By the early 1980s, Frank Bowling had returned to London. There, he continued to refine his approach to abstraction. Moving away from the formal structure of the Poured Paintings (1973—78), he produced a series of paintings whose pools of color invite allusions to the natural world. Writing about these works, the critic Mel Gooding notes, “colour in these paintings is no longer simply the immediately apparent property of the paint itself, as it had been in the poured works. … It appears, rather, as an aspect and/or an image of natural light … filtered through translucent dawn or mists at sunset.”
As the decade progressed, Bowling began to use thick mixtures of acrylic gel and strips of foam to construct sculptural paintings. His use of gel medium recalled the layered varnish technique of English Masters like John Constable and William Turner—two of his influences. Like these earlier painters, he employed the medium as a means of creating impressions of light and radiance. Moreover, as Gooding expands, by layering paint and gel, “the hectic and broken surfaces that resulted … match the effects of Constable’s atmospheric impasto flicker.” Such layering also invited chance into the painting process, recalling the spontaneity and unpredictability of Bowling’s Poured Paintings. Heavy accumulations of gel and paint would slide down the canvas and cause the foam to buckle and break, dictating the final composition.
At the same time, this process resulted in cracked surfaces—craggy topographies—that evoked the landmasses of Bowling’s earlier Map Paintings (1967—71). Further reinforcing this connection, Bowling often embedded small objects into his reliefs, inviting narratives of excavation and allusions to sediment and earth. Ultimately, as the curator Okwui Enwezor describes, Bowling’s foam paintings are imbued with the “near-tangible scumminess of soil.”
By the end of the decade, Bowling had begun to look beyond the accreted surfaces of his sculptural works. In 1989, he created his Great Thames series. These paintings are a homage to Turner and reflect Bowling’s feelings upon returning to London after living in New York. Abstracted impressions of light and water, the series reinterprets Turner’s painterly approach through a modernist lens. As Bowling wrote, “The fact is, it’s exciting and challenging to work in London, Turner’s town, and the pressures of the weight of British tradition are exhilarating.”