“Paintings” are how Mark Bradford describes his collages of found materials, chiefly so-called merchant posters, which advertise DNA testing, deliveries of propane to FEMA trailers, and other signs of neighborhoods in flux. Many of Bradford’s large-scale, gridlike paintings evoke aerial views of such neighborhoods. Scorched Earth (pictured, 2006) recalls Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Greenwood district after its devastating 1921 race riot.
Bradford’s overhead perspective is particularly potent in A Truly Rich Man Is One Whose Children Run into His Arms Even When His Hands Are Empty (2008), which references both the then-impending U.S. economic crash and the social turmoil that saturated New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Studying this abstracted cityscape is like toggling between Google Maps and Google Earth. Bits of recognizable imagery—comic-book speech bubbles, action figures—emerge from dense layers of black carbon paper, billboard paper, string and caulking. The mixed-media assemblage suggests lost lives and forgotten humanity following an epic disaster—economic, natural or otherwise.
Organized by the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, “Mark Bradford” contains more than 35 pieces in various media, including painting, sculpture, video and installation. From a distance, the MacArthur “genius” is an abstract painter whose art recalls Mondrian’s fascination with grids, the Pop Art movement’s fixation on signage, Robert Rauschenberg’s use of urban debris and Mark Rothko’s elegant command of surfaces. Zoom in, and it becomes clear that Bradford has a unique set of tools and techniques. He uses abstraction to interpret race relations, socioeconomic tensions and gender stereotypes from his perspective as a black, gay man living and working in South Central Los Angeles.
Heavily emphasizing process, the retrospective begins, chronologically, when Bradford, 49, worked at his mom’s hair salon—now his studio—and incorporated permanent-wave endpapers into his formal experiments. He glued the thin sheets into loose grids, forming ethereal “quilts” of varying translucency and opaqueness. While many of these works are in earth tones, Strawberry (2002), one of my favorites, introduces pops of neon orange and yellow, which the artist achieved by layering endpapers, their edges singed with a blowtorch, over Day-Glo ads. Charged with multiple meanings, the painting’s title suits its rich texture. “Strawberry” denotes a woman who prostitutes herself for crack.
Citing Strawberry in his exhibition catalog essay, Wexner Center curator Christopher Bedford suggests that while other American Abstract Expressionists concern themselves with the mysterious and sublime, Bradford’s inspiration and preoccupation remain the actual world: people, relationships and the streets where he sources his materials.
In a brilliant three-minute video, Niagara (2005), Bradford examines the world a few steps outside his studio, documenting his neighbor Melvin strutting down the street. Named after a 1953 film starring Marilyn Monroe, which captures the actor’s iconic 16-second walk into the distance, the video accumulates layers of meaning from its title as well as the grimy, trash-strewn sidewalk down which Melvin confidently strides. The exhibition also reconstructs a section of Mithra, the enormous ark-like sculpture that Bradford built in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward in 2008.
Wall text throughout the show helps viewers understand Bradford’s evolving processes, such as tracing with string, power sanding and, more recently, making his own custom-printed newspaper. But the text sometimes explains too much. Quoting Bradford on Kobe I Got Your Back (2008), a black basketball collaged with papier-mâché and twine—“The black gay artist shadows the male hetero hero”—isn’t necessary; the interpretative “ball” should have stayed in the viewer’s court. On the whole, though, “Mark Bradford” deftly exposes the scale of its artist’s imagination.