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The other story of British abstract art

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The other story of British abstract art

By Corinna Lotz

Denis Bowen has played a unique – but little known – role in the history of contemporary art in Britain and internationally since the mid-1950s. The Belgrave Gallery in Hampstead is helping to change that by celebrating Bowen’s 80th birthday with a retrospective and a new book*.

As a young artist and teacher in the Industrial Design Department at the Central School of Art and Design, Bowen reacted enthusiastically to post-war trends in Europe. Two vanguard dealers – the Hanover Gallery and Gimpel Fils – offered him a direct experience of the exciting progress in contemporary continental art.

"Bowen quickly developed an artistic pantheon," Peter Davies writes. He was impressed by "gestural, informal painting [which] exploited chance and accident as part of an imaginative manipulation of paint".

Practitioners of Informal art included painters like Soulages, Hartung, Dubuffet, Wols, Michaux and Mathieu. They were frowned upon by the French Establishment. Informal painting shares much with the "Matter" tendency pioneered by Alberto Burri and Antoni Tàpies in focusing on the physical materials used and the process by which they are applied. The content of the work tends to emerge only as the artist applies his or her pigments or other substances.

This approach in turn became connected with the idea of "action painting" for which Jackson Pollock is famous. It is something like improvised jazz, whereby no set pattern or preconception is planned out before the creation of the work itself.

In the hands of Bowen and his near contemporary, Tàpies, simple materials, including cheap paper, sackcloth and crumpled paper, acquire mental and emotional properties – a kind of metaphysical quality – as the artist exploits random effects and juxtapositions.

In post-war Britain "non-figurative" or "abstract" art, especially the Informal variety, was regarded, as a prime means of alienating the public. "It was therefore left to non-figurative artists to form their own groupings and seek out new exhibition space", as Margaret Garlake wrote in the first-ever history of Bowen’s New Vision group.

Bowen’s early work captured the rebellious, secretive, often explosive qualities that characterise the "informal-gestural school" quite brilliantly. A sense of mystery and excitement is evident, for example, as Bowen makes variations on the theme of a strong horizontal "beam", which has vertical sprays bursting out, reflected from above and below.

Dennis Bowen: Untitled, 1955

Reading a specific image into the work is up to the viewer, but not really necessary. The marks and the materials used can be enjoyed as forms and colour in themselves, expressing energy and rhythmic movement.

In 1956 Bowen, together with two other painters, Halima Nalecz and Frank Avray Wilson, launched the New Vision Centre Gallery which showed abstract art in the heart of London at a time when it was considered "new, incomprehensible and quasi-scandalous".

The NVCG came into being as an indirect reaction to the Institute for Contemporary Arts, (the ICA), which tended to cater for an artistic elite. In contrast, the New Vision gallery was run by artists as an independent non-profit organisation. Its policy was to promote young international and unknown non-figurative artists.

The New Vision Gallery offered a way forward for a significant number of talented visual artists, who rejected the notion that art had to conform to any dogmas, including the Stalinist dogma of socialist realism, and who wanted to form a collective anti-establishment movement.

The gallery made use of two basement spaces at No.4 Seymour Place, Marble Arch. Taking advantage of the low rents of the day – and Bowen’s salary as a lecturer at the Royal College of Art – the New Vision group staged an staggering number of exhibitions over a period of ten years – around 250 one-person and group shows. The greatest proportion were either first one-person shows or first London exhibitions.

Out of the 220 artists shown, more than half came from outside Great Britain, as Bowen’s flat became a meeting point for them. He himself was born in Kimberley, South Africa, only taking UK citizenship in 1962. Painters and sculptors from Pakistan, Germany, Holland, France, Italy, Turkey, Israel, Guyana, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Australia and New Zealand and other countries, especially the Commonwealth, visited Bowen and joined in the venture.

Amazingly, Bowen kept down a full-time teaching job at the Royal College of Art, organised between 25 and 30 shows per year and still produced outstanding work of his own.

