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Richard Bowman, Radiant Abstractions
Curated by Patricia Watts
February 2nd-April 27th, 2019
The Landing is pleased to present Radiant Abstractions, a retrospective of paintings by Bay Area artist Richard Bowman (1918-2001). In the 1950s and 60s, Bowman pioneered the use of fluorescent paints, incorporating them into wildly energetic abstract works profoundly influenced by scientific phenomena. Said Bowman in 1951, “My work is based on scientific fact. It is realism seen through the laboratory microscope and translated into artistic terms of color, movement and form.” Bowman’s kinetic, glowing canvases feature brief, high-energy strokes and daubs, sometimes raised from the canvas, that weave into forms reminiscent of celestial fluctuations—like nebula rising in deep space. Some resemble the cloud-chamber photographs that physicists were making in the 50s, and others bring to mind shifts taking place on the subatomic level, or the unfolding of fireworks. Their electric brightness is made even more alive by the feeling of great motion within them—of immense forces gathering or disseminating with a frenetic, natural sweep; they seem to perpetually capture the constant becoming of the cosmos: the shifting and swelling vitality of nature herself.
Bowman was a pivotal figure in the art scene in Northern California in mid-twentieth century; he had solo shows at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now called SFMOMA) in 1961 and 1970, and a two-person show there in 1959, with Gordon Onslow Ford; his first retrospective in the region was at Stanford in 1956. In 1962, two of Bowman’s paintings were included in the seminal exhibition 50 California Artists at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. (Bowman was also included in the Sao Paulo Biennial in 1953-1954.) His circle in the Bay Area included Lee Mullican, J.B. Blunk, Fred Reichman, Gordon Onslow Ford, and Ruth Asawa, as well as poet Kenneth Patchen; he was active in the region from the time he settled there in the 50s until his death in 2001.
The advances in scientific imaging and exploration that occurred in the 40s, 50s and 60s had an enormous impact on Bowman. Writes curator Patricia Watts, “Bowman was captivated by early discoveries in atomic physics beginning in the late 1940s… He kept a folder of scientific clippings with titles such as “The Biggest Objects in the Universe,” “SPACE,” “Laser Light in Scientific American,” “Black Holes,” “Electron Microscope,” “The Theory of Evolution Revisited,” “Invisible Stars,” and “Galaxy Core.” Understanding how the world works, scientifically, was Bowman’s path to spiritual connection with the cosmos.” In 1950, Bowman himself described his paintings as a “dynamic flow of lines and colors, atomic and subatomic structures, trackings, cosmic rays and nuclear particles.”
The invention and availability of fluorescent paints—new to the market in the 50s—was another monumental factor in Richard Bowman’s practice; Bowman was one of the first painters to work with them. Writes conservator Stefanie De Winter, “Richard Bowman dedicated his artistic life to the search for the possibilities of capturing nature’s radiation on canvas. By the time he was in his early thirties, he discovered daylight flourescent alkyd paints, from the DayGlo brand, in an art supply store in Palo Alto. By finding these innovative, very bright shades, Bowman could start where [Pierre] Bonnard had ended the experiments of painting light with traditional colors.” Bowman mastered the delicate art of painting with these challenging-to-work-with hues. Writes De Winter, “The specific materiality of these luminous paints requires a specific application manual, especially when combined with a conventional palette. These difficulties in use were thoroughly understood by Bowman.” For Bowman, use of these electric shades was a way to depict not the surreal, but the perfectly real. Continues De Winter, “Bowman considered fluorescent paints as natural media. These hues carried the potential to express his concept of the great, unseen, but known forces of the universe.”
Bowman himself explained that fluorescent enamel paint emitted “an actual, measurable energy from the canvas.” The energy of the paint, combined with the kinetic quality in Bowman’s quick, zigzag strokes and powerful daubs, builds canvases that feel radiant, vital—and almost vibrating. The works seem both activated and activating—both alive and enlivening. Viewing them in person is an especially visceral experience. “With Bowman’s paintings,” writes curator Patricia Watts, “depending on where you stand and on the lighting conditions, ultra-violet light will activate the fluorescent paint in different ways. The viewer’s experience is therefore variable and transcends what we know to be ‘real.’”