Mark Bradford is Los Angeles’ Defining Artist

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Mark Bradford in front of “The Next Hot Line,” 2015. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Mark Bradford was chosen to represent the United States at the 2017 Venice Biennale, which is one of the most prestigious art events in the world. The 57-year-old has more than earned it — while his career only formally began in the new millennium, the prolific artist has quickly become one of the most sought after and acclaimed artists of our time. He’s been the recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant, and Artnet dubbed him “Our Jackson Pollock.” His works often fetch in the multi-million dollar range. These accolades could serve to obscure his humble beginnings in South Los Angeles (West Adams and Leimert Park, to be specific). And while it may be easy for viewers of his large scale works to forget this fact, it isn’t for Bradford, who continues to work in the area where he was born.

In many ways, Bradford is emblematic of a distinctly Los Angeles experience. He found himself caught between the unique and occasionally complicated multicultural dynamic that in many ways still defines Los Angeles. When he was younger, his mother moved his family from South LA to Santa Monica, then still in its “People’s Republic of Santa Monica” days. He worked with his mother at her hair salon after obtaining a cosmetology license, and they commuted back and forth between where they lived in predominantly white west LA and where they worked in predominantly black and Latino south LA.

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Mark Bradford, Pickett’s Charge (The Copse of Trees), 2016–17, in the artist’s studio. Photo courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth/photographer Joshua White.

While this cultural difference didn’t faze him, his contemporary work deals with issues related to racism and social justice in the best way that abstraction can. It can be easy to miss the the important shift between socially-minded abstraction and the art that came before it. 20th century artists, especially abstractionists, prized form above all else. Color, shapes, and their interplay was in, and representation (in the sense that a work of art depicts something) was out. This is illustrated by the works of minimalists and color field artists. For Bradford, however, representation and abstraction aren’t mutually exclusive. As he told a New Yorker reporter, “Everything I do has an underlying political question” and he refers to his work as “social abstraction.” 

Further, his work often resembles real things — streets and urban landscapes for example — and his material use is similarly significant. His early work used end papers, small strips frequently used by black  hairdressers. They were very cheap as far as art materials go, but they also pointed to a significant personal and cultural experience for Bradford. He continues to focus on his relationship to the city, and set up a nonprofit called Art + Practice in South LA. The organization  is designed to provide services to foster youth. 

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Mark Bradford – White Cube Circus, 2014 – Image via hkgalleryguide.com

His works are massive and intricately layered and textured. In short, they have to be seen in person. As mentioned, some look like birds-eye views of cities, others look like densely interlinked bricks, and some are more minimal. His most recent work, Pickett’s Charge, depicts a failed Confederate assault against Union forces in the Civil War. It’s his largest work to date, and is designed to be viewed in a circular room, placing the viewer at the heart of the experience.  Despite the immensity of his works, both in size and scope, Bradford works with ordinary and readily available materials. His go to for supplies is Home Depot. In a sense his career reflects the best things about Los Angeles, a city built more on immigrant-owned taco stands than fine dining institutions: that is, Bradford, and the city that raised him, takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary.

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Mark Bradford , Los Moscos, 2004, Image via tate.org
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Mark Bradford, Across 110th Street, 2008, image via The Broad Museum

Also, read about the impact of Sarah Charlesworth on modern art.