LAST YEAR, ANDERSON COOPER CALLED HIM “ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT AND INFLUENTIAL ARTISTS IN AMERICA TODAY” IN A 60 MINUTES INTERVIEW.
The director of the Baltimore Museum of Art echoed this sentiment, calling him “the most important living abstract painter.” His artwork has been exhib- ited across the world: the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Broad and the Long Museum in Shanghai, China. In 2017, he represented the United States at the Venice Biennale, the Olympics of the art world. Did we mention that he’s also the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Award?
For all that clout and more (by more, we mean posing alongside Jay-Z and Beyoncé at his gallery show in Los Angeles) multimedia artist Mark Bradford is astonishingly humble. He prefers to keep a low-profile, a literal tall order, given his 6-foot,7-inch stature. He couldn’t care less whether or not he is influential—what seems to really matter is if his work is. “The work that I do is meaningful to me because it’s how I get my ideas into the world, and getting recognition means that those ideas have greater reach and greater impact,” he explains.
Check and check. His works are textured, abstract and mammoth in size, arguably a physical manifestation of the heavy, often complex socio-political issues they explore, such as AIDS and slavery. Striking and dynamic, his art captivates the audience’s attention, forcing them to ponder the lived experiences compared to the common narratives of those issues. Consider his Pickett’s Charge, a series of eight paintings that each span more than 45 feet, and when together, depict the final charge of the Battle of Gettysburg.
“Abstract art is a way to deconstruct the images that have accumulated over time and formed those grand histories, and to create a space to rethink those histories without erasing them,” he continues.
Perhaps his ability to make the hidden more visible is due to the intersectionality of his various identities: African American, gay, the son of a single mother, a childhood spent in a boarding house. “I think this comes from who I am: When you’ve got so much going on, you learn to accept it and be yourself, unapologetically,” he says.
Inspired by working in his mom’s beauty salon while growing up in Los Angeles, Bradford’s early artworks uniquely incorporated end papers, a translucent tissue paper-like material used in salons to set and protect hair being waved. Then, he moved on to merchant posters, which he saw plastered all over his neighborhood. “I’ve always made art with what’s in front of me.” Now, he scours Home Depot for materials.
His artistic process is also unique. Working backwards in a way, he uses bleach, sanders and power washers to break down his artwork. The sanders, he once said, are inspired by the way workers would sandblast away graffiti in L.A. “Creating a work of art is an exploration, and it’s really very playful,” he says. “I know a piece is finished when I look at it, and can’t imagine adding or removing anything else. It’s not a conscious process, and it’s unpredictable.”
This mentality makes sense for Bradford. He always considered himself an artist, someone who constantly created things. I just hadn’t been making art the way we talk about it in the classroom.” He didn’t formally study art until the ’90s at Santa Monica College, where he worked in the art studio at night after his hair salon shifts.
If you couldn’t tell, his love for California is tried and true. He now lives just blocks from the boarding house he grew up in, and his mother’s old beauty salon is now part of his nonprofit Art + Practice, which connects young foster youth to social services—and the community to free, accessible art.
This year, Honolulu residents and visitors can see Bradford’s work at the exhibition 30 Americans at the Honolulu Museum of Art, on view until June 21, 2020. The exhibition explores powerful themes, like race and history, and Bradford’s work fits right in. His textured artwork, Whore in the Church House, is a mixed media collage on canvas inspired by the urban environment and featuring materials sourced from his childhood neighborhood, like his beloved end papers.
“It’s about being an outlier, being an abstract painter using unconventional materials,” Bradford says about this particular piece. “It’s the modern vs. the post-modern, tradition vs. irreverence, history and my place in it.” In other words, it speaks greatly to himself as a person and an artist.