Mark Bradford likes to think big. He likes to read big books. He likes to make big art pieces. He has big ideas, and he executes them in a big, big studio in South LA.
But right now, Mark Bradford is thinking small – as small as a single panel in a comic book. We’re standing in front of a big unfinished painting in a big room of his big studio, which has been made from layering paint and pages torn from comic books, and watching as he purposefully rubs out the distinct figure of a classic comic-book trope, a scantily clad buxom maiden, using the pad of his right thumb.
“It’s not that I don’t like her. It’s just that I’m very aware that’s a woman’s body,” he explains. “And I’m like, that ain’t my body. I don’t need to put her out there like that – isn’t that the whole thing now? [But] it’s not my history, and everybody would ask me, why is that woman there?”
Paper has always formed the base of Bradford’s work, from back when he was straddling the line between artist and full-time hairdresser, tacking stacks of endpapers used for hair perms on to canvas, staining them with hair dye and paint and calling it art. He’s also used billboard papers in the past, but his latest material fascination is with graphic novels. These form the base of the works he’s finishing for two shows in LA and Hong Kong with his gallery, Hauser & Wirth, debuting in February and March respectively.
“It’s all about where myth and urban setting meet through superheroes. It’s dystopian – like Gotham, in a weird way. I feel like the world at the moment, it’s just gone so loopy. So why not go to something that is all about that? The graphic novel part is so dramatic and densely saturated with colour, and with mythology. Help us, Superman! And Superman’s always on his way.” He pauses.
“But what would Superman be like without his superpowers? I’m always interested in the other, darker side. What happens to Wonder Woman without her lasso? I mean, we really think that Wonder Woman is doing something for the women’s movement, which I just don’t know how we relate the two at all. This kind of manufactured collective strength that superheroes have? I always saw just the opposite. I’m more interested in Wonder Woman who no longer has a superpower, who now has a job at Wal-Mart. With five kids. Raised them on her own.”
Which, arguably, is just a different kind of wonder woman. The wonder woman – women – with whom Bradford grew up. “I saw a lot of that – five kids, no husband, taking the bus. And all of them turned out amazing.”
Before Bradford, now 57, was churning out the abstract, politically charged canvases that have made him both an institution darling and an auction-world quarterback, he was a boy growing up in the same district in which his studio is still set, who liked to read, spent a lot of time in his mother’s salon, and was often called a sissy. He grew up in a boarding house in a single-parent household, where it quickly became clear, “I was a little bit different. A little more sensitive than the other boys. I began to think that that was a problem – not for me, but other people said, ‘Oh, that’s kind of a problem.’ I have home movies and I would recreate Wonder Woman, and I was 11 years old. I would take things from the world and pull them into my room or into my living room. Alchemy. And then they would turn into this third thing.”
His was a “tactile family” thanks to his mother’s profession – “And I guess I’ve always been full of imagination and creativity and learning and being able. It’s funny, I’m not any different. Taking things from the world or taking materials from the world and dragging them into the studio to ‘alchemy’. I suppose I was always an artist. But there was no naming of it in a working-class family. All I knew was you had to make a living so there wasn’t any, ‘Oh, you’re an artist.’”
That said, after switching to continuation school in his junior year of high school and skipping college altogether – though an avid reader since youth, he didn’t care much for the structured environment of school – Bradford spent most of his 20s in between the nightclubs of Europe and the floor of his mother’s salon, having joined the family coif-and-cut business. He was gay and it was the ’80s, a great and scary time, when the reality and consequences of Aids loomed large but the disco scene was too good to turn down. Lucky for him, the partying got old – or he got a bit old for the parties – and somehow, he found himself applying for a programme at California Institute of the Arts, America’s very first degree institution created specifically for visual and performing arts. He was 30.
“I mean, I love partying. I love nightclubs. I love going out and I thought, you know, if I never get tired of it I guess I’m going to be that guy at the bar. But slowly, slowly I just started wanting to do other things. Night clubs? Been there. Partying? Been there. Drag queens? Been there. I wanted change. I guess I slowly started to want to speak my truth,” he says. “So when I went to art school, I was really serious. I was really interested in cultivating my voice.”
If he was worried about being the old guy at the club, he should have been more worried about being the old guy at college. “I felt unsure. I felt like I was wasting my time. I felt like I’m way too old, too insulated from the world. But all I knew is if I kept showing up, it would turn out better.”