During the 1960s, the dark earth colours – mainly browns, reds and burnt blacks of the early 1950s were joined by greens and then bright primaries. Canvases like Exploded Image, Crystallised Landscape and Burst display a lyrical skill with the brush, lightly dribbled paint, encrustations, and delicate use of deep colours which are a pure delight.

Gradually a cosmic element comes to the fore. Depth is created by contrasting the immediacy of surface with undefined, floating spheres in the background.

The theme of orbs or discs with a planetary feel, often with a nimbus or corona has remained a central feature of Bowen’s art to the present day. The formless possibilities of distant space – intimations of infinity – take Bowen from the here and now of his material world to another more abstract world of symbolic form.

There is an obvious association with space travel in Re-entry – Colonel Glenn (1962), where an experimental use of chemical reaction creates an astonishing, almost photographic appearance of the burning explosions associated with space flights.

Dennis Bowen: Untitled, 1962

By 1966 a changed political climate and the rise of new art forms led to a loss of interest in the original New Vision project. Many artists in Europe and elsewhere were inspired by the revolutionary political atmosphere of the time and participated directly in artist projects and politics outside their studios.

There may have been other factors at work, but unfortunately not much light is shed either by the exhibition in the Belgrave Gallery or Davies’ book on Bowen’s transition to a new phase in his life. He now joined a group of British artists in Vancouver, Canada, teaching at the University of Victoria between 1969 and 1972. Throughout the 1980s Bowen participated in the Celtic Vision group which exhibited in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and Galicia.

The New Vision project was the subject of an exhibition which began in Jarrow in 1984 which was shown again at the Warwick Arts Trust in 1986, accompanied by Bowen and Garlake’s documentation. But in general the existence of an abstract, painterly school of art in Britain remained a well-kept secret, excluded as it was and still is, from most surveys of modern art and art criticism written by British and US authors. The Other Story, a Hayward Gallery exhibition about Afro-Asian artists in post-war Britain was a notable exception to this rule.

Undeterred and perhaps even strengthened by the attitude of the art establishment in Britain, Bowen travelled and exhibited extensively in the Balkans during the 1980s and 1990s, preserving and extending his cosmopolitan approach to life.

In this period he created an enthralling series of "planetary" works, with swirls of paint rising up and leaping, like aureoles and sun storms. They seem an artistic foretaste of the extraordinary images brought back by the Hubble telescope during the 1990s.

Dennis Bowen: Moon Rising, 1989

His exploration of the chance effects of paint, originally developed into an explicit artistic method by Surrealists like Max Ernst, take Bowen down a variety of avenues. He increasingly evokes a parallel universe, full of natural forms and allusions.

The activity of the artist’s hand is often mediated through a variety of instruments as pigments are splashed or sprayed rather than manipulated directly by a brush on the canvas. This intensifies the appearance of natural growth, of things coming out of themselves in a spontaneous fashion and imparts a feeling of dynamic life to most of Bowen’s creations.

The closing years of the 20th century saw Bowen make powerful small paintings like To Earth, Yellow Sea and Lagoon. They capture the ambiguity of the micro and the macro – the earth seen from a great height above, thus continuing Bowen’s fascination with space travel, but also assimilating the latest advances in a variety of technologies which enable the human eye to view nature in new ways.

Denis Bowen at 80 represents a living continuity with vanguard art in 20th century art. He remains true to the principles of informal art, although, naturally he deploys them within a general pictorial concept of his own making. His presence in the London and international art scene has encouraged innumerable artists, gallerists and critics.

With this book the "other story" of British abstract art can begin to be told. It sets a marker which is doubly important at a time when the crudest commercialisation dominates and smothers alternative outlooks as to what the aim of art may be. It also puts the Belgrave Gallery, which also has a space in St Ives, Cornwall, on the map as a key art publisher.

Denis Bowen’s paintings can be seen until May 15 at The Belgrave Gallery, 53 Englands Lane, London, NW3. Telephone 020 7722 5150. www.belgravegallery.com

* Denis Bowen by Peter Davies, in a limited edition, available at a special launch price of £25 until the end of May.

This article first appeared in Socialist Future magazine