SFMoMA: Traveling Survey Exhibition of Work by Mark Bradford
by Daniel Haim
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 cataloging 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 re-purposes 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; and Corner of Desire and Piety (2008), a wall grid of found and reworked FEMA and other merchant posters .All other works in the exhibition will be on view in SFMOMA’s fourth-floor galleries.
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.”