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Frank Bowling: Living in colour

ACROSS THE SPECTRUM: Frank Bowling in his studio in February 2019 (Mathilde Agius)

ELENA CRIPPA, curator for the first major retrospective of work by Frank Bowling at Tate Britain told Life & Style that the Guyana-born artists work is the embodiment of diversity.

Crippa has worked on bringing the exhibition, which kicks off next Friday (May 31) running until August 26, for the last two years.

Exposing works created over 50 years ago Crippa said while the initial deep dive in the back catalogue of Bowling unearthed some gems, the real pleasure for her is grouping paintings that have never seen the light of day.

ON DISPLAY: The Frank Bowling exhibition brings together a lifetime of the Guyana-born artist’s sensual colour and sculptural paintings

“We started this journey about two years ago but, of course, the closer you come to the exhibition date the more intense the process becomes,” she enthused.

Crippa added: “I spent the first part of the project going out and looking at as many paintings as I could.

“I saw many more wonderful pictures that could have been deserving of being selected but it was about choosing the right pictures that told the story in the best possible way, so that they stand out on their own merit but are also a part of the narrative and I completed the selection fully last December.

“Then of course I’ve been working on the book and you’re working on interpretation in terms of how to discuss the work with the audiences, so there are all of these different pages of the project afterwards.”

She added: “I think for me there are so many works that have not been seen for a very long time. For example, there is a group of works from Frank’s early works covering the 1960s, which have never been seen in such a rich, complete group.

“I think people will be blown away and many will ask why they didn’t know that this existed because it is truly incredible and wonderful.

“There are a lot of works from late on that haven’t been seen also but certainly I would say for me the beginning is very important and strong because of the variety of the selection.”

Ten of Bowling’s celebrated ‘Map Paintings’ created during this period will be brought together at Tate Britain, including Who’s Afraid of Barney Newman, 1968 and Polish Rebecca, 1971. Up to seven metres long, these paintings comprise fields of colour overlaid with stencilled maps of the world, often reorientated so that Latin America and Africa dominate the vast canvases. It is the first time Bowling’s whole artistic journey will be on show.

“It’s just extraordinary, really,” said Crippa.

“For the first time, seeing this journey of 60 years of making, and looking at the incredible changes in the work but also the great consistency of this journey.

“His continuous engagement with paint as a medium, his incredible concept experimentation and wanting to always find new possibilities and new materials inserted in the paintwork. It’s been a wonderful challenge.”

Famed for his sensual use of colour and bold experimentation, Crippa believes the lure of the works on display will draw people in rather than overwhelm them.

“I don’t think you ever feel overwhelmed – I think it’s very magical.

“The best part of being a curator when you work on something for so long is when the pictures come into the gallery.

“You’ve looked at these pictures one by one, in small groups and I think the overwhelming response is being drawn towards the colours. Frank said in an interview he gave in 1975 that he follows colours and I think his work gives a wonderful sense of wanting to follow this journey of the colours on the canvas, but I don’t think they are ever overwhelming.

“Frank is one of these painters who have an incredibly deep knowledge of this medium. He has always been knowledgeable of the science and technical aspect behind what he does and yet he is willing to experiment and try out.”

Having worked with the Bowling family at close quarters Crippa says it was a pleasure to form a bond over time and it because very apparent why the recurring theme centring around the value of family crept up time and again in Bowling’s work.

“The family are incredibly close. I feel like I have got to know a few of then reasonably well and it’s been a really nice journey.

“All families are different and retain all of these long relationships and different events and while I cannot say I have got to know everything about the complexities of those relationships over the 60 years – it was very useful in getting a sense of how important family is to Frank.

“He talks highly of his mother and how she was extraordinary and charismatic and a women who made beautiful things with her hands. She was a leading figure in the family. The way that runs through the narrative of his work is clear.”

Clearly a project that has left an impression on her, Crippa admitted candidly that the exhibition was fundamentally important in the message of embracing diversity.

“The reason why I think Frank’s work is so fundamental and so timely is because following Frank’s artistic journey across six decades, seeing how he moved from London to New York and back to London and how his memories of Guyana and understanding of a very complex post colonial world come into his pictures, gives you a really wonderful sense of an artist who was cosmopolitan, highly intelligent and aware that identity is multiple and to be defined and pigeon holed by his birthplace, colour of his skin or any other definitions regarding his life and his art.

“I think, in this sense, I want to believe that beyond the beauty and extraordinary quality of the work there is also something that very much resonates with the way I think we believe the world should be discussed and addressed.

“Diversity is about journeys and layers, multiple identities and very complex narratives. This exhibition is diversity, rather than defining people in a very prescriptive way.”

The Frank Bowling exhibition is on display from May 31 until August 26. It is open daily from 10am to 6pm and is supported by the Frank Bowling Exhibition Supporters Circle, Tate International Council and Tate Members. For public information call 020 7887 8888, visit or follow @Tate on Twitter. Search for the hashtag #FrankBowling on social media to get involved.

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