wash of pale blue and red, a sign of things to come.
Bowling had always lived between two worlds: British Guiana, where street poverty had inspired “Beggars”; and the UK, where a veneer of uptight civility veiled generations of colonial brutality inflicted on the far corners of the globe.
The exhibition’s first gallery is a struggle to reconcile. You can watch Bowling slough off his training, landscape and scene dissolving, but never entirely. In “Palimpsest I — Mother’s House Dark/Red/Green,” from 1966, a screen-printed image of his family’s New Amsterdam shop in British Guiana fizzes in the depths of his unearthly washes of paint, an anchor to a world he refused to let go.
The motif repeats over years and continents. Bowling fashioned a language of abstraction rooted in his experience of the world. Two vast map paintings from 1970 bookend the space: “False Start,” tangerine orange; and “Penumbra,” its shadow, in brooding, deep ultramarine. In both, continents drift in hazy floods of aqueous paint. In the same room, another work sharpens their intent: “Middle Passage,” 1970, with frantic bursts of orange and green spray paint. It invokes the trans-Atlantic slave trade and Bowling’s connection to it: Silkscreened images of his sons and mother are inscribed in its chaotic surface.
Across the way, “Night Journey,” 1969-70, radiant and masterful, simmers with furious beauty. A spike of bright gold cleaves its center like a sunbeam, crowded on each side by the silhouettes of the African and South American coastlines, and Bowling’s intent comes clear: It’s a clarifying light on an active byway in the trade of enslaved people.
Bowling, of course, was breaking all the rules of American abstraction. Abstract paintings aren’t of anything; they just are. He knew the pretensions of purity were nonsense, and holding on to it amid the cascading calamities of a nation convulsed in social chaos made it all the more absurd. Its grip was hard to break: “Middle Passage” was made for a 1971 painting exhibition commissioned by Houston’s Menil Foundation called “Some American History.” It was designed to explore Black American life from enslavement to the present, but only Bowling deviated from formal abstraction, injecting his work with story, experience, something real.
Deviation, ultimately, was Bowling’s American strategy. A handful of pieces here confront the monastic purity of Abstract Expressionist icons. “Who’s Afraid of Barney Newman,” 1968, muddied vertical bands in the pan-African colors of slim yellow flanked by green and red, is a take on Barnett Newman’s “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue,” rendered so crisply that it appears machined.
Newman was among a cohort of Color Field painters who collectively represented Abstract Expressionism’s last stand. Socially engaged strains of art like conceptualism and pop were ascendent; abstract purity was by then stodgy and old. Bowling would have it both ways. In the exhibition’s second space — small and intimate, it feels as though you’ve been pulled close, in confidence — glorious, color-drenched canvases bear foggy blocks of color, some soft as down, others ferociously jagged. (”Douglah G.E.P.,” 1968-71, is the latter, with hot fuchsia tumbling into depths chillingly blood purple-red.)
Most important is the place where Bowling explicitly staked his claim. He was a Black artist in the milieu of a cultural revolution in Black American life. A significant underexplored chapter of the MFA’s own history resurfaces here for the second time in just over a year: Bowling was among the 30 artists included in the museum’s 1970 exhibition “Afro-American Artists: Boston and New York,” one of the banner exhibitions of the rising Black Arts Movement.
The painting he offered says much about his position. It is towering and mustard yellow; his own name, barely legible, drifts above a repeated outline of South America on the pallid surface. The title says much: “Mel Edwards Decides,” 1968.
Melvin Edwards, an influential Black painter, had declined to be in the show, on the sentiment he shared with Bowling: that such exhibitions were diminishing and tokenistic, a view Bowling sermonized in his writings and while teaching at Stony Brook University in New York (the college, along with the University of Massachusetts Boston, are presenting small companion exhibitions).
Bowling’s presence as a critical voice alongside his peers, white or Black, was an emblem of his outsider status. He left New York in 1975 to live in London, but crisscrossed between the two cities for decades. In that way, Bowling kept his distance. He was in America, but not of it, and saw it all the more clearly.
FRANK BOWLING’S AMERICAS
Through April 9. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 465 Huntington Ave. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org