Black Power is a collage made with newspaper and magazine clippings, permanent-wave end papers (hair dressing supplies), billboard and poster scraps and other scavenged items, which embody the paper remnants of Mark Bradford’s hometown, Los Angeles. Using such materials gathered within the locale of his studio, Black Power is ostensibly abstract in a formal sense, but referential in content. The abstraction inherent in this work addresses the spontaneous systems and networks that materialize within cities, such as alternative economic exchange, itinerant communities and other sociopolitical pathways. Black Power is in and of Bradford’s world and captures the vibrant and dispersed urbanity of Los Angeles. Created during the years of the artist’s rise to fame in the mid-2000s, the present work is an exceptional example of Bradford’s innovative process, which results in textured abstractions in which a gritty worldliness inheres.
Expansive, maplike and comprised of modernist grids, Black Power beckons viewers into a world of abstract cityscapes. Vibrant colors of red, blue, yellow, brown and turquoise burst from the countless layers of paper, paint and other materials built up on canvas. The work’s incredibly textured appearance heightens the extent to which it appears rooted in the urban landscape of Los Angeles. And its allover abstractions harness the glamour of the city by highlighting its potential to erupt without warning. An incredible range of gestures are utilized as an alternative to painting—gouging, tearing, cutting, pulling and even sanding of the surface. Meanwhile the remnants of found materials which have been affixed to the surface have been in some places removed, worked and reworked to create surfaces of wondrous nuance and complexity, vaguely resembling satellite maps. At once, the work is of the moment and timeless, where the flotsam and jetsam of city life are arranged to create abstract pictures that serve as fictitious maps charting contemporary experience.
Bradford’s relationship to abstraction is emblematic of his perseverance and capacity for bridging disparate realms of experience. Born in 1961, as a child, he shuttled daily between his mother’s all-black hair salon in Leimart Park where he sometimes worked and the nearly all-white Santa Monica neighborhood where he and his mother lived. Throughout his 20s, he moved between a Los Angeles seething with pre-riot tensions and Europe where he spent the majority of his time traveling and going to dance clubs. From there, he went to CalArts, one of the country’s most cutting-edge art schools, immersing himself in critical theory. After graduating, he began making large abstract works on canvas from hair dyes and end papers. These carefully composed constructions quickly came to the attention of The Studio Museum of Harlem curator Thelma Golden, who included him in the seminal 2001 “Freestyle” exhibition, famous for introducing the controversial term post-black. Gradually abandoning his hair salon materials, he remained formally rooted in an urban vernacular, making large paintings from flyers and commercial posters picked up in the streets of L.A. He identifies himself as part of a multigenerational line of merchants –hairdressers, seamstresses and mechanics –based in a cultural and geographic milieu far different from the bohemian, creative climate in New York, which spawned much canonical American modernism.
His visual and conceptual power has gained increasing recognition during the past decade, culminating in the large retrospective dedicated to his work at the Whitney Museum of Art, to the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Boston, before being shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the Dallas Museum of Art and finally, from February 2012, to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Bradford’s work produced over the past decade reads like the excavated walls of an ancient civilization, bearing traces of all the lives spent within their confined walls and of all the mechanisms –maps, advertisements, offers of service, and markets of territory–that individuals of that civilization used to navigate it.