He learned a lot of theory at CalArts, and he even continued through to a graduate programme. Afterwards, he found himself back at the salon. It wasn’t so different, he argues, from what he was doing at university.
“You come in, and you sit in my chair, and you say, Mark, I love Lupita Nyong’o’s hair. Now you are Asian, with dead straight hair. You want to look like Lupita. So it’s my job to make you look like Lupita, and we go through an eight-hour process to make your bone-straight hair look like Lupita’s. That’s all it is – taking some material, and willing it to do something else. You’re always dealing in imagination. It’s the same thing with paper – you deal with the reality of what it is, just paper, and my imagination says no, it’s paint. So how do you make paper look like paint?”
With fire, and with colour. Bradford started taking boxes of endpapers home from the salon, where he would torch the edges to form patterns and then dip them in hair dye and paint mixed wrong at Home Depot that had made its way into the discount bin. All these materials would find their way on to canvases forged of bedsheets, becoming tremendous, grid-like pieces that resembled aerial maps. Over the years, his practice would evolve to include the use of merchant posters advertising local businesses and stencilled letters and other tropes, but paper – the kind that’s found, not created, that has had a function in society – has remained central.
The vivacity and energy of his work made him, while not an instant success, an eventual one. “A friend of mine used to say, ‘It doesn’t matter how you get into the club. As long as you get into the club.’
“I’ve never thought of my life as being vertical,” Bradford muses. “I went from rags to riches, but I see myself as horizontal, and it’s constantly levitating, and I’m going to take everybody with me, my friends, my life. So I don’t have to keep staring at the [credit-card] machine, not sure if it’s approved or declined. But more than an empirical building, not ground floor to top floor – [it’s] a landscape that can be infinite.”
Holding his hand for the ride is his partner of 20-plus years, Allan DiCastro, with whom he founded Art + Practice, which offers support services to foster youth in South Los Angeles and access to free, museum-quality art exhibitions and art lectures.
“I wanted to create a site where local communities could have access to contemporary art, contemporary ideas. And at the same time, I didn’t want to turn away from crisis things that are happening, like foster care. They can go together but they don’t have to. That’s just me. But it gives me, and it heals every ghost that I’ve ever had growing up. Starting Art + Practice goes back to Mark before he got to art school and the trauma you experience of not finding your little peer group of people you belong to. I was haunted for a long time. But not any more.”
Bradford has taken his social consciousness with him overseas, too. Last year, he represented the US at the Venice Biennale, at the same time inaugurating a six-year project with Rio Terà dei Pensieri, a facility that provides employment to prisoners, to open a shop selling handmade wares created from found materials, a practice with which Bradford certainly has experience. But while some artists choose to weave social aspects directly into their tapestries, Bradford is conscious of keeping things together, but separate.
“You have to listen, build trust and respect, then build a project,” he says. “And it’s usually not the project that you think. It can’t just serve the art world, because then you’ve exploited them for the art world. If I have to overlook at community then it’s the art world, but not a community in crisis.”
In this case, the art is most definitely separate, in tone and execution, if not in message – Bradford has called his Venice piece an ode to those who live at the periphery. His Venice exhibition was titled Tomorrow is Another Day, and let’s hope it is: in the first gallery room hung Spoiled Foot, a sculpture that dipped from the ceiling reaching almost the floor like an oppressive plague, blistered and invasive, a pockmarked monster in black, red and urgent neon orange, forcing viewers literally to scatter to the fringes of the room. This is clearly the intention of the 203cm-tall artist, who has spent most of his life conscious of the heights of doorways and ceilings. In another area, a high-ceilinged rotunda, rope-like structures circle the inner dome and reach down along walls like your worst nightmare in a horror movie. But the exhibition ends with hope: smaller (well, smaller for Bradford) paintings hang in a subsequent room, where neutral hues dominate, and the final piece is a video work in which a friend of the artist’s marches exuberantly down the street, seemingly walking in place at times, with the film ending before he reaches the end of the street. It’s slow going, but it’s going.
Equally large in scale, and heavy in intention, is Pickett’s Charge, a cyclorama that’s being shown at the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden in Washington DC. To create this monumental piece, Bradford took reproductions of Paul Philippoteaux’s Battle of Gettysburg painting depicting the final game-changing turn of tides at Gettysburg, interspersing it with coloured paper and scoring through the layers of paper to achieve eight panels more than 3.5 metres high and almost 14 metres long.
