On view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) from February 18 through June 17, 2012, and at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) from February 18 through May 27, 2012, in its only West Coast presentation, Mark Bradford is the first major museum survey of paintings, sculptures, and multimedia works by this leading figure in contemporary American art.
Bradford (b. 1961)—a Los Angeles–based artist and MacArthur Foundation “genius” award recipient—works in a variety of media but is best known for his often enormously scaled collages on canvas, which are akin to abstract paintings. Gathering carefully chosen found materials with “built-in history,” as the artist says, Bradford engages in a complex artistic process that involves both creation and destruction. His intricately made, fractured works often address pressing political issues and the media’s influence on contemporary society while cataloguing cultural change and the artist’s personal responses to societal conditions.
Bradford’s early works incorporate permanent-wave end papers, an influence from his family’s beauty parlor in South Central Los Angeles. Later works employ various collaged materials typically salvaged from the street—billboard paper, newsprint, carbon paper, wrapping paper—that the artist layers together or strips apart, and then dramatically manipulates with nylon string, caulking, and sanding.
While striking in its formal beauty and subtle craft, Bradford’s art also evokes allusions to the urban landscape, most specifically the Leimert Park neighborhood of Los Angeles where Bradford lived as a child and still maintains his studio. His abstract paintings probe the structures of urban society often defined by race, gender, and class. As a result, they resonate with complex social and economic meaning.
Organized by curator Christopher Bedford for Wexner Center for the Arts, this most comprehensive account of Bradford’s career to date will open in San Francisco as a co-presentation installed at two neighboring venues, offering more than 50 works spanning 2000 to 2010. The exhibition will be overseen at SFMOMA by Gary Garrels, Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture; and at YBCA by Director of Visual Arts Betti-Sue Hertz.
“In its refined melding of materials, exquisite surfaces, and exuberant physicality, Mark Bradford’s work engages with the rich history of assemblage while achieving exceptional, painterly effects,” says Garrels. “His art offers an intensely personal vision that investigates the many contradictions inherent to life in contemporary urban culture.”
Concentrating largely on painting—the artist’s primary activity—the selection of works captures the development of Bradford’s sensibility, which ranges from relatively modest-sized canvases to monumental public projects, and from purely formal investigations of material to engagement with sociopolitical questions.
Organized chronologically at SFMOMA, the exhibition offers a thematic summary of Bradford’s art over the past decade, showcasing key pieces from major bodies of work while emphasizing three central aspects of his practice: the palpable energy and physicality of this process; his interest in the specificity of materials and the methods he invents to manipulate them; and the importance he places on producing new work, pushing himself every time he enters the studio. The presentation also reveals how Bradford constantly revisits and repurposes various concepts and techniques, foregrounding the relentless energy that is one of the defining characteristics of the artist and his work.
In addition to highlighting Bradford’s work as a painter, the show will feature sound and video pieces, including the new large-scale environmental installation Pinocchio Is On Fire (2009), commissioned in tandem with the survey. Created during Bradford’s recent residency at the Wexner Center for the Arts, this three-part multimedia work examines changing concepts of identity relating to the black male body from the early 1980s to the present, with cultural references that include the rise of HIV and crack cocaine, as well as gangster rap, mega-churches, and aspects of the artist’s own biography. In this work, Pinocchio is an imaginary historical figure, or as Bradford notes, “an energy,” whose journey through three decades reflects Bradford’s own attempts to shape a new conception of the black male body through various processes of abstraction.
At YBCA, the exhibition brings the legacy of Hurricane Katrina into sharp relief, featuring three major works by Bradford related to Mithra (2008), his enormous ark-like public art project installed in the Lower Ninth Ward for Prospect.1, the first New Orleans biennial. The title for the work comes from an ancient Roman deity associate with light, justice, and wisdom; this association, combined with the ark’s reference to a biblical flood, positions Mithra as both an indictment of the government’s failure to protect the citizens of the Ninth Ward and an expression of hope for survival and new life. The artist has said that he “wanted to make something social because the land itself was so socially and politically charged. […] I was making a proposition that humanity would spring from the earth and that life continues.”
In YBCA’s galleries, Bradford will reconstruct sections of his original Mithra piece to create a new sculpture titled Detail. Also on view at YBCA will be related film by Bradford titled Across Canal, which examines the conception, production, and reception of Mithra; Corner of Desire and Piety (2008), a wall grid of found and reworked FEMA and other merchant posters ; and Rat Catcher of Hamelin (2011), a large-scale four–panel mixed media collage created for the Istanbul biennial featuring fifty billboards collected from all around South-Central Los Angeles that have been sanded and stripped to reveal what lies beneath the surfaces.
Of Bradford’s Katrina-related pieces, Hertz says, “For an artist who has lived primarily in Los Angeles to be able to create works in tribute to people in another city, New Orleans, and then link them through his deep commitment to the visual aspects of the urban sphere, is not only manifested through his vision as a chronicler in the most rich and textured language of abstract collage painting, but also in his collaborative work in video, and his ability to galvanize a community through the efforts of assembling a large ark in the spirit of Noah’s ark.”
The groundbreaking educational microsite (https://www.pinocchioisonfire.org/) provides a rich online experience that allows the public to investigate Bradford’s process and background, and to examine select works in the exhibition. The site, developed by the Wexner Center in partnership with Resource Interactive, is named for the installation project in the exhibition, and was shortlisted for a Cyber Lion award at the Cannes Lions 57th International Advertising Festival. In additional to cutting-edge visual and interactive features, the microsite includes video and audio interviews with Bradford, music, images, explanatory text, and more.
The illustrated exhibition catalogue is the first major book on Bradford, tracing his debt to abstract expressionism and how he has dramatically extended the possibilities of contemporary painting. Topics range from Bradford’s relationship to the largely unknown history of twentieth-century abstraction by African American artists, to his work as a public artist, to his interest in midcentury European collage and décollage practices. Copublished by the Wexner Center and Yale University Press (cloth, 256 pages; $67), Mark Bradford contributors include Hilton Als, Christopher Bedford, Richard Shiff, Katy Siegel, and Robert Storr, as well as interviews with the artist by Carol S. Eliel and Hamza Walker.
In conjunction with the exhibition, the Education Departments of SFMOMA and YBCA will host a full slate of related events, including a public conversation at YBCA on Saturday, March 31, 2012, titled “In the Aftermath of Prospect 1and Hurricane Katrina.” For this talk, Bradford, in conversation with writers Ernest Hardy and Sue Bell Yank, will discuss the conceptual framework behind Mithra and how it relates to the examination of cultural regeneration within a post-disaster, urban environment. Other programs—all further exploring themes in Bradford’s work such as race, gender, and class, and with a special emphasis on engaging underserved communities in the Bay Area—will be announced at a later date.
Mark Bradford premiered at the Wexner Center in spring 2010, and travelled to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston (fall 2010), the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (summer 2011), and the Dallas Museum of Art (fall 2011).
Mark Bradford is organized by the Wexner Center for the Arts, The Ohio State University. The San Francisco presentation is made possible through major support from the Mimi and Peter Haas Fund and SFMOMA’s Collectors Forum. Generous support is provided by Gay-Lynn and Robert Blanding, Gina and Stuart Peterson, and Thomas W. Weisel. Additional support is provided by the Betlach Family Foundation and Larry Mathews and Brian Saliman. The St. Regis San Francisco is the official hotel of the exhibition. The Wexner Center for the Arts’ organization of this exhibition was made possible by major support from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and Resource Interactive. Significant contributions are provided by The Broad Art Foundation, the Nimoy Foundation, Nancy and Dave Gill, and Toby Devan Lewis.