What Else Can Art Do? The Many Layers of Mark Bradford’s Work

Mark Bradford is the tallest artist I know—six feet seven and a half inches, and pencil thin, which makes him look taller. His paintings, as you’d expect, run large. When I visited Bradford’s industrial-sized studio, in South Los Angeles, this spring, one wall was almost entirely covered by a huge outline map of the United States, with clusters of numbers that represented the aids cases reported in each state up to 2009. The map was a study for a much larger one that he planned for a wall at the Hammer Museum, in Los Angeles, where an exhibition of his new work opens on June 20th. “These are for the Hammer, too,” he said, waving toward three abstract paintings on another wall. “They’re all based on aids cells under a microscope. I don’t want to say the show is about aids, but it’s about the body, and about my relationship to the nineteen-eighties, when all that stuff hit. It’s my using a particular moment and abstracting it.”

For someone who had just spent sixteen hours on an airplane, coming back from the Sharjah Biennial, in the United Arab Emirates, Bradford seemed unnaturally well rested. He looks a decade or so younger than his age, which is fifty-three. Being tall and African-American and not playing basketball was an issue for him when he was a teen-ager, but now he’s comfortable with his height. He was wearing a white T-shirt and white painter’s pants, his working clothes, which he buys online for himself and his assistants, two of whom are from the same Mexican family. “When people see us on the street or at Home Depot, they think we’re housepainters,” he said, happily.

Most of Bradford’s art supplies come from the Home Depot. “If Home Depot doesn’t have it,” he said, “Mark Bradford doesn’t need it.” Although he hasn’t really used artist’s paints or brushes since he was in art school, what Bradford makes are abstract paintings. He starts with a stretched canvas and builds up its surface with ten or fifteen layers of paper—white paper, colored paper, newsprint, reproductions, photographs, printed texts—fixing each layer with a coat of clear shellac. Sometimes he embeds lengths of string or caulking to form linear elements in the palimpsest. When the buildup reaches a certain density, he attacks it with power sanders and other tools, exposing earlier layers, flashes of color, and unexpected juxtapositions. Not until the first sanding does he begin to see where the painting is going. He works like an archeologist, rediscovering the past. The method seems haphazard, but it’s not, and the results can take your breath away. Bradford’s 2013 painting “Shoot the Coin,” which was in a show of recent acquisitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last summer, does that. Twelve feet high by twenty feet long, it appears at first to be mostly white, but as you move closer you see subtle colors, branching lines like blood vessels, printed words; move back again, and it becomes a vast winter landscape. It’s startlingly beautiful, and at lacma its physical presence overpowered everything else in the room.

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