“To be fair, I had been mining this vocabulary before Venice, but I had to postpone the Hirsshorn because of Venice. I suppose just as the country was coming so much unhinged and everyone was taking sides, I became kind of fascinated with these moments – when the Civil War turned from the south to the north.”
“One of the things that’s so special about Mark’s work is that it encourages the viewer to reconsider an idea or perspective that they may not have previously considered,” says Melissa Chiu, director of the Hirshhorn and the mastermind behind bringing Bradford to DC, referring not just to his take on American history or the art process, but also to how he reconsiders and calls attention to the Hirshhorn’s structural idiosyncrasies (the cylindrical building somewhat resembles a cross between the Coliseum and a giant toilet roll). One of the first things she did upon joining the museum, in fact, was to approach Bradford. “Throughout the planning stages, it was very important to us that the work be something that couldn’t be presented anywhere else and that it complement the Hirshhorn’s singular curved architecture, both of which Mark embraced, and ultimately, surpassed even our expectations.”
Bradford is happy to talk about his work – “I want all my interviews to be living” – and passionate about them during execution, but he’s known to liken finished works to relationships that have ended, whether it’s an emotionally draining and monumental site-specific like Pickett’s Charge, or a simple 10-frame hang at a local branch of Hauser & Wirth, which has been his representation for the last half a decade.
“When it’s over, it’s over, I go through the highs and lows and the emotional tempers. Every single one of them. When I started thinking about Hong Kong, I said, I can just phone this in. Get 12 canvasses, make them all the same blue. Never happens.” (Though he does point to one canvas etched in straight lines that meet at angles, predominant in the colours of the day and night skies, dedicated to the recently late Jack Whitten, abstractionist and fellow Hauser & Wirth artist who was “like a mentor”. It’s called Moody Blues for Jack Whitten.)
More than a dozen paintings hang in his studio, destined for one of two Hauser & Wirth shows in the offing: an LA one that opened last month and this month’s launch exhibition in Hong Kong as the gallery debuts its space at art hub H Queen’s. Bradford was an easy and intuitive choice for the splashy launch, timed to coincide with Art Basel: “Mark is particularly close with each of the gallery’s three partners – myself, Manuela and Marc Payot,” says Iwan Wirth, who along with wife Manuela Wirth now runs the gallery known for its family-style approach and legendary intimate soirées – and for never having lost an artist to a competitor. And Bradford really is a gallerist’s dream: a critically acclaimed commercial juggernaut with a heart of gold who’s also a dinner-party hit.
“There’s an insatiable appetite for Mark Bradford’s work because it speaks to people on many different levels,” Wirth explains. “Firstly, it’s socially engaged, and Mark brings to light complex concepts with great clarity. But his true gift is that he does so through an incredible command of materials; his paintings stand as fine examples of accomplished craftsmanship.
“Mark has an incredible quality – when he walks into a room you can see people being literally drawn to him like a magnet. But this has nothing to do with ‘stardom’, instead it’s testament to his humanity and warmth. He makes time for everyone. During our first visit to Mark’s studio, our youngest son was just five years old. He was a tiny thing and started to talk to Mark, who was standing so very tall. Mark just scooped the little one into his arms so they could have a conversation eye to eye. He even invited our eldest son to join his team in Venice to install the Pavilion during his gap year.”
It isn’t just the Wirth clan that enjoys these privileges. In the centre corridor of the studio, Bradford’s grown-up godson is varnishing a painting that lies on a table as Bradford pulls him into an affectionate neck grip. “He’s shy,” he says. “He’s been here two days.” Others have been here longer, like Diego Lopez, an assistant Bradford has known since he was 11, and on whose opinion Bradford has come to depend – because even one of America’s top artists gets a little uncertain sometimes.
“I didn’t tell you about yesterday,” Bradford says. “I was completely unsure about everything. You should have seen me. I was like a chicken with my head cut off. Drag this painting over here. Do that, drag that, unsure about everything, everything. I’m always surprised by the work that I make. It never looks like the work I think I should make. It doesn’t look like the idea I have of myself, but if I’m totally honest with myself … I mean, I must be [a political person], but I’m also a very hopeful person. I think I take very charged material, bring it into my studio, and through alchemy I try to fuse that with hope. So maybe I’m a very hopeful person, but I’m not naive. I know that there will be blood. But I do also believe there will be light.”