The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco announces the acquisition of Penumbra by Frank Bowling

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The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco announces the acquisition of Penumbra by Frank Bowling
Installation view of Frank Bowling, "Penumbra". Photography by Gary Sexton. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco announces the acquisition of Penumbra (1970) by Frank Bowling. A central work from the artist’s innovative and iconic “Map” series, the painting evokes the global scale, impact, and complexity of the African Diaspora; thus critiquing a long-reigning world view distorted by imperialism and colonialism. In celebration of the acquisition, Penumbra is on view at the de Young Museum as part of the internationally acclaimed exhibition, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983 through 15 March, 2020.

“I’m thrilled that the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco have acquired one of my paintings for its permanent collection and I feel deeply honoured that this work will be seen by a large audience in the Bay Area in the coming years. Throughout the six decades of my career, it has been my fervent wish for my artwork to be out in the world for people to enjoy. The display of Penumbra on the walls of your museum is a wish fulfilled” states Frank Bowling, OBE, RA.

“We are delighted to have Frank Bowling’s Penumbra join the collection of the Fine Arts Museums,” adds Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “This incredible work -- robust with historical resonances and contemporary reverberations -- epitomizes Bowling's great contributions to the art historical cannon, and will broaden the narrative told through our institution’s collections.”

Measuring nearly 8 x 23 feet, Penumbra bridges figuration and abstraction, stylistically referencing and advancing the innovations of Abstract Expressionism, and Color Field painting. Placing his canvas on the floor, Bowling poured, washed, and sprayed pigment and thinner onto its surface to mimic the natural processes of tides/currents, and sedimentation/erosion. The painting’s rich and luminous surface was created by applying and then removing successive layers of translucent pigment, leaving overlapping residues.

Bowling uses water, both as a fluid medium and as a metaphor in which the overlapping currents of history, experience, and imagination flow together into a stream-of-consciousness. Nocturnal and dream-like, Penumbra seems to plumb and map the emotional depths of the artist’s own interior worlds and emotional states.

Although the painting’s map imagery initially seems familiar, the artist’s ancestral continent of Africa and native continent of South America, along with the British Isles, are conspicuously absent. Meanwhile, the Atlantic Ocean, the locus of the infamous “Middle Passage” of the slave trade—as well as Bowling’s own peregrinations from South America to Europe to North America—expands infinitely, dwarfing the Pacific Ocean, which is, in actuality, nearly twice as big in size. The title of the work is reminiscent of how colonized continents, countries, and cultures once were cast into the shadows by their controlling powers.

Frank Bowling (OBE, RA, b. 1934) was born in British Guyana, South America, and studied art at the Chelsea School of Art, the City & Guilds of London Art School, the Slade School of Art, and the Royal College of Art in London, and has lived and worked between New York City and London throughout his 60+ year career. Beginning in the 1960’s he published a major series of articles on the subject of abstraction and the issues confronting contemporary Black artists. Bowling’s interest in European colonial politics, combined with his exposure to Black and pan-African nationalism, inspired a focus on the global scale, impact, and complexity of the African Diaspora in his works. Bowling's paintings are included in major institutional collections worldwide, and have been shown in numerous solo exhibitions in Europe and the United States, most recently in a retrospective at the Tate Britain, London (2019), and an exhibition of his “Map” paintings at the Haus Der Kunst, Munich in 2017.

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