The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco acquire Frank Bowling’s Monumental “Map” Painting Penumbra (1970)

Nov 13, 2019

Blue and green painting.

Frank Bowling (b. 1934), Penumbra, 1970. Acrylic And Spray Paint On Canvas, 89 3/8 x 274 3/4 in. (227 x 697.9 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Foundation purchase, Phyllis C. Wattis Fund for Major Accessions, 2019.72. Photography by Gary Sexton.

On view in “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power”

SAN FRANCISCO (November 13, 2019)—The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco are pleased to announce 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.

About the artist: 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.

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, comprising the de Young and the Legion of Honor, are the largest public arts institution in San Francisco. Through its collections and exhibition program, the institution seeks to illustrate a social history that accurately reflects the world’s diversity and political complexity, inviting audiences to reconsider the cultural context of our society. The acquisition of Penumbra follows other important works challenging established conceptions, including Lisa Reihana’s in Pursuit of Venus [infected] (2019), Lincoln, Lonnie, and Me by Carrie Mae Weems (2018), and 64 works by 22 self-taught African American artists from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation (2017).

The de Young originated from the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition in Golden Gate Park. The present copper-clad landmark building, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, opened in 2005. Reflecting an active conversation among cultures, perspectives, and time periods, the collections on display include American painting, sculpture, and decorative arts from the 17th to the 21st centuries; arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas; costume and textile arts; and international modern and contemporary art.

The Legion of Honor was modeled after the neoclassical Palais de la Légion d’Honneur, in Paris. The museum, designed by George Applegarth, opened in 1924 on a bluff in Lincoln Park overlooking the Golden Gate. It offers unique insight into the art historical, political, and social movements of the previous 4,000 years of human history, with holdings including ancient art from the Mediterranean basin; European painting, sculpture, and decorative arts; and the largest collection of works on paper in the American West.

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983 celebrates art made by Black artists in a turbulent time when race and identity were central issues in American society, much as they continue to be today. The exhibition, which originates at Tate Modern, London, is on view at the de Young museum through 15 March 2020.

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