I was in Bristol for a few days last week with my wife Kath. Exploring and enjoying that great city. On Friday morning we spent a bit of time in the Arnolfini art gallery down by the waterfront in the centre of Bristol. The quay where the statue of Edward Colston met its watery end last year. We were at the Arnolfini to see the Frank Bowling exhibition, Land of Many Waters. Frank Bowling is an abstract painter who was born in 1934 in what was then British Guiana and is now Guyana. He moved to London in 1953 and for many years moved between studios in New York and London. Now 87, he is still painting in his South London studio, and this exhibition is a collection of paintings from the last decade. He had a major retrospective at Tate Britain in 2019, which I had the pleasure of seeing a couple of times.
Bowling’s work is vivid, engaging and yes, very abstract. The titles, which are often related to family and memory, get you thinking; but mostly it is down to your imagination. You make what you will of the array of colour, of shapes which emerge and then disappear in the whirl of images that jump from the paintings. There is a variety of paints, materials and found objects splashed across the canvasses. Slashed or sprayed or even poured – the techniques are as various as the materials. Bowling himself has said that his abstract works are more imagination than memory: the idea of a view rather than the view itself*. The use of colour is central in his work. Again, to quote him: colour affects the eye and heart, physically and metaphorically, more directly than any other single element in painting.
Now, a sceptic might say to all of this, obviously colour is important. It’s a painting. And what’s all this stuff about the idea of a view? A view is a view. Well yeah, like Brexit is Brexit. Remember that one? Let’s just say there are many interpretations – of Brexit and even more so, abstract art. In fact there are as many interpretations as people – indeed more, as we might see something differently every time we look at it. It’s called perception.
So, quite a lot of this was going through my head – not the Brexit bit, I just came up with that – when I overheard a couple of people, students perhaps, discussing Bowling’s work and art in general. One of them said something which really struck me at that moment. She said,
The thing about this art is, how do you know when you are finished with it?
Yes, I thought. That works on so many levels. When are you sure what something means to you. Are you ever sure? Is there anything actually to be sure about? And what about the artist? How did Frank Bowling know when a painting was finished? If a painting is an idea of a view, rather than the view itself, then when is the idea finalised? Can it be? Is the room for just one more bottle top somewhere? Could you do with just a little more green in that patch of red? What are you trying to say, and will it be different tomorrow?
For the next few minutes in the gallery I went round taking photos of some of the paintings – the whole and then details. At each level you can concoct a different story. I’ll take just one example, a painting called Witness, from 2018. It’s more figurative than many of the works, as there’s something in it that could be taken to be a fence. Maybe those are tree trunks in the background – it is set in or inspired by Guyana. The middle detail has a suggestion of bodies just in front of the maybe fence. Or is that just me trying to see something concrete in an abstract flow? Was the witness a witness to a massacre? I’ve no idea. I doubt it. But the word witness, and perhaps my awareness of colonial history, especially while in Bristol, brought that briefly to mind.
And there are all sorts of objects embedded in this painting. A close look suggests lollipops. Why? And how did he know when to stop adding lollipops? Why not just one more? Maybe he ran out, maybe he got bored. Maybe he thought, I have said enough in this painting.
This question of when to stop changing or refining something isn’t confined to abstract art. It’s in all art. JMW Turner was known for constantly fiddling with his paintings: in the film Mr.Turner (2014) he is depicted at one point altering a painting when it was already on display at the Royal Academy. He was embroiled in competition with Constable at the time. You read about a lot of musical artists who just can’t stop adding sounds and re-recording as they make an album – it can add years to the creative process. Others like to bash them out in one or two takes – Nick Lowe was known for that as a producer on Stiff Records in the 70s. I’m quite sympathetic to the idea that you probably have your best ideas on the first or second go. It’s an approach I’ve adopted in my own novel writing. I hear about people who regard the first draft of a book as little more than a skeleton, something to be rewritten endlessly. Maybe I’m just being lazy, but I’ve found that most of my first draft is better than anything I come up with later. Obviously I correct grammatical infelicities, and occasionally realise that there’s something that couldn’t have happened because of something else I wrote earlier. And maybe second time around I think of the adjective I just couldn’t conjure up first time. But generally I’m with Nick Lowe – don’t waste too much time on very marginal gains. We are not talking international cycling here.
I suspect that, for most if not all artists, there is never a moment when you think, I have achieved exactly what I set out to do. And when you have been working on something for so long, it will have become familiar to you. You can become bored with it. It is time to hand it over to the viewer, the listener, the reader, who will encounter it for the first time and, if you are lucky, experience some of the excitement and wonder that you may have had when you covered the last corner of the canvas, or recorded the last song, or typed that last full stop – before you went back over all of it again.
I was listening to a podcast while out on a walk yesterday. It’s called Locklisted and is an offshoot of the excellent Backlisted podcast, in which books from the past are discussed in depth by the two regulars, Andy Miller and John Mitchinson, along with a couple of guests. In Locklisted, they and producer Nicky Birch get together to discuss their recent reading, music, films, all sorts of things. They were talking at one point about the joy in sometimes not really knowing what a book is about, what Andy called the zone of uncertainty (I’ve been in that zone recently, reading Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet). John built on that point by relating it back to the artists. He quoted the writer and film-maker Jonathan Meades: if a painter knows what he is going to paint, he’s an illustrator.
That’s brilliant, I thought. And it took me back to the Arnolfini: if he doesn’t know what he is going to paint – not precisely, anyway – then how does he know when he is finished with it?
The never ending circle.
* The two quotes from Frank Bowling are taken from the Arnolfini’s guide to the exhibition – which helped me navigate my zone of uncertainty! The four photos are from paintings in the exhibition – the first I don’t know the title of, but conveys that sense of water and flow and colour, I think. The other three are aspects of the painting Witness, as described in the piece above.