The Artist: Mark Bradford
Words, Natasha Ntone
Photography, Courtesy of GOOGLE Images
Regarding icons of the elusive art world, Mark Bradford (1961) is a big shot. He is probably among today’s most famous living contemporary artists. His work has been featured in countless major contemporary art museums, galleries, and fairs around the world. He even represented the United States at the 2017 Venice Biennale.
Bradford is an African-American artist, born and raised in South Los Angeles, where his mother owned a beauty salon. He began making art with found materials from the salon and around his neighborhood, most notably paper. Paper is still his medium of choice. He has said that he does not need paint, as paper is a form of permanent pigment. Inspired by his environment, Bradford’s work often resembles street art. But his work goes beyond aesthetically pleasing collages, and bold handiwork.
Bradford explores socio-political issues with his work (which is usually abstracted), and often references art history. The physical tearing away of layers, abstraction of messages, and use of accessible materials in his work point to important themes, and philosophies.
Bradford often aims to challenge the validity of traditional historical narratives while creating a bridge between fine art, and street culture. His abstraction also serves a thematic purpose. He never gives an outright answer for the meanings of his pieces, rather stating that the abstraction in his artwork should allow for a variety of interpretations. He encourages audience participation in his work, and believes the ability to evoke diverse reactions is what makes art powerful.
To help explain this further, I’ll describe one of my all-time favorite works from Bradford: Pickett's Charge, a massive (700 lbs. and 400 ft. long) paper-based collage divided into panels. In this work, Bradford appropriates a painting of a civil war battle from the 1800s. He took layers, and layers of brightly-colored paper, gridded by ropes, and then placed a billboard-printed version of the historical painting on top. He then proceeded to go back into the collage and rip through it, burn, bleach, and reconfigure sections of the collage until the original image is almost completely unrecognizable. In terms of its meaning, there is clear symbolic importance in the choice of appropriating a civil war painting. The original cyclorama painting provides a traditional historical narrative. Bradford seems to challenge this narrative through the literal ripping, and exposing of layers underneath. By destroying the imagery, he is not only referencing the inherent violence of war and America’s past, he is questioning the way we look at history as a whole. History is often told like a novel. There is a plot and there are characters. But who is telling the story? Bradford wants us to look critically at the stories given to us, then decide for ourselves. His use of brightly-colored layered paper is significant, not only because it represents the influence of street art and found materials from his upbringing, but also because they are colors that could not be massed produced until recently. So, this collage—like much of his work—is literally a merge of past and present.
Bradford is also known for his dedication to social activism, and art education. He has been apart of numerous social projects aimed at making art accessible to youth. Most of his artist talks are free and open to the public. He helped spark a collaboration between Howard University (a historically black university) and the Smithsonian Institution to ensure diversity in the arts field. He also set up a coalition of artists in collaboration with the Getty Museum, and met with teachers to create free educational lesson plans. He has told the New York Times, “you have to do a lot of listening for communities in need.” He continues to be involved with the Southern Los Angeles community where he was raised, where he set up Art + Practice, an organization dedicated to the development of youth through creative outlets.
Bradford has been honored by the Wall Street Journal as art innovator of the year in 2017, the same year he presented his work at the Venice Biennale’s United States pavilion. He has also received numerous grants, including those from the MacArthur Fellows Program (an annual award given to promising artists that display original or ground-breaking work), the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Joan Mitchell Foundation. These awards point to a recognition, and legitimization of urban art.
Bradford’s success has inspired many young artists to look beyond expected tools, techniques, and forms in creating impactful art. His influence can be seen in the steadily- increasing popularity of the street art aesthetic, and the use of unrefined materials. His work has even been displayed at the Los Angeles International Airport entrance, marking the changing face of American art, and pioneering a new assembly of young artists of color.
Bradford loves culture and history, and is specifically dedicated to ensuring its diversity and accessibility. In an industry often deemed pretentious and/or elitist, it is refreshing to see a renowned artist who buys most of his supplies at the local hardware store, and turns everyday objects into contemplative masterworks. He told the Guardian: “Pulling things from the streets, pulling things that are thrown away, pulling things that don’t belong in the art world and willing them into it – demanding that these materials sit next to a Monet. That’s part of it.”
You can currently see some of his captivating work, including Pickett’s Charge at the Hirshhorn Museum, in Washington DC, and at the Baltimore Museum of Art.