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The ‘social abstraction’ of Mark Bradford

An introduction to the highly sought-after Los Angeles artist, who represented his country at the 2017 Venice Biennale and is spoken of as the latest in a line of great American Abstract Expressionists

Who is Mark Bradford?

Mark Bradford is an American abstract artist who’s fast becoming one of the art world’s hottest properties. He was chosen to represent the United States at the 2017 Venice Biennale, where his pavilion prompted the editor-in-chief of Artnet to claim, ‘Bradford is our [generation’s] Jackson Pollock’.

What is his background?

Born in Los Angeles in 1961, as a child he shuttled daily between the predominantly black neighbourhood of Leimert Park, where his mother worked as a hairdresser, and the predominantly white Santa Monica neighbourhood, where they lived. His twenties were split between a Los Angeles seething with pre-riot tensions, and Europe, where he spent the majority of his time travelling and going to dance clubs. In the 1990s he attended California Institute of the Arts, one of America’s most cutting-edge art schools.

What is he best known for?

Large-scale works made from layers of salvaged paper, bound together on canvas with a coat of shellac. Sometimes, as in 2014’s Bear Running from the Shotgun, below, he embeds lengths of string, cord or rope, too. When the build-up has reached a certain density, he attacks it with a power sander, exposing the earlier layers — and various, unexpected juxtapositions — in quasi-archaelogical fashion.

Mark Bradford (b. 1961), Boreas, 2007. Mixed media collage on canvas, 102 x 144 in (259.1 x 365.8 cm). Estimate $5,000,000–7,000,000. This lot is offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 17 May 2018  at Christie’s in New York

Mark Bradford (b. 1961), Boreas, 2007. Mixed media collage on canvas, 102 x 144 in (259.1 x 365.8 cm). Estimate $5,000,000–7,000,000. This lot is offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 17 May 2018 at Christie’s in New York

‘The results,’ according to the Boston Globe  critic, Sebastian Smee, ‘are some of the most beautiful, raw, and inventive works in recent art.’ At once imposing and lyrical, the effect recalls Jasper Johns’ flags, the Minimalist rhythms of Agnes Martin, and even the ‘zips’ of Barnett Newman.

What was his breakthrough moment?

Bradford broke onto the artistic stage with his inclusion in the seminal 2001 group show Freestyle  at the Studio Museum in Harlem, which introduced the controversial term ‘post-black’. He has gone on to enjoy solo shows at the the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Boston and SFMOMA, and has been awarded with a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Fellowship, a US State Department Medal of Arts, and the prestigious Bucksbaum Award, among others.

Does his work also have a political dimension?

Yes, although not explicitly. Bradford likes to call his art ‘social abstraction’. In many cases, the paper he uses started out on advertising hoardings in the working-class neighbourhoods of South Central Los Angeles, reflecting much of what constitutes business there: from paternity tests and high-interest loans to fast-track immigration papers.

Ghost Money, a celebrated example of Bradford’s map-like mixed-media collage, alludes to both the modernist grid and the urban grid, to the networks of local economies and to networks of public space. In a similar vein to the artist’s 2015 public mural Sexy Cash  in La Jolla, the work references the empty promises of these seedy local marketing flyers, which are tactically positioned on telephone poles and fences near buses to target struggling working-class residents.

What does he think about those who include him in the lineage of America’s great Abstract Expressionists?

While Bradford has clear links with the Abstract Expressionists in the heroic scale, all-over composition and stunning visual impact of his works (last year, the Denver Art Museum and Clyfford Still Museum presented the collaborative exhibition Shade: Clyfford Still/Mark Bradford), he departs from them in his social engagement.

‘As a 21st-century African-American artist,’ Bradford says, ‘when I look back at Abstract Expressionism, I get the politics, I get the problems, I get the theories, I can read [Clyfford Still’s] manifestos, but I think there are other ways of looking through abstraction. To use the whole social fabric of our society as a point of departure for abstraction reanimates it, dusts it off. It becomes really interesting to me, and supercharged. I just find that chilling and amazing.’

‘[Bradford] brings the daily struggles of people left behind by the American economy into his paintings’ — Jeffrey Deitch

As Jeffrey Deitch, the erstwhile director of Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), put it, Bradford’s work isn’t ‘art about art; it’s art about life… He brings the daily struggles of people left behind by the American economy into his paintings’.

Is it true that his first job was in a hair salon?

Yes. Bradford’s mother, Janice, worked as a hairdresser, and he got a job in the same salon both before and  after completing a master’s degree at CalArts. Among the first papers he incorporated into his artworks were small rectangular tissues known as ‘endpapers’, which, more usually, are folded over the ends of hair during the perming process.

Where can I see his work?

Bradford’s work appears in most of the world’s leading museums of contemporary art — Los Moscos (2004) is at the Tate in London; Daddy, Daddy, Daddy (2001) at the Guggenheim Museum in New York; and Giant (2007) at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), also in New York.

In 2008, in response to Hurricane Katrina, he created Mithra — a 70-foot-long ark, inspired by the biblical example belonging to Noah. It was installed in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, an economically disadvantaged section of the city that had been badly hit by the storm.

What is the market like for Bradford’s work?

Very healthy. Since 2013, several of his works have passed the $1 million mark at auction. It reflects an increase in prices for pieces by African-American artists across the board — Jean-Michel Basquiat most strikingly, but also Glenn Ligon and Julie Mehretu, among others.

This, some argue, is connected to a philosophical shift in museums and art institutions, as the canon is expanded beyond a narrow, white, male definition of Modernism. In 2014, for instance, MoMA hired a curator specifically to fill the apparent gaps in its African-American holdings and exhibitions.

Does Bradford still live in Los Angeles?

Yes — in Leimert Park, the same area of South Central Los Angeles in which he spent his formative years. In 2015, he co-founded Art + Practice there, a foundation occupying a 20,000-square foot campus that offers both a support centre for local youths in foster care, as well as an exhibition space for local artists.

What has been Bradford’s most recent project?

At the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., he has recently unveiled his largest work to date, Pickett’s Charge, which is a monumental commission spanning almost 400 feet.

Inspired by the eponymous infantry assault by the Confederates at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War, it is circular in form and wraps itself continuously around the (ring-shaped) Hirshhorn’s entire third floor. It’s on show there until November 2018.