Frank Bowling’s white paintings span a period of some forty years in his practice, resulting in an eponymously titled exhibition The White Paintings (2006). As a body of work, the paintings occupy the longest period within Bowling’s career yet are largely absent from his historiography and are the least referenced, either as single works or as a series. The paradox of Bowling’s white paintings is that they are not all merely white nor are they all monochromes. A consideration of them presents an opportunity to resituate Bowling from a singular focus of formalism and to convey his deep relation to the world around him via a mode of abstraction that is layered with meanings. This investigation follows by centering upon a single painting from Bowling’s white series, Icarus (2005), produced after the death of his eldest son. Icarus explores themes of time, death, and spiritual release that are constant throughout the series. Bowling undercuts attendant ideas of purity and singleness, both in his exploration of whiteness and within the “tradition” of monochrome painting, and exposes its fallacies. Bowling’s white paintings thus mediate the way both modernity and history may be otherwise deployed, speaking inevitably to how the myth of whiteness is imbricated within the construction of modernism.

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