‘It is not the raw, limitless potentiality of oil, clay, wood, bronze, graphite, or any “fine art” material that motivates Bradford, but the functionally specific, socially bounded character of materials that have an explicit purpose in the world before their incorporation into his work’
‘I do not like conversations about Winsor & Newton and surface and transparency and luminosity and glazing. No. I’m like: go find it. It has to exist somewhere out there; go find it’
Spanning almost three metres in width, Bear Running from the Shotgun is a monumental example of Mark Bradford’s groundbreaking ‘social abstraction’. The artist employs found media from his South Central L.A. locale – peeling posters and billboard ads, newsprint, polyester cord, perming endpapers – to create exhilarating and multi-layered compositions that fuse blazing visual intelligence with sharp societal critique. In the present work, forty-one lengths of striped, brightly coloured cord run at equal intervals horizontally through a vast, textural black and white surface, which is formed from impacted layers of paper that Bradford has abraded with sanding tools. Using a similar technique to his vast site-specific installation Pickett’s Charge, which is on show at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., until November 2018, he entombed the horizontal ropes in the paper before re-revealing them through tearing and abrasion of the work’s entire surface. The final effect is at once imposing and lyrical, recalling Jasper Johns’ flags, the Minimalist rhythms of Agnes Martin or even the sublime ‘zips’ of Barnett Newman. The materials’ real-world origin also revolutionises the painterly postertearing of the mid-century affichistes – and indeed the streetwise repurposing of Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines – to stunning effect. Burying, layering and unearthing the real detritus of his environment, Bradford forges a work directly from the visual signifiers of the social, historic and economic forces that structure and stratify everyday life in modern America. The work’s vivid cords stretch taut through their monochrome ground like veins or powerlines alive with energy. Inflected with an edge of Old West danger by its title, Bear Running from the Shotgun combines radical innovation and overwhelming beauty, baring the soul of a city for all to see.
Bradford represented the United States at 2017’s Venice Biennale with the show ‘Tomorrow Is Another Day’, which won such awed headlines as ‘Mark Bradford Is Our Jackson Pollock’ (A. Goldstein, Artnet News, 11 May 2017). From April through July, the Denver Art Museum and Clyfford Still Museum presented the collaborative exhibition Shade: Clyfford Still/Mark Bradford, which sought further to cement his place in the lineage of America’s great Abstract Expressionists. It must be noted, however, that Bradford himself has said ‘I just don’t believe in the sublime’ (M. Bradford, quoted in H. Walker, ‘We Might as Well Be Brave: Conversations with Mark Bradford’, Mark Bradford, exh. cat. Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio, 2010, p. 97). While he has clear links with the Abstract Expressionists in the heroic scale, all-over composition and breathtaking visual impact of his works, Bradford shares none of their transcendent, spiritual or utopian motivations. His materials are absolutely contingent upon, and produced by, the visual, commercial and material economies of his Leimert Park environment. ‘As a twenty-first-century African American artist,’ he says, ‘when I look back at Abstract Expressionism, I get the politics, I get the problems, I get the theories, I can read [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’ (M. Bradford, ‘Clyfford Still’s Paintings’, in The Artist Project: What Artists See When They Look at Art, New York, 2017, p. 46).
For Bradford, abstraction is never divorced from the real world. Discussing Still, whose work is more often talked about in terms of its mythic spirituality, Bradford says ‘What I find fascinating is specifically his use of blacks … Black was his favourite colour. In the fifties! I mean, he is like, “I’m a 1950s white male and black is not terrifying, it’s not threatening, and I’m going to use it constantly, in large areas of work. And I’m gonna talk about the colour.” You don’t know if he was being political. But at the same time modernism was going on, the civil rights movement was going on. My God, it was around the same time as Emmett Till! I mean, how can you separate that from the baggage?’ (M. Bradford, ‘Clyfford Still’s Paintings’, in The Artist Project: What Artists See When They Look at Art, New York, 2017, p. 46). Outside of making his own work, Bradford himself takes direct action to create new dialogues between art and community. In 2015 he opened Art + Practice, an exhibition space and youth support centre that runs a variety of free public programs in South Los Angeles. His own success and vocal advocacy of other African-American artists has also played a part in a review of the art-historical canon. Sam Gilliam, a forebear of Bradford’s and a major innovator in 1960s abstraction, had fallen into obscurity; recent years have seen him receive international recognition as a key figure in painting’s radical escape from the traditional canvas ground. Alongside Bradford, Julie Mehretu, Kehinde Wiley, Xu Bing, Pedro Reyes and Maya Lin, Gilliam, now in his eighties, was honoured with the Medal of Arts Lifetime Achievement Award by the U.S. Department of State’s Art in Embassies program in 2015.
The rigid ropes in Bear Running from the Shotgun elide any gestural trace on Bradford’s part. By entrenching then exposing them in his ground of layered paper, he enacts a laying-in and excavation that is more programmatic than spontaneous. If the work echoes the spiritual drama of a Still, its cords also conjure the nervous systems of the urban world: cables beneath concrete, or telephone wires stretched tight across grey sky. ‘I do not like conversations about Winsor & Newton and surface and transparency and luminosity and glazing’, Bradford elaborates. ‘No. I’m like: go find it. It has to exist somewhere out there; go find it. What painters fetishize – surface and translucence – I learned all about that through architecture and the sides of buildings. I understand transparency because of the erosion of paper’ (M. Bradford, quoted in C. S. Eliel, ‘Dynamisms and Quiet Whispers: Conversations with Mark Bradford’, Mark Bradford, exh. cat. Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio, 2010, p. 63). At once abstract and anti-abstract, painterly and paint-free, Bear Running from the Shotgun is a commanding expression of Bradford’s urgent artistic power. While proclaiming its place among the great canvases and grand story of American art, the work’s repurposing of distinctly marginal and vernacular materials effects a majestic critical shift in how the structures of society, meaning and beauty in the streets – and in art history – might be seen.